1: Canoeing at Jerry's
Since 1976, Troop 1 has been coming to Jerry's Three River Canoes and Campground on the Delaware River between New York and Pennsylvania for the 13.5-mile canoe trip from Pond Eddy, New York, to Matamoros, Pennsylvania, that begins the Scouting calendar each September. It was easy to see why.
When the Delaware was discovered-at least by white guys-by Henry Hudson in 1609, he described it, a bit redundantly, as "one of the finest, best and pleasantest rivers in the world." And from the time the Lenni-Lenape Indians first began plying it in hollowed chestnut logs, its 330 miles, and particularly the 73.4 miles of the Upper Delaware, have been viewed as some of the most scenic stretches of navigable river in the Northeast. Once polluted, the river is now full of brown and rainbow trout, smallmouth and striped bass, walleye, pickerel, panfish, carp, catfish, and white suckers, and the Upper Delaware, which is burrowed into the Appalachian Plateau, has become the most popular canoeing river in the Northeast. The river begins near Hancock, New York, at the edge of the Catskills, and meanders down past tiny riverside hamlets like Buckingham and Lordville, Kellams and Callicoon, which had their heyday in the era of the Erie Canal. It makes its way in artful twists and turns past spectacular shale and sandstone cliffs rising several hundred feet in the air and finally empties into the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of Delaware Bay.
Ben and I joined the assembled masses of Troop 1 on a crisp September morning at the troop's traditional meeting place at Roaring Brook Elementary School. We caravaned up the Taconic Parkway, across the Bear Mountain Bridge, through the desultory town of Port Jervis. As we arrived at the river, I had two conflicting thoughts.
The first thought was that, all things considered, this didn't seem too bad. Ben had been to one of the troop's weekly Wednesday-night meetings and seemed almost instantly at home there. One father I knew in Atlanta had referred quite proudly to his bratty kid, who found something to whine about at every birthday party, Little League game, or school trip, as "oppositional"-as if his kid's fits, snits, and tantrums bespoke some glorious inner reserve of independence and creativity. Ben was not oppositional. He tended to assume that the natural order of things was benign, not malignant, and that other kids were likely to be benign too. So while he didn't really know anyone in the troop, he was immediately a part of it, happy to plop down on the floor with the other kids intently listening to the Troop 1 Scoutmaster, Dr. Flank, the white-haired gentleman from my introductory session, give pretrip instructions on gear, garb, and canoeing technique. And truth to tell, what was there not to like in spending a gorgeous fall day canoeing down the Delaware River? Even for me, who was maybe a tad oppositional, this trip felt like a felicitous, wholesome introduction to our new life as rugged venturers into the great outdoors, especially since it was not likely to entail sleeping outside, forgoing indoor plumbing, or coping with animals better viewed at the zoo or in wildlife videos than in the wild. The trees were showing the first reds, yellows, and golds of fall. Our fellow Scouts and Scout dads, in their Timberland, Columbia, and Patagonia outdoors gear, seemed full of virtuous vigor and good cheer. Jerry's World Headquarters, a ramshackle wood frame cabin with a Direct TV satellite dish on top and canoeing safety instructions and photographs of visiting bears on the walls, had a pleasantly behind-the-times quality that seemed worlds away from our immaculately manicured little slice of suburbia in Westchester County. Two golden Labs and one black Lab jumped in and out of the water nearby and a crew of beefy young men took your money, carried canoes on their head, and transported adventurers in vans old enough to have survived Vietnam. And it was either this or rendering myself inept at some household chore, so it wasn't like I had a better alternative.
The second thought was that maybe I should have paid more attention to the waiver I had signed from the Three Rivers Canoe Corporation. I had absentmindedly skimmed the legalese acknowledging that I was fully aware that canoeing down the Delaware River carried inherent risks, dangers, and hazards that might result in "injury or illness including, but not limited to, bodily harm, disease, fractures, partial and/or total paralysis" and other things that I was disinclined to experience. The waiver added that there was, of course, the danger that the guide might misjudge terrain, weather, and water level; and the risk of unforeseen events like falling out of my canoe and drowning. (At one time, an average of ten people a year drowned in the Delaware, a number that has declined to two or three a year since the National Park Service took over management of the upper part of the river in 1978.)
As Dr. Flank, a retired chemistry professor, stood in the tall grass down the hill from Jerry's World Headquarters building, waving his paddle above him like Crazy Horse brandishing his rifle as he prepared to attack the cavalry, a third disquieting thought began to nag at me: I didn't have the slightest idea how to paddle a canoe, especially down the rapids clearly marked on the mimeographed map we had been given. And the more Dr. Flank went on, the more I found myself thinking about the helpful hand-lettered sign next to the pay phone: "Any serious life threatening or medical emergencies 911 in effect in this area."
True, Ben and I were lined up next to perhaps twenty kids, some brawny high school kids, most scrawny little twerps barely out of elementary school, and if they could do it, I guessed I could. Of course, like all good Boy Scouts, we were prepared. We had our balers, made by keeping the handle and bottom but cutting the top off one-gallon plastic milk jugs with our Swiss army knives. We had tied the baler to the seat of the canoe using some knot or another that the kids knew even if I didn't. We had on our bright orange personal flotation devices. We had our spare clothes, extra pair of wool socks, and bag lunch all tucked into the hermetically sealed waterproof bag Ben and I had purchased at great expense earlier in the week. Most of us had compasses just in case. I'm not sure in case of what-my guess was you were going to paddle downstream whether it was E-SE or E-NW-but we had them anyway. We had our first-aid kits with assorted bandages, creams, poultices, scissors, and tweezers. We were led by Dr. Flank, who at sixty-seven had only done this about a thousand times. He was aided by his able assistants: Mr. Johnson, a middle school science teacher; Mr. Toonkel, who owns a business that sells plumbing and heating supplies; and our Dudley Do-Right, all-star Scout, Senior Patrol Leader Todd Davis, who was only in tenth grade but gave off an air of imperial confidence as he walked around checking kids' life vests and conferring with Jerry's minions.
But the more Dr. Flank went on, the more I started wondering if this was such a great idea, especially since, as Dr. Flank helpfully reminded us, a drowning is eight times more likely in a canoe than in any other form of aquatic conveyance.
"Listen up!" shouted Dr. Flank, glaring at the kids like some kind of Old Testament prophet on a bad hair day. Dr. Flank had various forms of address, I came to learn, and this was his full-throated "YOU-BETTER-LISTEN-VERY-CAREFULLY-TO-EVERY-WORD-OR-YOU'LL-PROBABLY-DIE" mode. First, he told us that the water temperature was about 50 degrees and went on and on about how fast hypothermia, which can be fatal, would set in if we found ourselves under water for any length of time. The body loses heat 240 times faster in water than in air, and a person capsized into water below 55 degrees Fah...