I don’t like to consider myself a loner. The term has a ring of mental illness…that something just ain’t quite right about him kind of thing. I like to think of myself as a fairly social and sociable person - when I want to or have to be. I can do okay in a big group; sometimes I think I’m nothing but a frustrated stand-up comic. I can even speak in public before a large crowd without much distress or even having to picture the audience in their underwear. But more and more lately I find that I really prefer being by myself.
I like canoeing. Matt and I have canoed most of the rivers around here. The one exception was the upper Blackwater River at the very northern edge of the state here in the Panhandle. We don’t own canoes; too much of a logistical problem getting the car to the take-out point, not to mention lugging them everywhere behind the car. And we always take separate canoes. None of this two-man, push-me/pull-you jazz. So we rent. It’s just easier. There’s a canoe livery outfit that provides a 17-mile trip on the upper Blackwater. Matt had Friday free so he took the day off and we went.
Chuck, the lineboy at the airport is the son of Charlie, a pilot for the Alabama State Forestry Service. Chuck had never been canoeing and was eager to come along. Well, why not? He seemed like a good kid…
I’ll cut to the chase: It was the worst canoe trip I’ve ever been on. And it’ll likely be my last, at least in this area. With other people.
I like the wilderness aspect of canoeing, the getting-away-from-it-all. The rivers here mostly flow through state land, and it’s quite beautiful. Peaceful. Serene. None of the rivers are very fast, there are no rapids, and during the week there usually aren’t many other people around. You can relax, take your time, and just enjoy being as far from civilization as can be without going to an island off the coast of a certain unnamed country in Central America.
I canoe slowly, pretty much just going with the flow, taking my time and “communing with nature” as the hippies used to say. I’m not exactly Nature Boy, but growing up in New York City has given me an appreciation for the real outdoors. Up there, we had little enclaves like the Bronx Botanical Garden: fenced-in places set aside where you could go and be among the trees and almost not be able to hear the traffic going by on Fordham Road...almost not be able to hear the ever-present sirens and cacophony…places you could go and pretend you weren't in the middle of New York City. And even when we did go "out in the country," 30 miles north to Harriman State Park, say, it was typically so crowded that it spoiled the entire effect.
Now I live in a pretty sparsely populated area, and I don't have to go far at all to be way out in the wilderness. But this part of Florida, while fairly rural, lies underneath what we pilots call “Special Use Airspace.” The military is a large presence here, and aircraft of all types are always overhead. Always. In the very western part of the Panhandle it’s all Navy trainers – airplanes and helicopters. But the river we were on this past Friday was a little further east, which put us under airspace used by the Air Force.
Being under Military Operating Areas and Restricted Areas, you have to expect a certain amount of aircraft noise. It just goes with the territory. As soon as we got on the river, we could hear the baritone drone of a couple of C-130's circling overhead - at least two different ones that I could tell. Around and ‘round they went, never leaving us alone, neither ever completely out of hearing range. Finally, mercifully they departed but were immediately replaced by the aggravating whine of Navy T-34 and T-6 trainers. Added to them was the annoying staccato clatter of Navy Bell TH-57 trainers doing their low-level thing over the forest. Yes, I know that the military guys are wont to call it “the sound of freedom,” but it is still annoying, even to me.
The other problem was that the river was low. Really low. Most of the time, I could barely stick a paddle in the water without it touching bottom. It's very hard to propel a canoe this way. Stumps and deadfalls were numerous. When the canoe wasn’t hung up on a submerged tree, it was dragging in the sandy curves. Most of the time there was one single, narrow line that you had to navigate through. It was not seventeen miles of peaceful, serene canoeing, it was seventeen miles of hard work.
I realize that the canoe liveries have to make a living. But we really would have appreciated them telling us that the river was very low and that the shorter, nine-mile trip would probably be more acceptable. It’s not as if they didn’t know.
Finally, there were the cellphones. Ah yes, my favorite subject.
On a trip like this, cellphones are simply inappropriate. However, both Matt and Chuck’s phones rang incessantly. Some of Matt’s calls were work-related, and since he was playing hooky I really couldn’t begrudge him those. But his fiancée had to “check-in” numerous times too.
And teenage Chuck…I should’ve known better. The guy lives on his cellphone at work. You can be having a conversation with him, and he’ll interrupt it to take a call from some friend. Classy. On this trip, instead of putting his phone/watch, etc. in the “dry bag” that we had, Chuck kept his phone in a clear Zip-Lock bag on his lap. His girlfriend called him every fifteen or twenty minutes or so. I razzed him about it so much that if we were close together when it rang he’d pretend to not care (but always did look at who was calling). If he was around a river bend or even a little distance away from me he always answered it.
I know I sound like a broken record about this, but really. We’ve become a society which just cannot live without being able to be gotten ahold of…one that cannot bear the thought of someone being unable to get in touch with us, even for half a day. It seems that we cannot help ourselves. If someone is trying to talk to us, well by God, we must talk to them. It could be important! I just don't get it, and maybe never will. I think it’s pretty neurotic, but that’s just me.
My phone didn’t ring, of course. But you knew that. So confident was I that it wouldn’t that I neglected to even shut it off. It did beep a couple of times as it went in and out of service areas. I didn’t hear it, as the dry bag was in Matt’s canoe. One time it beeped, and he thought it rang and notified me. "Oh well," I shrugged. What if it’s your boss? "Then he can just leave me a message," I said. We were nine miles and a good three hours from the take-out point. There was nothing I could do anyway.
So between the constant airplane noise, the low water and the cellphones, the day-trip sucked. I’m pretty much done with canoeing. I canoe to “get away from it all,” to leave the internet and all the trappings of the civilized world behind, if only for a few measly hours. The next time I go it’ll be by myself, on a decent river far from any military bases. And just in case the airplane noise gets too intrusive anyway (airplanes - the damn things are everywhere!), I'll keep my iPod with me, programmed with some nice, spacey, calming new-age music appropriate to the situation. My cellphone? It'll be with me, for sure. But it’ll be shut off and tucked in a dry bag until I need it.
I guess I’m becoming one of those intolerant, cranky old people who want everything their own way – the kind of people I used to make fun of and ridicule. Heh- maybe I am becoming a loner. I’ll take the psychotic implication – if it means I can just have some goddam peace and quiet. I mean, is that too much to ask?