Canoeing on the Harpeth

A couple of weeks ago I went canoeing with my friend David and some of his friends and family on the Harpeth river. It’s really more of a stream than a proper river, but it’s a pleasant stream with lots of bends and plenty of wildlife to see along the way, so it makes for good canoeing.

The Harpeth river forms the Harpeth valley, sometimes called the Harper valley, and for a while the area reached a certain level of fame from a country song by Jeannie C. Riley called Harper Valley PTA that came out in 1968. It’s a very simple song (there’s two points where the key changes slightly and that’s as exciting as it gets musically), but it deals with a mother refusing to bend to the will of a semi-theocratic quasi-socialist regime (the Parent Teacher Association) and so the lyrics give it a little punch.

It had been some fifteen years since I went canoeing. I had gone a few times in the scouts, and what I remembered from that was

  • I was going to get sunburnt
  • I was going to get wet
  • I was going to need water
  • Either my posterior or my knees were going to hurt
  • And at some point the canoe would tip over.

Bearing this in mind, in the hour or so I had to prepare before I showed up to the meeting place I rushed through the house looking for swimshoes that I haven’t worn since the Clinton administration, knee pads that were marginally more comfortable than cardboard, a completely dorky fanny pack for putting snacks in, and a few bottles of water, which I completely forgot about when I eventually showed up.

My brother Shane was up as I was searching through the house and he asked me where I was going. When I told him he said, “Ew,” and asked why I would ever want to do that. I said something to the effect that it would be fun and I’d be able to hang out with some friends. Shane asked me if I had ever seen the movie “Deliverance.”

Ignoring his warnings, I got everything I needed from home, put it in the car, and left.

cell phone dry box and dry pouch

My chief concern was that my cell phone and wallet might get wet when my canoe tipped over. So after I drove the twenty minutes into town I went into Walmart and got a water proof cell phone box and a water proof pouch for my wallet. The makers of these items had an interesting sales strategy. They said that their waterproof containers were not intended to be submerged. Now I understand the idea. Basically I can’t go scuba diving and expect them to work, but “submerged” can mean a large range of things, and what I want when I’m purchasing water proof containers is some assurance that they are, in fact, waterproof. So I don’t know, maybe do what watch makers do and say that they’re waterproof up to ten feet or something?

Anyway I showed up at David’s father’s house to meet everyone on the trip. It was Me, David, David’s father Tom, David’s wife Kristi, a girl visiting from China named Nicole, and another friend of David’s named Gray. Gray was the only other person wearing swim shoes, which made me feel slightly less like a dork. David was wearing long jeans and army boots, almost daring the river to try to mess with him.

Tom provided us all with Ziploc bags for our cell phones, which I used along with my dry box, because I was pretty sure my canoe was going to tip over. After having a nice chat about our previous canoeing exploits, most of which were variations on the terrible things that could happen if you got tipped over in the rapids, we all got into our vehicles and went down to the company that was going to rent our canoes. The company’s name was Tip-a-Canoe.

It was me, Nicole, and Tom in one boat, David, Kristi, and Gray, in the other. The girls weren’t terribly keen on rowing, so they sat in the middle. The way canoes work is that the person in the back does most of the steering, the person in the front provides thrust and helps with the steering, and the people in the middle try to make themselves feel useful with varying levels of success. Kristi took several pictures on the river, and both she and Nicole helped during some of the trickier areas of the course, so everyone participated.

I was glad to have knee pads as the seats on the canoes are amazingly uncomfortable. I also like paddling better on my knees because of the lower center of gravity, or maybe it make me feel like I’m going faster. Unfortunately the knee pads I was using weren’t intended for extended use. I eventually fell into a rhythm of alternating between sitting on my rear and sitting on my knees as each area got more painful. I like to think that I was better off than my friends, who just sat, but I’m not entirely sure.

I had of course forgotten to put sun tan lotion on, but thankfully the weather was mostly cloudy that day so I only got slightly sun burnt on my arms. It wasn’t too hot either, and there were several relaxing tranquil moments as we let ourselves be pushed by the current and admired the profundity of the nature around us. There were several turtles along the river. Often just as we spotted them, they would slide into the water, making us wonder if we had seen them at all. Tom shared a story with us about how David once had been conscripted to move a turtle off a road. I won’t go into any details, suffice it to say the moral of the story was: “Don’t ever try to pick up a turtle, unless you are sure it’s not a snapping turtle.”

We saw a heron or two launch gracefully into the sky, and at one point we came across a flock of ducks. David shared with us a little song at this point that described the behavior of one of the ducks perfectly: “Shake your butt / Shake your butt / Poop!”

That wasn’t the only singing that took place. Gray revealed that he had quite a good singing voice and belted out a few lines from some of his favorite songs. He mentioned one of his favorite singers was John Denver, which I found a bit odd. The only thing I really know about John Denver is that he died in a plane crash and one of his songs was used to ominous effect in the first Final Destination movie. I couldn’t figure out a way to leverage this into conversation, so I just let it go.

At some point during the trip I started quoting Monty Python, as I am wont to do. This prompted Nicole to ask me how to speak in an English accent. Not being from the UK myself, I had to inform her that I was far from an expert in the subject. Next I told her what my father always said about the accent, which was that the best way to imitate it was to imagine there was a bumble bee in your mouth while you were talking.

Nicole knew a great deal of English, so I was surprised when she asked what a bumblebee was. Tom and I explained it several different ways, describing how it buzzed, how it could sting you, but only once, which was a little sad. How wasps had chemical stingers and could sting you several times and were nasty little thingsā€¦ I got the impression that Nicole figured it out after a few seconds, but let us carry on for the entertainment value.

We all stopped for lunch halfway through. Tom had made a plethora of chicken for us to eat, and we did our best to consume as much of it as we could. It was at this point however that I learned there wasn’t any water in the cooler. There was only diet soda, diet tea, fresca, and Pepsi. The Pepsi was the only thing that didn’t have aspartame in it, and aspartame tastes nasty to me, so I had that. It reawakened my love of high fructose corn syrup. David and I had a discussion about corn syrup’s deleterious effects. He lauded a number of brands of soda that used sugar instead . I said that I kind of preferred the corn syrup to sugar. My main problem with sugar soda is that for some reason it’s almost always flat. It sometimes doesn’t taste quite right either. Maybe I’m just a victim of consumer culture.

At one point we came to a hole dug into the rock on one side of the river, and Tom told us how it had been carved by slaves under orders from Montgomery Bell. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were canoeing around the Narrows of the Harpeth, near Mound Bottom an archeological site where artifacts have been found from as early 900 CE. I’m definitely going to want to check the area out on foot sometime. It looks pretty interesting.

Once we reached our end point, we took pictures of each other while we waited for the canoe truck to come by to take us and the canoes we rented back to the starting point. It was a good trip over all. Nobody tipped their canoes over, which I was a little sad about after all the anticipation. We did have to get out quite a few times to carry our canoes over the shallow regions, but it was no substitute. I still have an unfinished feeling about the trip as a result. Still glad I went though.