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On a hot August night in 1985, I answered the phone and the first words I heard on the other end were, “You’ve got to wax the bottom of the canoe.”
It was my friend Shawn Wood who, along with Jerry Peacock, Jamie Maupin and me, was competing in a Marianna-to-Blountstown canoe race down the Chipola River the following day.
The fact that we knew almost nothing about canoes didn’t keep us from signing up for the race. And, as evidenced by Shawn’s call, we actually thought we had a pretty good chance of winning.
Later we learned that the chances were just as good we’d be struck by lightning after hitting the lotto twice, but at nine o’clock the night before, it was still several hours before we would be dunked under the cold waters of reality. (That’s a hint at how the rest of this story plays out.)
I don’t know about the other three, but my first moment of doubt came at the launch, when I stepped into the borrowed canoe and almost fell out before it was all the way in the water.
Lined up beside us were several people we didn’t know, some of whom looked like professional canoe racers. They had sleek new boats and curved paddles and as soon as the gun sounded, they left our sight forever.
Jerry and I were left behind with Shawn and Jamie, all struggling to find our rhythm. The only canoe behind us held Ginny and Clay Knight who were fully involved in a sibling argument that started before the race and (I’m told) lasted well after it was done.
Despite their freshly waxed canoe, Shawn and Jamie fell behind as we finally got our act together and headed south. We had only made it about two bends downstream when we saw a hornet’s nest hanging low over the river.
What happened next is a matter of debate, but what I remember (the truth) is that Jerry tried to steer us right (from the bow) while I tried to steer us left (from the stern.) We ended up going straight (into the water.)
We were soaked and all our provisions for a day on the water (including our water) went straight to the bottom. Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, Shawn and Jamie came by, laughing hysterically.
Karma, however, is a beautiful thing sometimes. Once we righted our canoe and got back in, we caught up with Shawn and Jamie just up the river where they were stuck on a log under the middle of their boat. They were rocking furiously trying to get free.
Something had to give and it did. Just as we passed, the old canoe cracked open on both sides. So, we stopped immediately and offered to provide whatever help we could.
What we actually did was point and laugh and keep paddling. We might have even splashed them on the way by, I don’t really remember.
At one of the later checkpoints, we learned that Jamie had abandoned the broken canoe and caught a ride home. Shawn, on the other hand, was still in the race, last seen paddling a half sunken boat.
Keep in mind that we were expecting to be in Blountstown by early afternoon, but we actually arrived about 7:30 or 8 p.m. The race was long over, the prizes had been awarded and the only two people left at the landing were Betsy Knight, waiting on Clay and Ginny, and Cheryl Wood, who was there to retrieve our crew.
After half an hour or so, only Shawn was still unaccounted for and Cheryl, who had been there since God knows when, decided that we needed to find him.
It didn’t take long. After pulling up to a friend’s camp, we heard a voice in the darkness – a familiar voice . . . singing.
What I saw next is hard to describe with mere words.
Picture an upside-down canoe floating down river, almost completely submerged, with Shawn spread out across the bottom, paddling with his hands and singing at the top of his lungs.
I’m only sorry that happened in the days before camera phones.
I think it was Jerry who put into words what we were both thinking as Shawn drifted into the light:
“Good thing you waxed the bottom of that canoe.”