Backroads: Who needs a motor, anyway?

Waves lapping at the side of a canoe signal a new season for Warren Bridges.

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By Warren Bridges

“Put a motor on that damned thing so you can get where you’re going,” the fellow across the way said as I hoisted the canoe onto the roof of my Jeep.

“Thanks for the input,” I said, struggling a bit to keep it aligned between the racks. Frankly, I had heard it all before and wanted to avoid the inevitable debate.

The old man, though, would have none of the avoidance tactic. Even from his comfortable perch in the lounge chair, Hamm’s Light in hand, the old man seemed a bit put off – like he was being ignored. How you can be put off on a 70-degree Colorado afternoon, lounge chair under your butt and Hamm’s Light in your fist is beyond me. But not beyond the old man, apparently.

“I said,” he began again, his voice rising a bit in pitch, “you should put a motor on that thing so you can get around better.”

It was a topic that dated back many years – 25 or so, in fact. As a fresh college grad, I had landed in a small town in southeast Kansas – a quiet and friendly area that boasted some of the best fishing and hunting grounds in the country. Deer, bass and quail flourished, and it was hard to not drive past ponds, lakes and streams.

For a kid who was adamant about becoming the next Sigurd Olson, Ernest Hemingway and Harold Ensley, it was Paradise. And I was determined to run my lures past every set of fish lips in the six-county area.

Of course, not all fish resided within 15 feet of the shore, which at the time, was a solid cast for me and my Zebco 202. What I needed was a boat. What I needed first was money to buy a boat. Damned details.

If you’ve ever been a small town newspaper reporter, you already know that the rent for your trailer, gas for your truck, quarters for Quarters and change for laundry eat up a good portion of your check each month. Boat money might as well have been 401k money. Neither was going to happen.

Canoe money, however, was a different story – especially when all I needed was to help a colleague – an old man – clean his garage one Saturday afternoon.

“You can have it,” he said on that glorious day. “And here’s a motor you can put on it … works just fine. Just get them out of my garage … today.”

I did just that, and good readers, over the next few months, that canoe spent more time on that truck than did the antenna, which never really worked anyway. At the risk of violating statute of limitations, here it goes … I missed a lot of work because of that canoe. I mean a lot of work.

At some point in the process, and I can’t remember when, I fell out of love with the motor. I’m sure it was at the same time that I sold my automatic shotgun for a single-shot, my casting rod for a fly rod. I must have been passing through my minimalist period.

The old man scoffed at the notion of a boat – even a canoe – without a motor. Why, he would ask, would you not want a motor? Back then, he was even more … pleasant. It was when Budweiser was his choice of beverage.

“You’re nuts,” he declared. “Why don’t you just push your truck around? Or write your stupid stories on a stone tablet with a chisel?”

“Because,” I said, a bit hesitant about declaring something so contrary to the old man’s picture of how things are. “I enjoy the sound of the water lapping against the side of the canoe.

“It sounds … more natural.”

And so, every spring, the old man would watch me lug the canoe out of hibernation and return it to its perch atop the truck. And every spring, he would remind me of my foolishness.

“Damned fool,” he would say, shaking his head as he watched me wrestle with the canoe. And I, a craftsman of words and retorts would reply wisely.

“Whatever,” I would say.

This past week, with ice out and a warm southwest breeze, I pushed off the bank and let the canoe drift a bit before giving it direction.

And, as canoes are want to do, it slowly pulled sideways to the breeze, bouncing softly against the grain of waves.

And there it was again … the quiet lapping sound that signals the arrival of not only a new season, but of new stories and hibernating memories that reemerge at the sound.

As for me, it is the place I most like to be, the sound I most like to hear.

Motor be damned.

Warren Bridges has been writing his outdoor journal, Back Roads, for more than 20 years. It has appeared in numerous publications throughout the West, including Colorado, Oregon, Montana and Idaho.  It seems clear that Warren’s uncanny knack for getting lost (he calls it exploring) holds no small degree of delight among his readers — especially the fellow across the way. You will meet him soon enough.

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