The Canoe Race

07/03/1999, Dateline: Summer Home Park — Usually, the Summer Home Park Independence Day Canoe Race is something that Debbie and Mike do. They’ve only won it once, though — the first year that a trophy was involved. Good timing.

There’s a picture of Mike and Deb holding the trophy at Snug Harbor, the family compound where I spent my summers every year of my childhood. Every other year they’re on track to win, but get tipped by self-appointed race-fixers. Bastards!

So we all toddled down to the beach but Deb wasn’t with us, as she needed to pick up her boyfriend at the airport.

“You know, Lynn,” Mike said to me, “if Debbie doesn’t show up, it’s you and me in the canoe race.”

“Looking forward to it, Mike.” I replied.

We watched the swim races — always boys first, then the awards for that race, and then the girls. When the announcer called the “Girls 18 and under” race, Mike headed towards the canoe. “C’mon Lynn, let’s go.”

We walked towards the boat. A woman sitting with her feet in the River heard me ask Mike, “OK, so the plan is for me to stick to one side and paddle like hell, right?” She laughed.

We entered the canoe and paddled toward the footbridge that would serve as the starting line. Mike clued me in on our strategy — line up closest to the rocks (farthest from the shore) and make a tight turn around the rowboat. And forcibly dissuade anyone who might try to tip our canoe.

We paddled under the bridge and practiced turning around. I didn’t quite get it — although I’d grown up canoeing, it had been many years since I’d sat in the front seat of the cabin’s aluminum canoe.

“How about when it’s time, I’ll just yell ‘back! back! back!’ really loud until it’s time for you to stroke forward again?”

“Good plan,” I concurred.

Others were converging and we jockeyed for position. The swim races wrapped up and we paddled under the bridge to line up. The judge approached us. “Closer to the other boats, please.”

“No thanks, we’re fine where we are,” Mike said.

“No lead-offs,” the judge reminded us.

“Of course not,” I huffed.

JT and his female partner were in the canoe next to us. He’s about eight years younger than me and has been a pest for as long as I’ve known him. So it shouldn’t have surprised me when, after the gun went off, JT held on to the back of our canoe. Mike extricated us from JT’s grasp and we began to paddle wholeheartedly. We were fourth, then third, and then second only to JT in his stupid yellow canoe.

I wasn’t wearing my glasses, which wasn’t that important since I wasn’t responsible for the steering (if I had been, we probably would have ended up in Santa Rosa or Seal Rock or somewhere). The emcee had said that the turn-around point would be Highcroft, a beach two beaches down from our starting point, but the rowboat was parked closer to Badman’s Beach, 50 yards from the end of our beach.

The boat ahead of us splashed us with what felt like a cubic ton of water. I heard my father hollering encouragement as we paddled furiously past the sandy side of the beach.

We were the first to reach the rowboat, and the only ones to make a counter-clockwise turn.

“Back! Back! Back!” Mike hollered. I dug in until I heard him call, “Forward! Around the boat! Around the boat!”

We were first coming out of the turn and easily put a canoe length or two between us and JT. I stroked on the other side for some yards to let my other arm rest for the sprint to the bridge.

That is, until I peered ahead and saw heads in the water.

Uh oh.

Let me get this straight right now — I was *not* going to allow us to get tipped. Neither was Mike, who said later, “Sure, you can tip a canoe — just make sure it’s not mine.”

Two ruffians took hold of our canoe but Mike beat ’em off of the side with his paddle. They slowed us, though, to the point where JT took the lead. I switched my paddle to my stronger side and stroked mightily.

Two other fellows swam to our canoe. The one closer to the bow went to put his hands on it. I raised my paddle menacingly and stared him down. I may even have growled at him. He backed off quickly, cowed by my ferocity.

JT was still ahead of us. If this were an epic poem, this would be the crescendo:

The race was swift,
the current mighty,
we’d not give up
without a fight-y.

We were a mere 15 yards from the bridge when the heavens opened, the angels sang, and ruffians got hold of JT’s canoe. Tipped it clean over. I saw his head emerge from the water to late to warn Mike to steer around. Bonk.

Our competition vanquished, Mike and I paddled to victory. I threw back my head and let out a victory yell.

“OK, and we’ve got some very happy winners,” the emcee announced to the crowd.

Arms and lungs burning, we turned around the canoe and shouted our names to the statistician. “Mike Martin and Mari… uh, Lynn Benson.”


“Lynn Benson.”

“What’s the last name?”

“BENSON.” I bellowed. Did I mention I’ve been swimming at this beach since I was four years old?

We paddled back to the beach to collect our trophy.

“That canoe’s greased lightening! That’s what you should call it!” the girls on the shore chattered excitedly.

We walked up to the bridge to collect our trophy and champagne.

“Where’s the cup?” Mike asked.

“We don’t have it. It’s at the Lodge.”

“What about our champagne?”

“Not this year,” they told us.

“Well, then I want to emcee this next year,” Mike announced.

We walked the canoe back along the shore, accepting congratulations. JT met us and rubbed his head. Mike didn’t even know we’d hit him.

The other canoe tippers grumbled that we ought not to get the trophy since we’d done harm to those who’d tried to tip us. We laughed off their complaints.

“It’s not like we drew blood,” Mike philosophized. “If there’s no blood, it’s a fair fight.” Which sounded reasonable enough to me.

We made it back to the sandy side of the beach to the huzzahs of friends and family.

“I didn’t think you were going to win,” Dad said. “Figured you were too out of shape. At least you can say you didn’t overtrain.”

“Screw off, Dad,” I riposted, imagining the taste of victory champagne from a trophy engraved with my name. My name. Ahhhh, victory is indeed sweet.