Photographs by Harry Whaite 1912 - 2011

 

 

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RIVER CANOEING

Its Thrills and Spills

by SHEILAGH D. PORTER

(River Canoe Club and Sydney Bush Walkers)

from The Bushwalker 1939

 

 

WELL, at long last I've been canoeing! And gone are all my romantic notions of that recreation. For years I've cherished a Hollywood-conceived picture of willows drooping to placid waters, green meadows and summer peace a well-cushioned craft propelled by a handsome male and myself reclining gracefully to complete the tableau.

 

But, somehow, it didn't quite cut to that pattern. True enough, there are sometimes willows and placid waters and green pastures and summer peace; but 1 had reckoned without the spiked casuarinas and gaunt gums and other trees which must, through my ignorance, remain nameless. My version of canoing had not included mud and steep banks, and stones and rocky gorges. Neither had I given thought to snakes and flies and mosquitoes, nor treacherous snags and rushing waters. And, although it had not been an effort to even picture myself "reclining gracefully," I would never have believed I could be screwed into an incredibly small space amidships, with "gear" fore and aft, and enjoy myself.

But, honestly, what a thrilling business it is! There's rare exhilaration in shooting the rapids when the cry is "Paddle or sink!"—and you usually accomplish bath. There's an eerie stillness in the deep pools, broken only by the gentle "splash" as the paddles dip and there's excitement and fear and indescribable emotion when, without warning, the boat upturns and you're tumbled inelegantly into the swift-running current. You're dragged, gasping, to the safety of the bank, or, to be more truthful you generally rescue yourself, since the skipper's first concern must always be for his ship; and there you shiver and talk loudly and pretend not to hear the small voice of reactionary fear which temporarily grips you. There are times, too, when the skies are clear and the canoe glides gaily along. Then you almost burst with exaltation and want to shout aloud: "God's in His Heaven; all's right with the world."

The First Trip

My first canoeing excursion was made in October of last year, when the River Canoe Club held an outing down the Warragamba during the holiday Eight-Hour-Day week-end. The skipper who invited me on that memorable cruise is an old hand at the game, but the third member of our crew was a land-lubber like myself. I accepted that invitation with much trepidation and spent a few sleepless nights in fearful anticipation.

During those three memorable days my canoeing education began. I was taught to hop in and out quickly without capsizing the boat, and learned to sit still and do as I was bid without comment—this was difficult! I learned to bale out nineteen-to-the-dozen when we beached, and to regard with comparative equanimity the oft-repeated process of "drying-out." I learned the difference between bulkhead and bilge, and the necessity for quick thinking and quicker action. 'Gunwhale itch" was soon more than a name to me, so that sometimes it was a relief to portage the gear. I saw kindness and fun and good-fellowship, and gaped in wonder as I watched the canoes being expertly "roped through." Every time a boat upturned I froze with terror.

Since then I've done two other trips, and each makes me anxious for more. To those who believe that variety is the spice of life, canoeing can be recommended. In the rain it is most uncomfortable, and the sun can be blisteringly hot. A head wind almost breaks your heart, and portages are usually an unmitigated curse. But canoeing is a great game and a recreation quite apart. It calls for skill and strength and courage, and when you haven't these you make the best of what you have. There's excitement and contentment on a river—there's malediction and benediction in its Voice.