How I earned “Most Improved in Canoeing”

My neighbor has a canoe on the roof of his extended cab truck. He’s about to go camping at a lake near Truckee. I like canoeing, and his wooden canoe reminds me of summer at Camp Androscoggin in Maine, where at age eleven I earned a birchwood plaque for “Most Improved in Canoeing.”

Sometimes the honors we receive have little to do with actual accomplishment, and so it was with my birchwood plaque. The story begins during a fast and furious storm that blew in over Lake Androscoggin one evening in late July. I was down at the lakefront where other boys had already taken out canoes, and the camp counselor in charge of boating, we called him Uncle Joel, ordered me to join him in a canoe so that he could tell the other boys to return to shore. Uncle Joel, a big, strapping twenty-one year old took the stern, of course; I took the bow.

We headed out on the lake, buffeted by wind, choppy water and increasingly large whitecaps. Progress was slow, but Uncle Joel was very strong, and we got close enough to the other boys for him to use his whistle and signal them to return to shore. A few boys had abandoned their canoes not far from shore, and Uncle Joel wanted us to paddle over to them so we could rope and tow them.

It was during this event I earned my plaque. “Side paddle!” he shouted over the wind, a bow-man’s stroke that is quite inefficient but coordinated with the stern-man helps turn a canoe. The storm bearing down on us, I set about following his instructions, splashing water into the canoe and myself in the process. Suddenly I heard Uncle Joel yelling, “Not that side, you moron, the other side!” And with that I turned my head to look at him as he raised his long wooden canoe paddle over his shoulder and flung it at me with both hands. As if in slow motion, I watched his paddle rotate through the air like a loose propeller, spinning end-around-end as it traveled towards me. I ducked and felt the air move as the paddle passed just inches over my crew cut.

I looked at Uncle Joel with horror, unsure about saying anything, but I expect my expression said it all. His paddle flew ten yards ahead of the canoe, skipping on the water until it disappeared into the choppy waves. If it had hit me in the head, I would have been killed; I knew it and Uncle Joel knew it. He reached towards me and gestured that I should give him my paddle, a boy’s paddle, not a man’s. We quickly travelled back to shore in silence.

August passed in a blink, and on the last night of camp, Androscoggin’s “Hoy Night” celebration took place. Color War champions were honored, and one way or another every boy received something: a plaque, a sew-on badge, or a pin. “The next award is for Most Improved in Canoeing,” announced the Head Counselor Uncle Phil Traub, “and it goes to…Larry Barnett.” I got up to retrieve my plaque from the outstretched hands of Uncle Joel.

I’d never told anyone about what happened to me out on the lake that July evening. I looked at Uncle Joel, he looked at me, and suddenly equals, we both understood exactly what was happening.

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