Because it’s late August and school is about to start, I wanted to share some wisdom with all you young boaters heading off to college. If you don’t have a car but still want to bring your boat to campus, you’re going to have to figure out a place to store it. This is the story of what happens when you get really, really desperate. This is the story of why you should never store your boat at a frat house.
The first canoe I owned barely floated.
It had once been a handsome white fiberglass C-1, but that was before I was born. Now it just looked decrepit. On the river its stern flopped in place behind it, held on by about a pound and a half of duct tape. The hull was so heavily worn by thousands of river rocks that you’d end up with little shards of fiberglass pricking your arm if you touched it, like stinging nettles. What a boat. It had been on its last legs for about ten years. It was the Keith Richards of boats. I loved it.
“But where are you going to keep it at school?” my mother asked.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got a plan.”
I didn’t have a plan.
During my first semester at college, I hadn’t brought my boat, despite being about as interested in kayaking as your average codeine user is in ingesting codeine. But my plan to focus on schoolwork had been torpedoed by the usual freshman male pastimes, such as a strong desire to focus on anything besides schoolwork. So by the time my mother drove me back to campus after spring break, the decaying C-1 was on the roofrack.
“I’ll figure something out,” I assured her.
The fact is, I had no clue where I was going to leave it. I couldn’t keep it in my dorm room, which was about the size of those kennels where you leave your dog (except not as clean). I couldn’t keep it at a friend’s house because all my friends were freshmen who lived in similar cells. I didn’t know any real adults in the paddling community yet either. And I couldn’t just leave it in the yard of some frat house.
Or maybe I could do exactly that.
It wasn’t a frat, exactly. Middlebury College didn’t have fraternities. We had “social houses” — a charming euphemism redolent of an ahead-of-its-time terror toward the modern frat house ills: sexual assault, binge drinking, and producing future Republican senators. Instead we had these coed social houses, which were about as free to behave like real frats as your typical state prison. I think they were on double secret probation.
Many seniors solved this problem by renting their own houses just off campus. They were just as decrepit as frats, and featured lots of the same amenities (such as places to vomit) but without the hassle. If you wanted to drink like Keith Moon, no Associate Dean of Fun Prevention was going to make you go to the hospital. Just down the hill from school was the most run-down looking of all these quasi-frats, a sagging old Victorian with about eight or nine late-model Audis and Jeeps parked in the driveway. The walking path to town went right past, and in the back of the house was a barn. Stored behind it was an old canoe. Then it hit me! Here was everything I needed: it was outdoors, close to campus, and easily accessible. This was the place to store my boat!
After my mother dropped me off, I banged on the door of the shabby Victorian. I saw Jersey plates, curtains pulled over the windows, and mountains of beer cans collected in recycling bins on the porch.
“Hello? Anyone here?”
Not hearing anything, I took out some notebook paper. “Hi, I’m a freshman,” I wrote. “I’m looking for a place to stash my kayak this spring. Would it be okay if I left it behind your barn next to your canoe?” Then I left my name and number.
When I returned in the evening, my note was still tucked into the door. This time I added:
“I’m just going to leave it there for now, if that’s okay.” Behind the barn, I slid my boat against the old canoe. “What the hell?” I thought. “These guys won’t care.”
The mistake was leaving the note.
When I came back a few days later, my boat had been pulled away from the barn and was lying face up on the back lawn. A strangely familiar odor hung in the air.
“Your boat smells like piss,” said my friend.
I bent down cautiously.
“I don’t know. It sort of smells like beer.”
“Let me see . . . No, definitely urine.”
“But I left them a polite note!”
“Hey, is there something inside your boat?”
As I turned the boat over — presumably to drain some frat boy’s urine out — about 14 empty beer cans fell out. What the hell were these guys thinking? “Hey, there’s a kayak! Let’s go use it as a trash can / toilet”?
“For the record,” my friend said, “I am never paddling that boat.”
When I told my wife this story many years later, she was appalled.
“You didn’t paddle it either, right?”
“You actually paddled the urine boat?”
“You did disinfect it first, didn’t you?”
“Disinfect a boat? You know I was paddling this on the Otter Creek, right?” The Otter Creek in Vermont makes the Potomac look drinkable.
“Oh my god,” she exclaimed. “Men!”
What could I say? When you’re head over heels for a sport, especially when you’re 19, you’ll go to great lengths to get your fix. If that happened to me today, I’d probably use soap. Back then I just rinsed it out with river water, then climbed in and didn’t give it another thought. It was going to take a lot more than some lax bro’s micturation to keep me from paddling the Otter Creek.
No, I didn’t stop paddling the pee boat. In fact, I didn’t even stop storing it at the frat house. Next time though I put it a little further away from sight, toward the far side of the barn.
And before I left, I took a leak in their yard.