I can do the J stroke. I’m developing a tender spot at the base of my right thumb that might develop into a trophy callous if I nurture it. The J stroke, if you don’t know it, is the key to solo canoeing. A canoe feels strange after a snug kayak, like sitting in a bathtub bailing with a wooden spoon. But the movement, once you get it, is more elegant and peaceful than the churn of a kayak paddle. I kneel in the boat, three-quarters back from the bow and edged up close to one side. I hold the top of the cherrywood paddle in my left hand, like a gear stick, and with my right grip just above the blade. I reach up and forward, dip the spoon—sorry, the paddle—in the water, and draw it smoothly back. At the end of the stroke, I bend my wrists down, and describe a small outward curve to complete the J. This flick rudders the canoe, so that at least in theory I go in a straight line. More often it’s an awkward beginner’s slalom.
The Laughing Brook cabin is only accessible by water or by overgrown hiking trail, so the red canoe has opened up new independence for supply runs. I paddle over from the Beaver Rock cove, and from out on the water can see the three humps on the rock outcrop—tail, body, and head—that give the cove its name. On still evenings I hear nothing more than the swish of the paddle and the shrieks of the falcons. The setting sun warms the pink granite of the cove, and the beach sand too is as pink as Bermuda’s.
From inside the cabin, the Laughing Brook sounds like a kettle perpetually on the boil, and sometimes I make sleepy, cranky movements to get up and turn it off in the night. There are voices in the brook too, if you listen, though it takes a few days before they share their gossip.
The cabin has no electricity, but running water is fed by gravity from the brook to the kitchen sink. There’s a little Coleman stove seasoned with mouse droppings. By candlelight the floaty mosquito net turns the modest futon into a four-poster bed. The kerosene lamp smells good, though I’m out of fuel now and I’d forgotten to buy more. It’s bright until 10 pm anyway, and I can fall back on my Radioshack booklight if I’m desperate.
Someone has left a board game called Midlife Crisis and a cribbage set. There’s a book about Lake Superior, a chewed-up copy of Diet for a Small Planet, a John Irving, and an SJ Perelman collection. A roll of toilet paper on the floor gets chewed for a mouse nest by morning.
When I wake up I stagger out the door wearing nothing but pink flip-flops, and give a good old yawn and stretch over the beach. Sometimes the squirrels scold me and I tell them to bugger off. At 6.30 the other morning a chunk of rainbow rose straight up from an island offshore, though I was too sleepy to care for a vertical wonder. Instead I got dressed, and climbed into the canoe to meet my friend Rosalinda for a hike.
Brooklyn seems very far away.