Not since the jelly-candle-artificial-floral-arrangement fire of 1997 (which deserves its own entry) has a Christmas come so close to being ruined (or generated such indelible memories)…
We had just finished opening presents and eating Christmas rolls when my father-in-law remarked that if it were just a few degrees warmer (it was 40°F), we’d be canoeing. I knew exactly what this meant: in a few hours, we’d be canoeing.
It is speculated that Father-in-Law emerged from his mother’s womb in a canoe and has been paddling ever since: it’s in his blood. While canoeing is not exactly how yajeev’s family of origin would celebrate Christmas (we’d be more likely to go to a movie theater/theatre for a double feature than canoe down an ice-cold river on December 25), I’m a modern traditional pluralist: my way is not the only (or best) way—it is just one way. I’m open to all varieties of yuletide observances—even canoeing.
We (by we, I mean Father-in-Law, Sister-in-Law, Sister-in-Law’s [or is it Sister’s-in-Law] Boyfriend) loaded the boats into the truck. Mother-in-Law recommended that we pack life preservers. As there were only two life vests and four boaters, Father-in-Law decided that none should wear them (a good non(anti?)utilitarian ethic: if not the safety of everyone, then let the safety of none be ensured—if it were me, I might’ve drawn straws for the vests or cut them in half and split them evenly among the four of us).
We (here, by we, I mean Father-in-Law, Mother-in-Law, Sister-in-Law, Sister-in-Law’s Boyfriend, my wife, and myself) then piled into the truck and drove to a good launching spot. Sister-in-Law and Sister-in-Law’s Boyfriend carried their boat to water’s edge (theirs was a small, boxy boat with about eight inches of freeboard (height of boat wall not submerged by water). They boarded their watercraft and headed downstream. Father-in-Law and I got into our canoe and followed the others down the river. After their loved ones had safely (or so it seemed) embarked upon their aquatic Christmas pilgrimage, Mother-in-Law and Wife returned to the truck and drove downstream to meet us at the projected endpoint of our voyage.
Given that our canoe had a point at the tip and not a flat edge, it wasn’t long before our boat passed the other vessel. The typical routine quickly became as follows. Father-in-Law and I would naturally drift ahead of Sister-in-Law and her boyfriend, so we’d be the first to encounter each of a small litany of raging rapids. Father-in-law and I would investigate the trouble spots, determine a plan of attack, and navigate the frothy rapids. We’d then veer to the bank and wait just downstream of the turbulence for Sister-in-Law and Sister-in-Law’s Boyfriend to approach the given rapid to advise the duo with respect to the optimal strategy for each rocky, bubbly obstacle.
For the first three rapids, this worked just fine. The same cannot be said for the fourth rapid.
When Father-in-Law and I arrived at this particular juncture along the river, we appreciated that this would be the most challenging paddle in our journey so far. We paddled hard and headed straight into the mighty rushing mini-waterfall. Our canoe took a hard bounce against a crag protruding above the water level, sending Father-in-Law to the bottom of the boat (which, the astute reader will note, is far better than being sent out of the boat into water freshly cooled by melted snow). Our canoe turned and got caught on a rock hidden just below the surface. Ice-cold water ran over the edge of the boat and chilled our hands and feet. Vigorous bouncing and paddle maneuverations finally resulted in our liberation from the stony entrapment. Our canoe popped off of the rock, and we hurtled downstream. We flung ourselves toward the shore to wait patiently for Sister-in-Law and Sister-in-Law’s Boyfriend, whose blunt-fronted boat finally appeared as a pinpoint on the distant horizon. They gradually approached the hazard.
“What should we do!?” Sister-in-Law yelled down to us.
Our canoe was turned around and situated against the bank such that I in the front of our canoe and Father-in-Law behind me in the rear were both facing Sister-in-Law and Sister-in-Law’s-Boyfriend’s boat.
“What should we do!? she repeated.
At first I shrugged my shoulders, hoping that Father-in-Law would offer instruction. He did not, and Sister-in-Law once again reiterated her question: “What should we do!?”
Finally, I pointed with my paddle toward the portion of the waterfall down which we had just previously careered. What I hadn’t considered was perhaps (definitely) the most sensible option: advising them to steer their boat to a stretch of riverbank at which point the twosome could have disembarked, carried their boat on land beyond the treacherous rapids, and then re-embarked. This would have been a wise solution. I did not think of it (I’m no rocket scientist), Father-in-Law (judging by his non-response) also did not think of it, and Sister-in-Law and her boyfriend (who found themselves in the eye of the storm and at the worst vantage point to make such a determination) certainly did not think of it (or else this story would have had a much different, less bloggable ending).
Thus, their rectangular boat tentatively approached the recommended section of torrent and promptly found itself pinned by the rocks.
“Now what?!” Sister-in-Law yelled down to us.
I shrugged my shoulders exaggeratedly; I was out of answers. It was a cruel turn of events for Sister-in-Law and Sister-in-Law’s Boyfriend. They had been led into a tight spot by their trusted co-travelers. The bouncing and paddle maneuverations that had liberated Father-in-Law and me from the same tight spot did not prove similarly effectual for the occupants of the less hydrodyamic tub.
At first, I thought I heard laughter emerging from the square boat as it rattled and twisted, stuck among the rocks. The perceived laughter gradually gave way to screams. I initially believed these screams to be of the variety emitted from the mouths of pleasantly terrified roller-coaster riders. The more I listened and watched (I could barely make out facial expressions from our distance), I began to realize that these were not in fact shrieks of joy, but rather shrieks of dissatisfaction with one’s present situation (a present situation to which my poor guidance had significantly contributed).
After a terribly long period of screaming and failed bouncing, bumping, and grinding, the boat tipped forward and took on a lot of water. Sister-in-Law gracefully slipped out of the boat and found herself in freezing cold water at greater than waist-high depth. She, not sporting any life preservation device, slowly crept through the waterfall, first towards Father-in-Law and me, then turning toward the bank. She looked up at Father-in-Law and me, mostly dry in our canoe; her innocent facial expression revealed a sense of betrayal (how could we have led them into such calamity?). She inched toward the water’s edge, yelling, “Cold! Cold! Cold!”
Terrible visions of holiday tragedy flashed before my eyes as my sister-in-law fought the current. Sister-in-Law's Boyfriend struggled to right the ship, but his efforts were futile, and he too eventually opted to leave the boat to follow the ice-cold water trail blazed by his girlfriend moments earlier. Thanks to a heroic second effort by Sister-in-Law and her boyfriend, the abandoned boat, newly unencumbered by passengers, now easily wiggled free of the rocks that trapped it. The pair waded through the icy stream and clambered safely up the side of the riverbank toward higher ground.
As I watched this entire scene unfold, I fought a most inappropriate impulse: the urge to laugh. The prospect of Sister-in-Law or Sister-in-Law’s Boyfriend suffering hypothermia or lost toes or worse was not then and is not now the remotest bit funny, but in much the same way one might laugh impulsively and inappropriately as an ice-skating friend (or mother-in-law) crashes concussively to the ice, I could not help but laugh aloud. I vainly fought to suppress the chortles, but hysterics could not be contained.
Sister-in-Law shouted (between shivers): “What do we do now?!”
Father-in-Law advised her to walk the “short” distance to where my wife and mother-in-law would be waiting to retrieve us. The “short” distance ended up being about a half-mile of soaking wet misery. “Take off you pants,” Sister-in-Law’s Boyfriend advised her (he had already removed his soaking wet jeans and was marching along the riverside in his long-johns). She did not comply.
Father-in-Law and I paddled upstream to retrieve the vacant boat. Father-in-Law tied a rope to the empty boat, and we dragged it downstream, anticipating the horror of my wife and mother-in-law as only two of four un-life-vested paddlers would have completed the charted voyage. We ultimately reached the predetermined pick-up location, where Wife was waiting patiently for us. Mother-in-Law had already become (correctly) suspicious of our late arrival and commenced a search for her presumed missing family members. The sight of an empty boat was not a welcomed one.
Soaking wet, freezing cold, exhausted, and rightfully unhappy, Sister-in-Law and her boyfriend finally reached the planned reunion spot. We secured the canoes in the truck bed and packed ourselves into the truck. On the ride back to the house, I became acutely aware of the fact that my hands had gotten wet and were extremely cold. I bit my tongue, however, as I was able to appreciate how fortunate I was to have avoided total immersion.
My kinfolk spend holidays doing things like eating food, watching movies, opening presents, and eating food. My in-laws, on the other hand, spend holidays in an active attempt to “create memories.” My experience has been that many (if not most) of these memories created involve (extreme) canoe adventures.
So, thank you, in-laws for introducing new neural folds to my gray matter: this particular Christmas will never fade into the oblivion of merged memories of Christmases past. Like the Christmas influenza pandemic of 2003, Christmas 2007 will forever hold a special place in my heart. It will be perpetually remembered as the holiday that, due to my own failure to communicate effective advice, I nearly lost a sister-in-law and her boyfriend to the raging Indiana rapids and/or associated hypothermia.
(To Sister-in-Law and Sister-in-Law’s Boyfriend, my sincerest apologies for poor advice and for my most inopportune and inappropriate eruption of laughter.)