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The Next Paddle Stroke

June 19, 2015

  • by
  • Peter Reese

A wall of wind stopped us mid-crossing. Whitecaps frosted the water’s surface, a glorious display of nature’s fury. Turned back by weather that sent loons fleeing, our only refuge was the marginal protection offered by a muddy creek’s mouth. 

Helming our 17’ Grumman canoe was my father, guiding a boat full of greenhorn suburban kids more at home on polyester sofas than rain-slicked aluminum seats. To his marginally capable crew, he was Mr. Reese.  Friends called him Bob. To me, he was simply “Dad.” As daylight faded, he piloted us to a campsite an hour’s hard paddle away. 

That summer day’s challenge was a far cry from annual fall outings during which we lollygagged down the Wisconsin River on waning warm days.  Dad’s only mandate as the current urged us southward to Spring Green?  Dial the lashed-in transistor radio to Badger football broadcasts. Locked on 720AM, time-out ads proclaimed the virtues of J.I. Case tractors assembled only a cow chip’s throw down the road in Racine, Wisconsin.

In coming years, flatwater cruising and river floats gave way to whitewater exploits with friends along with rock climbing scrape-fests at nearby Devil’s Lake State Park.  Although Dad never joined in, he looked the other way when his prized hemp rope disappeared, serving as crude pre-nylon protection while buddy Dave and I fumbled our way up the flaking sides of abandoned gravel quarries. 

Life’s flow took me far from the homestead on Hammersley Road, propelling me to places like Lake Nicaragua’s shores, Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan and Macedonia’s UNESCO-protected Lake Ohrid.  Now living near Clear Creek in Golden, Colorado, the glacier-fueled waters never fail to remind me of days afloat with him. 

Back in the Midwest, forty years after first paddling together, failing health made his solo paddling sojourns less frequent and my return visits to Madison more prolonged.

Eight weeks ago, the toll of a two-months hospital stay, one punctuated by major surgery, became obvious.  The man who grew up trapping and fishing the Black River was weakening rapidly, reaching the limits of medicine and the compensating power of his will to overcome yet another medical crisis. 

Returning home together after discharge from Meriter Hospital, my mission included surveying his house, belongings and lawn; once verdant gardens, now fallow, reached to the rear lot line. 

Among Dad’s tools, knives, fishing gear, skis, snowshoes – and hanks of old hemp rope – I discovered a green fiberglass canoe, tucked away in the backyard, a source of solace in the life story of a long-widowed man’s life.

At 15’, the wood-trimmed boat suited his style; sleek, efficient, in harmony with the environment.  After cataloging the estate, the paddle traded hands as the boat’s one-and-only owner granted ownership to me. Plans to ship it West were discussed, a promise made to replace the rotting exterior trim with resilient Canadian ash.  With the skills he imparted, this heirloom of adventure will rise from rickety sawhorses to voyage again.

As I write, the craft moves proudly – albeit upside down – on a trailer travelling from Madison to Denver. Hours of work await to make the canoe worthy of water once more.  Even before it arrives in the driveway, the name of the model propels me forward in the face of profound loss: the Bob Special. 

On May 13th, at home and with family singing, storytelling and praying around him, Robert L. Reese took his paddle from this life’s waters. 

He left behind many things, including a son he taught to bow sweep, draw and J-stroke to navigate the calm, the current, the chop.  He made wise choices in difficult, wind-blown moments.  He taught me to push on to safety when needed.  To relish Creation – without forgetting to cheer a beloved team (Go Big Red!).  To give the people you love some rope, the freedom to succeed or fail. To keep exploring on your own terms, sometimes alone.

Not long from now, I’ll welcome Nova Craft’s lauded classic canoe to the mountain-fed waters of Colorado. 

The Bob Special. 

A model moniker that, to me as his grateful son, is anything but coincidental.

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