By John Allen
I was with my grandfather Stewart when he bought this beautiful 16-foot wood and canvas canoe at the Canadian Tire store in Huntsville, Ontario in the summer of 1951 or 1952.
He taught me how to paddle and steer at the stern. I have a story from my early years canoeing with him, and you may read it here:
My grandmother Stewart paid for my first bicycle as a present on my 7th birthday. Some 70 years later, I still paddle the same canoe, and I still ride a bicycle – not the same one though. I grew into the canoe and outgrew the bicycle.
I was never interested in ball sports or any good at them, and even in elementary school, I opted out of the ego-driven prestige routine that went with proficiency and participation in them. So, in a way, it is not odd that I became skillful at two favored athletic activities in which most participants achieve a very low skill level. This brings up the issue of safety measures.
When my grandfather and I paddled over open water at night during the little adventure I described in my canoeing article, we may have had floatable kapok-filled cushions in the bottom of the boar, but we were not wearing lifejackets. Nor did we have any lights – but then nobody else was out on the bay in a boat. But also, the only lights that could work in a canoe would have incandescent bulbs that would run a battery down in an hour or two. Really, nobody else was foolish enough to be out on the lake in a canoe after dark, without even a flashlight – but we thought nothing of it, We would have heard them before we saw them, though people in a motorboat would neither have hears nor possibly seen us. It would have been good to have packed a flashlight...
These days, I could easily be cited, even arrested, for boating without the proper safety equipment, and I would never do that.
In the photo of me on my first bicycle, I am not wearing a helmet. Nor did I wear one till 1975, when proper ones had become available. I remember one close call with a car when I was a boy – with screeching of car brakes – my mistake for riding out into the street unaware of the car.
I first wore a helmet in 1975, and in 1978, I had my only collision with a motor vehicle: sideswiped by a drunk driver. In 1984, a stick got caught in my front wheel and I did a face plant. Both times, a helmet saved me from what would have been a serious and perhaps fatal head injury.
Once I briefly took up scuba diving, and on my first ocean dive, both my snorkel and the mouthpiece from my air supply floated up where I could not reach them. My buddy had to retrieve them. I was not a skillful scuba diver, and I quickly chose to give up that activity. On the other hand, I have never felt myself to be in danger in a canoe, or swimming, thanks to an excellent Red Cross water safety course I took at age 12 for a Boy Scout merit badge. I do count myself as skillful at both canoeing and cycling, and competent at elementary swimming and self-rescue, but as this article has, I hope, made clear, I was not always.
So I understand, or hope I understand, the mentality of people in that situation. Many people are in that situation, in both canoeing and bicycling. Why? It is possible for people with a low skill level to make some kind of forward progress over the water in a canoe or along a street on a bicycle, but neither bicycling nor canoeing as an activity is a competitive sport, so there is no pressure for casual participants to improve skills.
You’ll see many bicyclists who do not even know how to mount and dismount gracefully, and casual canoeists at rental locations taking two or three paddle strokes on the left, then two or three on the right as the boat slalmos along. They do not know the J stroke to keep the canoe going in a straight line without switching sides.
At least though, with canoeing, there is no intense downward pressure of badvocacy like with bicycling. I don't know of anyone giving canoeing advice who tells casual participants not to wear a lifejacket, because that might discourage other people from canoeing, and safety in numbers will save you from being run down by a motorboat! Most people who paddle a canoe badly have rented the canoe, and the renters always supply lifejackets. I see them out on the Charles River on any nice summer day.
Quite the opposite with bicycling. Fear and denialism prevail. Advice is common. “look, the Dutch don’t wear helmets, and they have a lower injury rate than we do.” So, what, me worry? What these articles don’t point out is that Dutch motorists drive, as an American reporter once described it “like walking on eggshells,” and the typical Dutch cyclists typically ride around 8 miles per hour...
I did that when I was a kid, and look, I survived! Well, this is now and that was then. You won’t be hearing from the people who didn’t.