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Daytrip Liberation: Red Flags are for Feminists

Cheryl Cowtan

Aaron © Cheryl R Cowtan

“Today's a red flag day, ” says the girl at Island Lake Conservation Area when we pull up to her booth. “ The waves are really choppy.  Are you going to launch your boat? ”

I'm disappointed. We're here with the boat at this Orangeville, Ontario lake so I can take the dogs out, while my husband Chris and my son Aaron kayak. If we don't launch the boat, I'll be left on shore with two rangy, unpredictable German shepherds. Regardless of the warning, I sneak a peek out the front windshield at the lake. It's choppy, but there is only the occasional white cap. I can handle that. I grew up on an Ontario shoreline resort. I've got some skills.

The dogs balk at the edge of the dock. They don't want to get into the rocking aluminum boat. I am trying to get the oars in the locks, but the waves keep moving the targets. Chris pulls the dogs in by their scruffs. They whine as their weight tips the boat back and forth. I wrap their leashes around my thigh and push them into the front.

“Are you sure you don't want the electric motor? ” Chris asks.

I say, “No, ” wanting to test my soft mommy-body against the waves.

Chris reaches down from the dock and gives the boat a shove. I see the fishermen on shore watching me from under their caps. I remember similar looks from fishermen in my childhood at Loch Arran Resort—years of men moving in to take the axe or boat motor out of my hand, or stepping in front of me to take over waving in a boat launch. I grip the oars with the same determination I had 30 years ago, and I dip the golden wood deep into the grey water.

At first it's hard: it's been a while. The wind is trying to push the front end of the boat into the long dock, and I drag my left oar to help turn out the front. Then my feet find their place at the base of the seat in front of me. I bend forward, dip and lean back, pulling the oars hard through the water. Dip and lean, dip and lean. The wind whips my hair against my face, blinding me, but it doesn't matter: I'm facing the dock, not the open water. One of the fishermen smiles as I pass him by. 

Ballast © Cheryl R Cowtan

“God mom! You almost ran over me! ” Aaron has paddled his yellow kayak into my rowing space. I hold the oar up in the air and let him pass under it. He's smiling with exhilaration as he maneuvers over the rough water, trying to catch up to his dad, who is in the bigger, orange kayak.

Chris calls out and points to a small island covered in brush. We point our crafts in that direction. The wind keeps picking up the front of my boat and pushing it off course. I remember the pail of rocks my dad used to put in the front of rental canoes as makeshift ballast, when there was only one passenger. I try to push the dogs up front, but they won't budge. Buddy licks my face and whines. I row with rhythm until I'm upwind of the island; then, I set the oars up and let the wind blow me back onto it. 

I walk the anchor up onto the shore and return to the boat to release the dogs. They jump and bark and chase each other with a stinking fish head. We dodge away from them to avoid their slimy slobber.

“Mom, look! ” Aaron holds up an unhatched Canada goose egg. It's covered in a fine spray of green algae from rolling around in the water long past hatching time.

“The wind's changed, ” Chris says. “ It's going to be harder rowing back.” I look past him to the way we've come. I can just see the dock and the fishermen's silhouettes in the distance. I feel the beginning of panic, but I push it away with my reassuring “ I-can-do-it” feminist mantra.

When we get into our vessels for the trip back, I'm smarter. I tie Buddy to the back of the boat. I tie Sniffy to the front. At first, the waves aren't too bad. We make good time. Then we round a small point and the wind hits. It's worse than before. I'm pulling with all of my might, but the location of the people on the beach indicates I'm barely moving. Aaron and Chris easily pass me. I strain against the water. Dip and groan, dip and groan. Then I hear a crack in my right oar. I don't stop rowing. I can't.

Three more pulls, and my oar breaks clean off, sounding like a gunshot. I flip backwards into the bottom of the boat, my foot straight up in the air. I push up from the wet bottom and struggle back onto the seat. My boat has been pressed much closer to an outcrop and a fisherman who is watching. I hold up my broken oar for Chris to see. Then I realize if I get blown past the point where the fisherman is standing, I'll be pushed out across the lake.

I throw the broken oar to the bottom of the boat, wrestle the good oar out of the lock and scramble to the bow. I drive it into the water on the right, and then stab it into the water on the left, canoe style. My efforts aren't moving the boat forward, so I lean out to the left and pull the oar in toward me. Every second, I'm blown further out. The boat scrapes past a log sticking out of the water, and I make my decision.

I drop the oar and slip out over the front of the boat into the water. I sink. But when I come up, I have the bowline, and I'm swimming for that log. It's straight ahead of me. Two strokes and it's moving to my right as I blow left. I kick harder, letting the line out until I can clutch the slimy wood. It sinks under my grip, and I'm pulled away, water filling my nose. I kick again, harder, and this time I grasp it. I can hear Chris yelling against the wind.

Our Crafts © Cheryl R Cowtan

I pull the boat towards me, twisting the line around my right arm. God, it's heavy. The waves are slapping my ears and my runners feel like lead on my feet, but I have to keep going. I try to push the boat ahead, release the log and swim, hoping my feet will touch the bottom. I pass the boat and sink-swim until the line tightens and the boat starts dragging me back out.

My feet connect with a submerged tree. I push at it, forcing my body toward shore. The taut line pulls me under. I come up, seeing the fisherman poised ready to jump in, the edges of his Tilly hat flapping in the gusts. I imagine his judgment and it eggs me on. My feet touch the stones. I stand and they roll, and I fall. But I'm back up, spitting water and pulling on the rope. The dogs are whining and watching me, their paws and faces hanging over the edge of the boat. Finally, I make it to the dry rocky shore and wrap the line around driftwood.

I can barely swallow—much less talk—as I gasp for air and wave at Chris. The emergency over, we both realize our nine-year-old is out of sight around the bend in his kayak. I yell, “ Where's Aaron? ” but Chris has already started paddling off to get our son. Water runs off of my clothes to pool around my soaked sneakers. The dogs growl. I turn to see the fisherman coming along the shore. Darn! A rescue. I walk to meet him and keep him away from the dogs.

“Hi, ” I call, a little embarrassed.

“Are you okay? ” His face is concerned under the Tilly.

“Oh, yeah. My oar broke. My husband will be coming back to help me. ” I'm nonchalant, as if I do this every day.

“You're sure you're okay? ” he asks, again. I blow a drip of water off my nose and say, “ Yes, thanks. I'll just wait here. ”

I smile reassuringly, but inside I'm tempted to play the damsel in distress, to let this man take over. It's a temptation I've resisted all of my life. The fisherman goes back to his point.

In the 80s, at Loch Arran Resort, we had 20 boats for rent, and I spent almost as much time on the water as I did on land. And that's how I knew what to do, even if I should have known better. As I settle my wet shorts on the leather truck seat, I feel just a little liberated. The reminder of who I used to be has been exhilarating.

I offer Aaron a high five for a job well done. He slaps my hand with enthusiasm. Then I turn to Chris, as he starts up the truck.

“I'm not cooking, tonight, ” I declare.

“Okay, ” he says, easily. “ We'll have burgers. ”

Blessed with a childhood full of nature and adventure, Cheryl Cowtan is always ready for a challenge. She and her husband enjoy living in the greenest part of Ontario with their two children and a menagerie of critters that fly, crawl, swim and run. They camp, hike, bike and travel and when not doing that, Cheryl loves to write. Her poetry and articles have been published in a number of online and print magazines and journals. Currently, Cheryl has two speculative fiction novels in the submission process and many short stories in the works. Connect with her at http://www.cherylcowtan.com.