Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale / A tale of a fateful trip / That started from this Ipswich port / Aboard a tiny ship.
My wife and daughter and I decided to rent a canoe at Foote Brothers Canoe & Kayak Rental and check out the Ipswich River from something other than Topsfield Road at 40 mph. It’s a very simple process: You give a nice-looking fellow your driver’s license, and sign your name to a seemingly harmless contract which makes you responsible for nothing more than bringing back the stuff that the nice-looking young man is about to entrust to your care and keeping: one canoe, three life jackets, three square orange floaty seat thingies, and three paddles. Simple enough. You’re going to paddle upstream, and then, when you get tired, you turn around and let the current carry you back downstream. When you get back to Foote Brothers, which is situated at the edge of a treacherous waterfall, you simply navigate back to the Foote Brothers dock, rather than going over the treacherous waterfall, and you’re home free. You get your driver’s license back, pay for the time you’ve spent on the water, go home, and post to Facebook. No problem.
I didn’t notice any poster on the wall at Foote Brothers with any information along the lines of “How to Steer a Canoe” or “What to Do If Your Canoe Turns Over.” There are some nice brochures available, but they seem to be mostly about how nice Foote Brothers Canoe & Kayak Rental is, and what a lot of interesting things you’ll see along the Ipswich River, assuming you stay on or above the surface of it.
I sat in the front, and soon we realized that the person in front is responsible primarily for locomotion. This was OK, because I’ve been training with Jen Tougas at Personal Best, the world’s only fitness studio located inside a brewery (Ipswich, you rock). So I figured I would just go into my usual Jen Tougas weight-training trance, dreaming of the sound of Ipswich Ale bottling machinery, and happily pull on those paddles all afternoon.
My wife Kristina sat in the back of the canoe, and soon we realized that she was largely responsible for steering. Also OK. She has been doing this since our wedding day, and thank heaven for it.
Lydia Charlotte, our middle schooler, sat in the middle. It soon became clear that she would be responsible for photographs, and commentary.
Lydia Charlotte wisely brought a waterproof camera. I brought my iPhone. My paranoid wife said I should leave it behind, but if I refused to obey her — because God forbid I should miss a text halfway up the Ipswich River — I should at least seal it in a Zip-Loc bag. Feeling foolish, I put my iPhone in a baggie and sealed it, leaving just a little air in the bag, just in case, har har har, we would later want the baggie to float.
We were doing pretty well until that place near the Willowdale Estate where the river narrows and the current picks up and if you’re not going straight into the current — let’s say you’ve drifted off to one side or the other, and you’re trying to get back out into the middle of the river — well, forget about it.
As we got sideways to the current, the canoe tipped to its left. This was my first indication that the Ipswich River, unlike the high school pool I frequented in Chicago, is unheated.
All three of us were instantly in the water, thrashing around in our life jackets, carried downstream by the current. Kristina, a strong and seasoned swimmer, shouted instructions. For a few panicky moments it was touch-and-go. I labored valiantly to save our daughter’s life. I was still laboring valiantly to save our daughter’s life as our daughter pulled me from the river.
We were exhausted, sopping wet and goose-bumpy, but glad to be on terra firma. Then, however, the stuff we’d abandoned started appearing from upstream. This, you understand, was stuff that would cost us dearly if we didn’t turn it back in to Foote Brothers. So back into the water I went, first to grab the boat, then to grab the paddles, and then to grab the three square orange floaty seat thingies. Oh — and my sunglasses.
When I thought I had finally finished with the rescue operations, so I could begin working on my hypothermia, Lydia Charlotte cried out, pointing frantically toward the water: “Dad!”
My iPhone was floating in a baggie down the Ipswich River.
Back in I went, one more time, dog-paddling like an actual dog, and finally retrieved my precious, fragile connection with civilization. But I quickly discovered that one cannot return to shore with one hand dog-paddling and the other hand holding a baggie up out of the water. I might have held the baggie in my teeth — like a real dog — but I was too proud. And too cold. Also, I was drowning. So by the time I got my iPhone back to the riverbank, the seal had popped, the bag was sopped, and, you might say, the call was dropped. Permanently.
As we trudged back along the path through the trees, sodden and shivering, I was stricken by the realization that I had endangered my daughter’s life. I knew she had been traumatized by the ordeal, emotionally damaged, perhaps forever. Soon, I was confronted by the truth. She turned to us with one eyebrow arched, a kind of crazy gleam in her eye.
“That was awesome!” she squealed — and went skipping down the path ahead of us.