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RELUCTANT NOVICE

Going in Circles Over Canoeing : We crazily lurched along Big River, crashing into rocks, hitting beaches and getting stuck in bogs.

August 27, 1993|MARYANN HAMMERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Maryann Hammers is a regular contributor to Valley Life.

I balked when my husband, Jos, proposed that we rent a canoe and row our way up Big River. We were vacationing in Mendocino, the picturesque village on the Northern California coast and, as far as I was concerned, there was plenty to do on terra firma.

"Besides," I said, "don't you remember last summer's adventure on Big Bear Lake?" I reminded him how, while clutching rod and reel, he watched gigantic fish leap around his boat. If he had been at all agile, he would have reached out and caught one, barehanded. But the only thing he snagged was a speedboat, which just about dragged him into the water, snapping his line as it raced by. For a triumphant millisecond, though, he thought he really caught a big one!

"Maybe we should stick to amusement park bumper boats," I suggested. But Jos wanted to go canoeing. I reluctantly agreed to give it a try--after he bribed me with the offer of a turquoise sweat shirt that I had been eyeing.

After a while, I began to look forward to our excursion. I imagined that we'd dreamily drift along, reciting poetry to each other as we ventured into the peaceable kingdom. Yes, we'd be one with the forest. We'd smoke a peace pipe with nature. The fish would be our friends; deer grazing along the shore would be our sisters. We packed a picnic lunch and headed for the dock.

But when we climbed in the tiny vessel, I began to suspect that the reality might not be like the plan. A smirking teen handed each of us a paddle. "Kneel down!" he ordered, pointing to soggy pads on the bottom of the boat. "Can't we even sit?" I whined, already uncomfortable. Nevertheless, we gamely set out.

I couldn't seem to get the hang of rowing. I'm not sure why I had such a hard time; after all, I was born and bred just a few miles from the roaring rapids of the mighty Los Angeles River.

Do I dip my paddle to the right or the left?, I wondered. I tried the right. Bad choice: The canoe dizzily spun around and around. I frantically switched sides, but I soon realized that it didn't matter whether I paddled from the right or left: It was wrong.

My romantic notions faded. I stopped dreaming about peace pipes and brotherly love. My canoemeister husband, who had suddenly assumed the role of Oar King, continually barked: "No, the other side!"

I retaliated by losing myself in rich fantasies. I pretended to be a brave and proud Indian maiden and quietly changed my name to Princess Mandrowner. We clumsily jerked our way upstream. Every once in a while, our canoe inexplicably reeled around and careened onto the shore.

Since I invariably caused the mishap by paddling from the wrong side (so I'm told), it was my job to climb out of the canoe, sink to my ankles in muck and push the boat around. Then, pitifully wailing, "Yuck! Yuck!" I extricated myself from the mud's slimy grip, carefully stepped over innumerable crabs and climbed back in.

And so we crazily lurched along, spinning in circles, crashing into rocks, hitting beaches and getting stuck in bogs. Menacing-looking vultures swooped about. OK, so the birds were pelicans. At the time, they bore an amazing resemblance to vultures.

I pretended not to notice as a dozen or so canoes, navigated by toddlers and their grandmothers, breezily glided by.

All the while, the persistent chant of "No, the other side!" honked behind me like a stuck car alarm. Dirty water filled the bottom of our boat. Our never-opened backpacks, full of sandwiches and dreams, were sopping.

We decided to quit while we were behind. Soaked and mud-caked, we zigzagged our way back to the grinning guys at the dock.

Once we were on dry land, Jos smiled at me. "That was fun!" he announced. I wondered if we had been in the same boat. "Just gimme that sweat shirt," I said with a glare.

Now that we're back in the San Fernando Valley and summer is upon us, Jos has been wildly muttering something about taking to the ocean in a kayak. You know, being one with the dolphins and divers in the deep blue sea and all.

I hold my hands over my ears, grit my teeth and quote Dr. Joyce Brothers' advice columns extolling the virtues of separate vacations for spouses.

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