Paddling the Senses



In the fair city of his vision, there were airy galleries from which the loves and graces looked upon him, gardens in which the fruits of life hung ripening, waters of Hope that sparkled in his sight.
Charles Dickens

I am sitting in a little kayak in a river teaching a class of thirty Year 4 schoolboys how to paddle canoes. There are ten canoes randomly circulating about, in crews of three per canoe, and for many of the boys this the first time they have had such an experience.

I am in fits of laughter. They are so little and funny to watch. Despite my instruction not to stand up in the canoes, that’s exactly what many of them do, several falling into the water. Despite my demonstration about how to use a paddle, many others use them only to splash nearby crews. Canoes are capsized; canoes are beached; one empty canoe is floating away. A collection of paddles are strewn about on the river, all whirled up together like pick-up-sticks. Boys are in the water, on the beach, arguing with one another. Boys are on my kayak, under my arms, in my ears. Generally speaking with all this chaos I would say the class is going quite well. Most of all it seems apparent the boys are enjoying themselves; and maybe they might be learning something too.

I look up the river past the boys. The weather is four-seasons-in-one-day. One big cloud spreads over the whole sky like a crocheted blanket. A shroud of fog lifts from the valley exposing sandstone cliffs. Like a peep-show they capture the sun’s rays before again re-shrouding. Reflections of my surroundings shimmer like revelations across the water. I am praising my good fortune to be exactly where I sit.

I look up the river past the boys again and I see a boy about their age. I see his innocent reflection splashing about in the water at any given chance, by any given means. I see a little fellow growing up and muddling along in a world way too big for him. He is doing everything he can to impress any of his peers who will look in his direction, but really he has no idea.

I see a teenager paddling towards me, caught up in the confusion and angst of hormones and big city lights. He goes away in his mind and body but he always returns to the water. I see a young man getting closer – I see him there like it was only yesterday even though I didn’t have a class on the river that day. He is asking a lot of questions, I hope he finds the answers; he still has plenty to learn.

I look into my kayak at my knees. I am lost in time again. There is still a lot of water downriver but I cannot see anyone paddling around the next bend. Nor can I see anyone looking back up the river at me now, but I know for sure that one day there will be. I hope they will carry their age and wisdom well. I look back at my knees. I know I will have to leave the water at some stage for I have matters to address just like everybody else, but this now will do just fine for a little while longer. My senses are enlivened. The little boy has learnt a lot.

On a whim I present the boys with a challenge: to beat the all time Year 4 record by fitting more than fifteen boys into one floating canoe. I watch them ponder the task as I would have when I was that little boy. I watch them take on various roles which I can see they will fulfil in their adult lives. With tears of laughter rolling down my aching cheeks, I watch those boys beat the record by one, fitting sixteen into the canoe. Just like the little boy I once was, I feel their success.

The class is about to conclude, it is time for the canoes to be dragged out of the water and put into the shed. Once this is done I will send the boys along the beach, up the track and back to camp. Before I follow, I know I will turn around and take another look up the river.

About Blair Paterson

Blair grew up and lives in Sydney’s Inner West. He first realised a love of nature and the outdoors during weekends and holidays with his family on the Hawkesbury River. From humble childhood pastimes building billycarts and tree houses to spending large chunks of time in the bush, Blair now embarks on outdoor pursuits whenever and however possible – by foot, kayak, bicycle or other. He has worked in Environmental Management and currently Outdoor Education. Some of his fondest travels to date have been around Australia and through the Indian Himalayas.
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