Written by Rick Epstein   


When my daughter Sally turned 8, I bought her a new wooden canoe paddle and burned her nickname “Sparky” into the blade. With the gift came a promise: In July she and I would take a three-day canoe trip on the river that flows past our house.


I hung the paddle on her wall and we looked forward to our adventure. But as July neared, she grew apprehensive. “I’m afraid we’ll run out of food and starve to death,” she said. “I mean, there are no stores right along the river, are there?”


It made sense. In our disorganized household, around dinnertime my wife Betsy or I will go to the supermarket and buy something for supper with no more forethought than a dog knocking over a garbage can. Sally couldn’t picture another way.


“Not a problem,” I told her. “We’ll make a list of what we want for two breakfasts, three lunches and two dinners, and buy what we need before we go.”


When the big day came, Sally and I tied the boat onto the roof of the car, and my wife drove us about 60 miles upstream. About to shove off, we discovered that the cooler containing half our food, had been left at home. Oops. “What’ll we do?!” Sally asked, her worst fears suddenly justified.


“We’ll make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch and open a can of beef stew for supper,” I said. “We’ll stop at a town along the way and buy more food for tomorrow night’s dinner. I’ve got $20.” She hugged her mother as though for the last time and reluctantly boarded The Titanic.


But we had a great day. When we drifted, I read to Sally from Huckleberry Finn. When

we paddled, we played at being Tom and Huck. Everyone we passed was either a pirate or an Indian. We ignored the jet-skis.


That night we camped on a wooded island. As we lay in our sleeping bags, the night bugs and various rustlings and scamperings scared Sally. But all she said was, “Gee Daddy, it’s hard to go to sleep with so many interesting noises.” We snuggled.


The next morning after a breakfast of toast, we paddled to a town and bought groceries. Spending right down to 11 cents frightened Sally. I assured her, “We can eat like pigs and still not finish all this food. We don’t need any more money. Let’s shove off.” I tossed the coins into the water. Sally stared after them.


We had another companionable day, but at 6 p.m., just as I was looking for a camping place, Sally said, “My tummy hurts. I want to go home. I want Mommy.” It was homesickness, sudden as a heart attack. Sally gripped her stomach and wailed, “I WISH THIS WAS JUST A BAD DREAM!”


Subduing my disappointment, I said, “OK, we’ll keep going, and I’ll get you home sometime tonight.”


Sally almost smiled. She picked up her paddle and got busy. At dusk a bat came out of the gloom and flapped around us. Totally creeped-out, I wanted to scream.


“Is that a bat?” Sally asked.


“Yep,” I said forcing myself to sound casual. “Just one of nature’s creatures out shopping for bugs to eat. Just checking us out.”


“Oh,” she said, taking my fake calmness for the real thing. She went to sleep in the bow of the boat and I paddled on and on. The water was ink, the shoreline a shadow. Around midnight I saw the lights of our house. I beached the canoe and helped Sally stagger up the riverbank and into her own bed.


Even though forgetting half our food had a lot to do with it, the fact that Sally could get homesick during what I’d seen as 24-karat Quality Time hurt my feelings. Unloading the canoe in the darkness, I picked up the little “Sparky” paddle. My angry Inner Brat told me to throw it into the black river.


Instead I took it indoors, wiped it off, and hung it back up on Sally’s wall. The paddle wasn’t a trophy, but it was a souvenir of an adventure shared, and that’s something. Maybe we’ll try it again in a few years.


Rick can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

© Copyright 2008 all rights reserved