I ask you to picture this: A Connecticut couple drive their shiny new white convertible Corvette to Cape Cod for a romantic week-long getaway. They are young, healthy, and beautiful. They are on vacation. Life is good. The woman, a bit on the outdoorsy side, suggests taking part in a lovely canoe ride along the bay and estuaries of Orleans. It’s something she’s read about in one of her guidebooks. “It’s organized by the National Seashore, led by a couple of rangers and everything,” she says. The man, slightly less interested, eventually gives in and agrees to go. “It’ll be fun – a new adventure,” she says, trying to be light and encouraging. But once they arrive, and find themselves surrounded by other anxious-faced tourists, then forced to wear musty life vests, and sign a consent form ensuring some (forever unknown and invisible) entity that, yes, they have listened to all the safety precautions recited by the ranger, it becomes clear to the woman that this is not exactly what she imagined. She looks worriedly over at the man, hoping he won’t hold this misstep against her. He looks back, stone-faced and unsmiling. And then, as if to further aggravate what seems to be an already unfortunate situation, the ranger informs the couple that, due to the size of the group (17 people) and the number of canoes (6), they must take someone else in their boat. “Oh, great,” they both say to themselves, silently. The ranger then points to a strange creature – dressed in all black, visible white streaks of poorly applied sunscreen (of some mercilessly high SPF, they are sure) covering her pale arms, a baseball cap obscuring her face. “You take her,” the ranger says to the couple. The creature lifts her head and wanly smiles at them. And so, dear reader, I must admit the sad truth to you. The strange creature in this tale is me. Cast in this romantic love scene as the unwanted outsider. The third wheel in a canoe. The odd man out.
Now let me tell my side of the story. The last time I visited the National Seashore, I picked up a copy of their “National Seashore News” at the Province Lands Visitors Center. The paper is a great source of information on what’s happening at their many beaches and conservation lands. Among the list of many fabulous activities offered (such as snorkeling and yoga on the beach), there was a program that jumped out at me. It read: “Canoe Adventure: Tuesdays. Up to 3 hours. Fee Required. These trips may explore Nauset Marsh, kettle ponds or a bay, or may focus on a specialized topic. Locations and topics vary. By reservation only. Call Salt Pond Visitor Center at 508-255-3421.” I called right away and, with my credit card in my hand, I reserved and paid the $20 fee for one spot on this delicious sounding canoe adventure. Now, my dad is Canadian and, thanks to him, so am I. As a result, similar to Jason Bourne, the nubile international assassin turned tender-hearted, amnesiac vigilante, I hold more than one passport. Unlike Jason Bourne, I hold only two passports, have no personal vendettas, and also have a difficult time driving a car backwards at a speed exceeding 3 miles per hour. But, the point is, I’m a Canadian citizen and, therefore, legally required to know my way around a canoe. Actually, because this outing was 1. government sponsored, 2. earnestly educational, and 3. involved canoeing (a virtual North Country trifecta), I thought this trip was a perfect way to exercise my lesser developed Canadian side.
I readied myself for my adventure. I filled my backpack with sunscreen, water, a snack, and, just in case I was marooned somewhere, a book. Lacking any proper outdoor clothing, I wore my (all black) yoga clothes, a baseball hat I found in the back of the closet, and some old sneakers that I bought a few years ago in (dashed) hopes that the shoes would inspire me to become one of those jogging types. Satisfied with my preparedness, I set out to connect with the group at the scheduled meeting spot: the Nauset Regional Middle School in Orleans. After spending some time dawdling in the parking lot waiting for everyone to arrive, we all followed the truck carrying the two National Seashore rangers and the canoes down to the boat launch at Meetinghouse Pond. Along on the trip were the young couple from Connecticut mentioned previously, a large family from New Jersey, a group from Maryland, a father-daughter pair from New York, the rangers, and me.
Once we were at the pond, the ranger assigned us our canoes. And, alas, I was put with a slightly unfriendly (or maybe just stoically silent) couple. Now stuck with each other, the young couple and I decided who would paddle and who would sit in the middle of the canoe. The man took the stern, the woman took the bow, and I was stuck in the middle, sitting on a cushion placed on the floor of the boat. So, here I was, on my great canoe adventure with no paddle of my own, unwittingly intruding into this young vacationing couple’s afternoon. At first, it didn’t feel like a canoe adventure, but rather like an exercise in awkwardness. I briefly wished that, along with my sunscreen and water, I had packed my invisibility cloak, but soon I relaxed. I pretended I was some glorious Maharajah being chauffeured around the beautiful waters of Cape Cod by my well-formed servants. And half way through the trip, the woman and I switched spots so that I too could do some paddling.
We paddled for about two hours. We began by cutting through Meetinghouse Pond, then out into Pleasant Bay, over to the gorgeous Kent’s Point (where we all got out of our boats for a short hike), then down a really cool tidal channel (which was filled with orange and whitish sponges) that connects Pleasant Bay to Lonnie’s Pond and then we looped back to the Meetinghouse Pond boat launch. Following the ranger’s instructions, the group would periodically congregate and the ranger (a high school science teacher who leads these trips in the summer) would jump out of her canoe and point out some natural and/or historical wonder. The educational aspect was my favorite part of the trip. I was amazed to learn that the blood of the horseshoe crab is used by pharmaceutical companies to test that their medications, vaccines, etc. are free of bacterial contamination. In order to get this living fossil’s blue-colored blood, the pharmaceutical corporations round up, bleed, and release horseshoe crabs. And the horseshoe crab is more closely related to the spider than to an actual crab. Have I just blown your mind? The ranger also pointed out birds (most notably a Great Blue Heron and a kingfisher), told us about the incredible internal desalination processes of cordgrass (the grass most typically found in salt marshes) which allows the plant to survive in salt water, the culinary use of another marsh plant called salt pickle, and she even let us stick our fingers into a horseshoe crab’s mouth. Now that’s what I call a good time!
Though, alas, I did find the whole group activity scene a bit taxing. There was the girl who loudly shrieked every time a green fly touched her skin (which was often), there was the squabbling family who couldn’t quite figure out how to stop their canoe from going in circles, and, of course, there was the serious silence coming from my canoe (did these people ever smile?). Throughout this trip I kept seeing a lone man kayaking near us. I wanted to be this man – alone and agile. I guessed that he was in his 60s. He was shirtless with a tan and lean torso and wore a very cool wide-brimmed straw hat. He spent short stretches of time fishing in both Lonnie’s Pond and Meetinghouse Pond. He was the Paul Newman of the estuary – graceful, independent, enviable. And we were, all 17 of us, collectively closer to being like Jerry Lewis – at times funny, other times brash, but always rather awkward and unwieldy.
So, would I do it again? Probably not, but the moment I get a kayak, I’d redo that route in a second. The waters are calm, the scenery is lovely, and, from the looks of it, there is some serious clamming to be done in the soft sands around Lonnie’s Pond. I would recommend the canoe adventure to visitors. It is a well-priced, educational, and entertaining way to spend an afternoon. But it is crucial that participants are comfortable in a canoe – you don’t need to be an expert, but some experience is important. And, dear reader, take heed from my lesson, bring a friend, buddy, family member, love interest, etc…I definitely don’t recommend going alone.
As my canoe-mates and I were about to disembark from our shared vessel, the woman broke the long silence by saying to her boyfriend, “Maybe next time we’ll go sailing instead.” He made no reply. Let’s just hope, for everybody’s sake, they get a boat all to themselves.