What do you call a married couple that canoes together?
Years ago I saw a couple standing along the Deerfield River in western Massachusetts, dripping wet in their boating gear. The woman’s eyes were red. She stood with her arms crossed, her back toward the man she was with. They weren’t talking. He wore a haunted look and all but flung himself in front of my car with his thumb out. A few minutes into our ride, the silence was awkward.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Head in his hands, he let out a sigh.
“Don’t ever try to teach your wife to paddle.”
And for years, I didn’t.
In the meantime, I taught her to ski, to snowshoe, and to drive within ten miles per hour of the speed limit. I’ve taken her kayaking on lakes and on the ocean. Sure, I’d broached the subject of rivers, but I’d never been seriously tempted to take her. Why not?
First, I’m a whitewater fatalist.
What’s that? It means I think our sport is scary. It means I don’t expect most people to like it. Every sport has a barrier of entry that you have to get past. In flatwater kayaking, it’s “Can you get your boat on and off the car?” In whitewater, it’s “How comfortable are you flipping upside down with rocks whizzing past your head?” For most people, the answer is “I’ll stick to watching NASCAR on the couch, thank you.” And don’t forget how claustrophobic people feel in a small kayak with sprayskirt on. Rafting on the Lower Yough? That’s okay. You’re up high, you’re not strapped in, you’re safer. Your aunt and her church group do that. Flatwater paddling on Lake Meowmix? That’s downright relaxing. Your mom likes that. But jam your claustrophobic spouse into a small boat with a chance of flipping upside down? She’ll last about as long as Anthony Scaramucci.
Second, I’m a relationship realist.
I’ve never thought that couples need to share every last interest. Plenty of guys I knew swore they’d never date a woman who wasn’t a kayaker or wasn’t interested in becoming one. I disagreed. First, I’d find it terrifying to watch my spouse paddle class V. Second, it’s just plain healthy to have your own separate interests. My wife and I hike together, travel together, even (nerd alert) read together. You don’t need everything in common. It’s better if you don’t.
So I never pushed it.
Okay, maybe a little.
After all, what is there in life that’s quite like paddling a boat down a river, through a beautiful valley, on a hot summer day? Finally, a few weeks ago, I set up the perfect first trip: dinner and live music with family in the Berkshires, then camp out at Zoar Outdoor and paddle the Deerfield River the next morning. It was the perfect blend of culture and adventure, the perfect first entry into the greatest sport there is.
And then as we were driving to the put in, I had a flashback.
Ten years before . . . the Deerfield River . . . same shuttle road . . . this was where I’d seen that couple! The haunted man appeared before me. His ghost — the Ghost of Relationships Past, the Ghost of Wedding Rings Whipped Back in Your Face, the Ghost of #Shesaidyes #Thenshetookitback — whispered in my ears:
“Alden,” he said, “Why didn’t you listen to me?”
“Why are you teaching your wife to paddle?”
“Why not just start dividing up your household possessions right now?”
“Go away,” I told the ghost. “I know what I’m doing.”
But of course, like every boyfriend or husband ever, I didn’t.
Fortunately I am publishing this article so that you can learn from my mistakes. That’s right: If you ever decide to teach your spouse to paddle, here are a few suggestions:
1. If you want to give her the authentic dirtbag kayaker camping experience, you should probably wait until she’s truly hooked on the sport. Having to sleep with her sweatshirt as a blanket and her lifejacket as a pillow is not going to go over well. Neither is offering her an old space blanket that looks like a giant garbage bag. Next time try to remember the camping stuff.
2. Treating her to an awesome breakfast the next morning can help you rebound from the previous night’s debacle, but realizing that the release isn’t happening for another four hours can put you right back in the penalty box.
3. Keep it “fun.” Filling that extra time with side trips to places that no whitewater boaters have ever set foot in before, such as the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne, Massachusetts (to, you know, appreciate the flowers) can make things smell a lot sweeter.
4. Think of yourself as the staff at a nice hotel. Make sure her boat gets on and off the car without her realizing it. Make sure that you carry your boat on your shoulder, while also carrying the stern of her boat, so that she only has to pick up the bow. Make all the gear magically appear in the back of the car the night before.
5. Don’t bark orders at her. You know how many women really appreciated that time you shouted a million pointers at them right as they were floating into their first ever rapid, completely terrified? Zero. Don’t let her hold the paddle upside down or anything, but don’t be an officious jerk. It doesn’t matter if she masters the subtleties of the draw stroke. It matters if she comes back a second time. Keep it light and fun.
6. You always check the boat for spiders first. Seriously, that’s not a weird request at all. Actually, it’s a standard kayaker thing. I think Dane Jackson does it before he races the North Fork. Totally normal.
7. Offer lots of praise. You’re going to have to say things you’d never say to your boating buddies: “Wow, you’re doing great!” or “How do you look so pretty even in my old boating gear?”
8. Even if by the end she’s feeling cocky because of all that praise, don’t let her run the big class III without scouting. Even if she’s persistent and / or questions your manhood, you have to stand firm.
9. Try not to get ahead of the release. Otherwise you’ll find yourself running that big class III at a much harder water level than usual. If by chance you only realize this after you’re both committed to the rapid, try to cross yourself a few times and pray that when the dust settles, you won’t be communicating through lawyers.
10. If she does flip and swim in Zoar Gap, instead of yelling “I told you we should have scouted” or “Bootie beer!” you’re going to have to do something you’d never do with your regular crew. Give her a hug.
11. If you find her that evening watching videos of kayakers running Zoar Gap and saying, “I bet I could do it without flipping” . . . Congratulations. You’ve avoided the fate of the Ghosts of Relationships Past.