It was late in the day when Gregor
and his family arrived at the canoe shop on the Pocomoke River. “We would like one canoe,” he said in halting
English. I stood on my toes to look over
his shoulder. Something over 6 feet
tall, Gregor looked as if he hadn’t missed a meal or a snack in 3 or 4
decades. His wife, Natasha, in a heavy
wool skirt and a scarf, was of equal height and girth. Behind her were their two teenaged sons.
I tried to explain that they would
be more comfortable in 2 canoes, showing them our 17’ canoes and describing how
cramped they would be. But he was
firm. Just one canoe, please. I thought “This is not going to end well.”
We completed the paperwork, and as
I gathered vests and paddles, he said that they wanted to go to the grocery
store first. I directed him to the local
grocery, prepared their canoe, and gassed up one of the motorboats for what I
was certain was going to be a late day rescue.
I could envision the canoe with only an inch or two above the water,
slowly and crookedly making its way up the Pocomoke.
They returned and began unloading
bags of groceries, 3 in all, carrying them to the floating dock. There were various canned goods, and a gallon
of milk. I suggested I put the groceries in the shop, the perishables in the
refrigerator, but Gregor was firm on this, too.
They would take them on board.
Slowly they climbed on board, the
two boys first, their knees tucked up under their chins, groceries between
their legs. Gregor got in the bow seat (men
almost always sit aft and do the steering).
Finally, Natasha got comfortable in the blue life vest and climbed onto
the aft seat. There was, as I predicted,
only the thinnest slice of boat showing above the water. I handed paddles all around, and gently nudged
the boat away from the dock, expecting the worst within a few strokes.
Natasha reached far to her right
with the paddle and executed a flawless draw stroke. Then she switched the paddle to the other
side and handily did a broad sweep through the dark water and the boat moved
gracefully upstream. The other 3
paddlers worked in perfect unison, as if conducted by a concert master.
They were out for over two hours,
and returned with most of the groceries gone, the trash
stored neatly in the plastic bags. Gregor told me about every bird they saw –
ospreys, an eagle, cormorants, geese – the boys nodding enthusiastically. The cypresses were just beginning to turn,
the needles a bronze gold, and he commented not only on the color but also
about the utility of cypress as lumber.
Through his father, one of the boys asked about the two turtle species
they saw basking on logs. Natasha held
the boat against the floating dock with just the occasional dip of her paddle
while the men prattled on. They thanked
me profusely for helping them get on the water.
unusual for us to host foreign visitors at the Pocomoke River Canoe Company,
and though Gregor’s family was especially memorable, their appreciation for the
Pocomoke’s natural beauty and Snow Hill hospitality was not uncommon. When I took the job, I thought the only
lesson I might learn was how to improve my own stroke. I was wrong.
Seeing my river through the eyes of others, especially through those who
had come so far, is a special treat.
Understanding that just because someone looks or acts differently they
are probably as capable as me – even doing something as American as canoeing –
is an awakening.