It may have begun when I was far too young to remember: According to my mother, when I was an infant, she and my father would go paddling on a slow stretch of the river in our old canoe, with myself snugly tucked away in the bow.
Or it may have been the creek which ran near our house, where I spent many a happy hour as a child, discovering how tadpoles become frogs, catching minnows and turning over rocks looking for crawdads. As well as learning important life lessons such as the fact that a big snapping turtle can chomp through a three-quarter-inch stick as easily as you or I bite off a piece of a Slim Jim.
Or it might have been those summer weekends my family spent at my grandmother's cottage on the lake, where from the time I was eight I was allowed to take that monstrously heavy old wooden, fiberglass-covered canoe out on my own.
Whatever the reason, stick me on something that floats, on a scenic body of water, and I get as close to nirvana as I'm ever likely to be. (Yes, I want a Viking funeral.)
This river where my parents used to take me is only about half-an-hour's drive from where I live. Hardly deep or wide enough to merit being called a river, the Harpeth meanders through fertile bottom land, and past high limestone bluffs capped with a thick layer of the mudstone peculiar to this area, with its multitude of shades from tan to yellow to dull reddish-orange.
One bend of the river encloses a mound complex from the Mississippian culture. Some long-dead hand carved a depiction of a ceremonial mace into the rock on top of the bluff which overlooks the site. So we humans have been hanging out here for a good while, even if it's only a blink of the eye in geologic time, compared to the 350-million-year-old fossil corals and shellfish which are embedded in that limestone.
Like other small rivers and streams in the Central Basin, the Harpeth alternates between low rock ledges, gravel bars and long, still pools, punctuated with the occasional stretch of easy rapids to throw a little excitement into the float. Most of the time, it's an ideal trip for a family or a newbie canoeist or kayaker. Yet it can rise with unnerving swiftness -- as I found out one afternoon on a solo trip, when a brief but torrential downpour a few miles upstream turned this placid river into a muddy, swirling flood.
As you might have guessed, my dear wife and I canoe and kayak this river frequently. Our favorite times for this are the early Spring and late Fall, partly because these are the most beautiful seasons on the river, when the water clarity is best, and partly because there aren't so many people out on the river. And the ones you do meet then are usually the more dedicated river rats, who're by-and-large a much better-behaved class of boater, that is, less likely to be loud and/or obnoxiously drunk.
On a day in early April, a number of years ago, Joan and I were canoeing the river. It was one of those glorious, crystalline Spring days: red-wing blackbirds trilling, wildflowers blooming on the river banks, the trees just beginning to leaf out in puffs of brilliant, almost translucent jade green. After the wet winter, the river was up and moving along at a good clip. The water was so superbly clear we could see down several feet into the deep holes where the big carp and gars lurked. When the river hustled us over shallows, it was like gliding through the air, skimming along just above the boulders and ledges and gravel.
As well as being the first time we'd been on the river that year, this was a particularly enjoyable trip not only on account of the fine weather and beautiful scenery, but also because for once we didn't have our dog Pete with us. I should say, although he had his quirks, Pete was a pretty good little guy, a cocker/spitz/God-only-knows-what mix who really dug the water. He'd normally have been with us, despite the fact that he could be a major pain in the ass in a canoe.
Pete had a remarkable talent for standing up on the gunwales at precisely the worst moment, requiring lightning reactions on our parts to keep him from dumping us all in the drink. Another of his favorite stunts was to leap out of the boat at the least excuse, say, if we got too close to the riverbank, or scraped bottom in a shallow spot.
But given the sheer joy Pete took out of dog-paddling around and tearing up and down the gravel bars where we'd stop to stretch our legs, we'd have felt guilty if we hadn't taken him along with us. Except that this time, he'd just had some minor surgery; we couldn't let him get his stitches wet. So we were savoring our guilt-free, Pete-less and somewhat more relaxed canoe trip.
When it comes to notions of an all-powerful, omniscient bearded sky guy who's constantly obsessing over what we're up to with our naughty bits, I am, to say the least, a skeptic. However, I fervently believe that someone or something with a very dry sense of humor listens in when we do what Joan and I had done, which was to remark out loud how nice it was not to have the dog with us that day.
Because not half an hour after that particular conversation, we met the Doofus Dog -- “Kinda big, kinda strong, stupid as a log.” (h/t to Dave Barry)
Since the river was high the current was such that even in the slower reaches we hardly had to paddle at all, except to keep the bow pointed downstream, or for the occasional bit of maneuvering. We floated past a spot where the family who owned that land often fished and camped: a grassy bank and open spot beneath tall trees, with a couple of picnic tables and a fire pit. A man and woman were standing on the bank, along with a young boy; they all waved at us, and we waved back.
They also had a dog: a large Husky or Malamute -- I don't remember precisely which -- who stared at us for a moment, comically dumbfounded, as the river carried us rapidly past. Then he began to bark.
I believe that he had never seen a canoe before, and instantly leaped to the conclusion it was some kind of hideous two-headed monster, waving its arms and horribly malformed flippers threateningly at his humans. Most infuriating of all, this cowardly abomination of nature had turned tail at his first bark and was scarpering down the river.
What else could any self-respecting Doofus Dog do, but take off after this fiendish thing? Even if he couldn't catch it, at least he could warn everyone downstream that it was coming, no doubt to terrorize and savage the unwary.
So off he went, barking furiously, crashing through the undergrowth as he trailed us along the riverbank. His peoples' frantic shouts were soon drowned out, between the ruckus he raised and the noise of the rushing river.
You could have been yelling at the top of your lungs, just twenty yards distant, and it would have been impossible to hear you above the water's uproar. You see, right after that fishing camp, the river abruptly changed its character, as it undercut a limestone bluff on that side, and lost a bit more than the average in elevation. At summer depth, this stretch is dotted with easy-to-negotiate boulders, where the current picks up enough to make a nice change from the long calm pool preceding it. That Spring day, with the river level three or four feet higher, it was a boisterous ride, not exactly challenging white water, but a fast, mostly straight run through chaotic boils, eddies and low standing waves created by the now-submerged rocks.
Nothing could deter the Doofus Dog. Though the way became progressively more difficult, the strip of riverbank beneath the bluff ever narrower and steeper, he pursued us through weeds and cane brakes and underbrush and over fallen trees, with the kind of single-minded determination you sometimes encounter in the mentally deficient.
Until about half a mile downstream from where he first took up the chase, where the riverbank finally disappeared into the near-vertical face of the limestone bluff. Despite his praiseworthy attempts to emulate a mountain-goat, he soon slipped and plunged right into the river with a tremendous splash, not far from the canoe. And promptly proceeded to swim after us.
Though he clearly excelled at the cross-country part of the course, it quickly became apparent that Doofus Dog was not very experienced with this new element. He was doing the "lift my fore paws up and try to claw my way out of the water" crawl of the novice canine swimmer. Add to that the swift and unpredictable current, and in no time at all he was in real trouble.
After he went under for the third or fourth time, I had worked our canoe near enough to grab him by the collar, just as the water was closing over his head yet again, and somehow -- maybe it was the adrenalin -- managed to horse that big, exhausted, thoroughly soaked dog over the gunwale and into the boat. (Fortunately for him, I'm a pretty hefty individual, plus all that canoeing and kayaking definitely helps with the upper-body strength.)
Once inside the canoe, he of course did the natural thing for a very wet dog, deluging us in a spray of icy water. Perhaps he realized by that point that we were just people, or my monster theory could be way off-base: maybe all along he thought he was rescuing us. Either way, instead of Pete -- who only tipped the scales at around forty pounds -- we now shared our easily-upset craft with seventy or eighty pounds of large, extremely friendly, very excited dog. For whom the concepts of balance and the advantage of a low center-of-gravity in a canoe were as obscure as quantum physics.
He wasn't in the boat for more than a few minutes before he fell out again while trying to get a drink, almost flipping us in the bargain. After being hauled back in and favoring us with another bracing shower, the idea that staying in the boat might be a bit trickier than he'd first thought evidently filtered through all those protective layers of bone in his head. Although that didn't prevent him from trying to overturn the canoe at odd intervals, and almost falling in a couple more times. As far as I could tell, he seemed to be having a wonderful time.
We, however, were presented with something of a quandary: There was no way we were going to paddle him back upriver against that current, and we hadn't the slightest idea how to find the place by road.
While I was occupied steering and constantly shifting my weight to compensate for the Doofus Dog's sudden, random movements, Joan turned around in her seat and examined his collar.
She began to laugh. When I asked what was so funny, she said she'd tell me later. But at least, she assured me, this numbskull hound had a name tag with a phone number. Which had an out-of-state area code.
Understand that this took place back when cell phones were nowhere near as ubiquitous as they now are. If we had one, it hadn't been for long; regardless, I wouldn't have taken it with us on the river. I wasn't about to try to locate a pay phone out in the boonies and feed it quarters. Any attempt to contact his owners would simply have to wait until we got home.
Against all reasonable expectations, we made it to the take-out without getting dumped in the water by our rambunctious passenger. No one there or at the canoe livery had any idea who his owners were, so homeward we all went. He was just as thrilled to go for a ride in our car. No coaxing necessary -- all I had to do was open the door.
When we arrived back home, we tied the Doofus Dog up in the back yard and gave him food and water. Then I called the number on his nametag. As was to be expected, no one was at home. But they did have an answering machine. I left a message and hung up, leaving us both wondering just how long we'd be stuck with this uninvited guest. (”We're gonna need a bigger bag of dog chow!”)
Thankfully, only a couple of hours later we received a return call, from a very uncertain-sounding young boy. Did we have his dog? We answered in the affirmative, gave the adults directions to our house, and to everyone's relief, shortly thereafter the furry nitwit was reunited with his humans.
Oh, and the reason Joan laughed when she first read the Doofus Dog's tag, and so did I, when she later told me his name: Because it was so completely appropriate, so cosmically inevitable that this big galoot should have been gifted with the moniker "Lucky".