Thursday, April 25, 2013

Icy Big Brother

Back in the day, my two younger brothers and I would often throw our red canoe into the back of the Ford Club Wagon family van and drive over to the boat landing in Newfields, New Hampshire. I say boat landing, but back then it was just an incline of rocks and mud. They have since built a cement ramp and a large parking lot there, and speedboats and wave runners have become the norm.

One year, just as the ice had just started to break up, we decided it was time to go canoeing. We dressed in our winter gear, drove the van over to the river, and pushed off from the frozen mud ramp in our plastic red boat. Massive chunks of ice immediately threatened to sink us. Our paddles spent more time fending off frigid disaster than they did pushing water, and the cold air stabbed at our lungs as we worked hard to remain afloat. Had we fallen into the icy water, we would have been dead within minutes, either from the cold or from being crushed between icebergs. The danger was most of the thrill.

Conner sat in the middle and Jared in the bow, while I took the stern. That was the way it had always been. I liked having control, but hated sitting behind my brothers, because I always ended up doing most of the work, and that meant that I did all of the shouting. Jared and Connor would get distracted by animals, floating garbage, or (mostly) by the telling of a joke or a funny story, leaving me alone in my efforts to propel us forward. I seemed more intent on getting somewhere, rather than just enjoying where we were. Their lack of focus would make me angry, and I would yell and bark orders, which they for the most part ignored.

That day was no different. Jared and Connor, while a little more focused on where we were going due to the potential for death, were still Jared and Connor, my carefree little brothers. They were laughing and joking while I sat in the back, fretting and stressing.

At some point Conner decided to ratchet both the danger and my blood pressure up a notch by jumping out of the canoe and onto a large chunk of ice as it floated alongside us. Jared laughed as Connor danced a jig on the iceberg.

"Kid, be careful," I warned, worried that my little brother would slip and bump his head, causing him to slide into the water and drown, or bleed to death as he floated out of our reach.

"Calm down, it's fine," Connor replied, ever confident in his immortality.

I paddled hard to keep the canoe close to Connor, and Jared took it as a chance to jump up onto the ice floe with him, leaving me alone in the only safe method of conveyance.

"Oh great, now I'll have to save both your butts when the ice cracks and you fall in!" I complained.

"Chill out Matthew," Jared suggested with a chuckle.

"We're fine, it's totally safe," Connor added. He stomped his feet to prove to me just how thick their frozen platform was.

Over the years I had experienced many moments such as this. While I stayed safe inside the safe and reliable man-made boat, my brothers danced on the tiny island that was surely inhabited by cannibals and surrounded by hungry man-eating sharks. I was suddenly tired of being the mature, rational, boring, fun-killing big brother.

"Pull me up onto the ice," I commanded with a smile.

Jared and Connor obeyed at once, bending down to pull the red canoe (and me) up onto their ice island. I climbed out, and together we floated down the river, the canoe resting beside us on the ice. We knelt and dipped our paddles into the water, propelling our new vessel even faster, and by using my paddle as a rudder I managed to maintain a safe course through a field of broken ice. We lay on our backs and stared up at the grey winter sky, laughing and chattering away, enjoying the latest in a number of dangerous brotherly adventures. I jumped up and stood at the bow of our rugged white boat, feeling like Washington crossing the Delaware.

After a while we neared the boat landing. We paddled like mad to get over to it. Moments after had we had disembarked and dragged the red canoe up onto shore, a State Trooper pulled up in a rush, reds and blues flashing and radio squawking. He jumped out of his car and approached us as we carried the canoe up the ramp towards to van.

"You boys been canoeing the river?" The trooper asked.

"Uh, yes," I replied nervously.

"Did you see three kids trapped on an iceberg?"

"Nope," I answered honestly. We had not been trapped on the iceberg, and we were not kids.

The trooper looked out at the river filled with floating chunks of ice for a moment, then looked back at my brothers and me, standing at the back of the van with our red canoe.

"Thanks," he said, shaking his head. He climbed into his patrol car, switched off his reds and blues, and drove away.

We watched in silence as his tires crunched over icy gravel. Not until the sound of his engine faded down the road did the three of us start laughing.

"Either he was a rookie, or you are an incredible liar," Jared said.

We loaded the canoe and headed home for some hot chocolate, one more adventure worth telling in our quivers.

I have thought about that adventure many times since. I don't think that the trooper was a rookie, and I don't think I was a very convincing liar.

I like to think that he was a mature, rational, boring, fun-killing big brother.