No Boots in the Canoe

Brian GilhamEssays

About nine years ago, a girlfriend and I went camping in Bon Echo Provincial Park. Accompanied by a couple of friends, we spent our time hiking, sitting by the campfire, and swimming at the beach. We were having a lovely time. One morning, she suggested we rent a canoe and take it out on Mazinaw Lake; famous for an escarpment adorned with native pictographs.

We had both canoed separately — this would be our first time doing it together. I didn’t know it then, but canoeing is like taking a vacation or shopping at Ikea. If you aren’t 100% sure your relationship is ready for it, best avoid it altogether.

The trouble started as we approached the water. She had brought her digital camera along for the trip. I pointed out the obvious conflict between water and expensive electronics. It’s okay, she said, “I’ve never tipped a canoe.”

I can’t remember if I mentioned the numerous times I had.

Bringing the camera seemed like a risky move. But in the process of preparing to head out, arguing back and forth, I made a critical mistake of my own. I forgot to remove my boots.

It’s here I should point out these weren’t your average hiking boots. Back then, whenever an occasion called for boots, I wore thick, heavy, steel-toed boots; a relic of my days working in maintenance gigs. Imagine wearing cinder blocks on your feet and you start to get the idea. This becomes important later.

Donning our life jackets, we settled into the canoe and pushed off. Her up front, me in the back. Despite the impressive capabilities of the modern canoe, things felt immediately unstable. When first learning, I was taught to sit with my legs tucked under my seat. This, I was told, would provide maximum stability. Looking ahead I noticed my companion had neglected this crucial step.

Being the helpful (read: annoying) sort, I offered some advice: “If you stick your legs under you we’ll be more stable, ya know.”

With a quick turn of the head she replied, “I’m going to kill you.”

She barely had time to turn back around when — our weight now shifted dangerously to one side — we went into the drink. Splash. I’m fairly certain the timing was coincidental, though I can never be sure.

Upon surfacing, the real troubles began. Worried about her camera, she removed her life vest and began diving for it. A pointless venture — Mazinaw is the second-deepest lake in Ontario. 135 feet, on average. I hurriedly collected what I could and started the swim back to shore.

It’s likely you’ve never been stupid enough to attempt swimming in steel-toed boots. It’s tiring and ineffective, to say the least. After a few feet, and feeling a bit panicked, my brain reached an odd conclusion: clearly, the object most limiting my ability to swim was my life jacket.

Not my boots.

The life jacket.

You know, that thing that keeps you afloat. Designed for exactly this type of scenario. Saves lives each and every year.

Off it went.

“Now I’ll really be able to get moving,” said my stupid, stupid brain.

I had just as much trouble swimming as before, of course. Except now I had the added benefit of, well, starting to drown a little bit. Comically close to shore. I was exhausted, spending what little energy I had simply trying to stay afloat. It wasn’t working very well.

When someone is drowning, it doesn’t look like drowning. The brain considers your respiratory system’s primary function to be breathing. And rightfully so. When you have a lack of oxygen, or even a perceived lack of oxygen, screaming and shouting doesn’t rank highly on the brain’s list of priorities. Speech is secondary.

Thankfully some children were passing by in an inflatable raft, completely oblivious to my situation. Without warning, I grabbed ahold of the raft and sucked back as much air as my lungs would allow.

Once I’d gotten my bearings I apologized profusely, kicked off the boots, and continued to shore.

It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the wrong things in life. We argue with loved ones about meaningless offences. Pressured at work, we rush through our tasks. We think we can do everything, and then some. In our haste, we often make stupid mistakes. We hurt those we love most. We disappoint clients and bosses with sub-par work. We burn out, forced to realize the limits of our time and energy. I’m as guilty of it as anyone.

But when I find myself in those situations, I’m teaching myself to stop, breathe, and take a moment to think.

And to remember that somewhere, deep in Mazinaw Lake, lies a pair of boots and a digital camera.

No boots in the canoe, this time.