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At the river, in the dark, carrying on -- barely

Sam Cook, outdoors reporter

Deep dusk had settled over the valley of Wisconsin's Brule River. Phyllis and I had put our aging Old Town Tripper canoe in the river 10 miles upstream, at Stone's Bridge. We had begun in late afternoon to make the winding trip downstream to the Winneboujou Landing.

We had stopped along the way for a dinner with friends. By the time we loaded up and continued on downstream, many anglers in waders had taken up positions along the shore where they could cast for the Brule's big brown trout. The Hexagenia mayfly hatch draws out the anglers — and the fish — in late June and early July each summer.

We slid along as unobtrusively as possible, making sure we gave the anglers plenty of room. We spoke to all of them, quietly, as we passed. They replied in the same subdued tones.

"How's it going?"

"Good luck tonight."

"Nice evening."

I wanted to hear the whippoorwills calling, but it was still a bit early.

At the Winneboujou Landing, we slid the the Tripper out of the river and onto the bank. A couple of anglers were standing nearby, not fishing. Perhaps they were waiting to see if the mayfly hatch was going to materialize before committing to the river.

An Old Town Tripper is a heavy canoe by design, made to withstand the rigors of travel on rocky rivers. We had paddled this one, or others like it, on northern rivers like the Bloodvein, the Seal and the Gods, sometimes all the way to Hudson Bay. But all of those trips were more than a decade ago, some of them three decades.

This Tripper, stamped "rental" at the factory, was heavier than the standard Tripper. I had weighed it once, out of curiosity. It came in at 89 pounds. Still, on those far-flung trips, we threw it on our shoulders and labored across portages where the rapids were too big to run.

So, I'm not sure what I was thinking when Phyllis asked if I needed help with the canoe, and I declined. Or when the fishermen in the dark graciously asked, "Need a hand with the canoe?"

No, thanks, I told them.

Because I was stupid, I guess. Or was still clinging to some romantic vision of the past.

When I cradled the canoe on my thighs, I was surprised how heavy it seemed. I knew it would take a mighty heave to throw it over my head and onto my shoulders. But, by gosh, I got it up there.

Trouble was, the momentum of the heave now had me staggering backwards and sideways in the dark. I couldn't regain equilibrium, and I had no idea where the canoe was taking me. I feared this was going to end badly with me crumpled under the canoe.

But by the grace of the river gods — or sheer good fortune — I staggered into the thick and supportive boughs of a very healthy spruce tree. And stopped. Still standing, albeit on shaky legs.

"You all right?" one of the fishermen asked.

I told him I thought so, and headed up the hill to the car with the canoe on my shoulders. If they were laughing, I couldn't hear it.

With Phyllis' help, we loaded the canoe on the car rack and strapped it down.

Humility comes more readily as one ages, it seems. Sometimes it's accompanied by severe consequences. Sometimes we get away with something but still learn our lesson.

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