We were still miles from the Pack River takeout at Highway 200 north of Lake Pend Oreille when a crack of thunder prompted an emergency bivouac. A gale of nasty clouds was blitzing over the near horizon in a surprise assault on the Landers family’s canoeing trip.
We quickly paddled to shore as white streaks of hail were being unleashed from the sky. While our two grade-school-age daughters scrambled up the bank, my wife and I hauled the boat out of the river and bucked the wind to flip it upside down. The pelting hail stung our bodies like a swarm of bees and chased the four of us under the canoe. We plugged our ears to muffle the pounding the Royalex hull was absorbing to spare our noggins from a brutal beating.
Crammed together like quadruplets in a womb, we were wide-eyed and speechless. Crackling flashes of lightning strobed the landscape. The summer tempest had transformed a previously placid stretch of North Idaho river into a violent froth. The 16 feet of red canoe sheltered us from five minutes of hell on earth.
The hailstorm passed as fast as it began, and we emerged shell-shocked but giddy to have survived unscathed from another great outdoor experience.
Last week, the bow line to my memories got a tug as I watched the red canoe and its boatload of adventures drive away on the roof of another paddler’s pickup.
I showed the new owner a photo of my oldest daughter and me in the canoe on her 15th birthday. The image was snapped by a friend as we eddied out in the Spokane River, helmets and PFDs on and faces wet after running Flora and Sullivan rapids.
“This canoe took me fishing down the Elk River before Fernie (British Columbia) became overrun with fly shops and guides,” I bragged.
I also pointed out that the cover of my regional guidebook features the red canoe in the capable hands of Jean and Kevin Dragon, who volunteered as models for my research of the lower Palouse River. I’d teamed with river runner Brian Burns in another canoe for that 1995 outing to photograph and document the epic 13-mile round trip. The four of us paddled and sometimes got out and tracked our boats past rock gardens, poison ivy and rattlesnakes from the Snake River upstream to the plunge pool – the roar, spray, wind and rainbow – at the base of 180-foot Palouse Falls.
I climbed to both rims above the falls for photo angles for the book’s frontispiece before we headed back downstream. I found the perfect cover photo scene as the Dragons powered the red canoe over the lower river’s flatwater in evening light. Based on how good the beer and barbecued burgers tasted at our camp along the Snake River that night, it was a five-star trip.
Dozens of past adventures on the region’s lakes and rivers flashed through my mind as the new owner strapped the red canoe onto his roof rack. I told him of close calls the trusty boat had with a startled moose on the Little Pend Oreille lakes chain and a snoopy black bear at Upper Priest Lake.
I noted the boat was accustomed to being on-call in February for the sudden rain-on-snow event needed for the flush of ideal paddling flows on Hangman Creek.
I mucked up the inside of the canoe with bluegill slime at Hutchinson Lake in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge. On the other hand, I washed it out once with spray from Peewee Falls near Boundary Dam during an overnighter through Z Canyon on the Pend Oreille River.
A colorful history adds value to a canoe, the buyer agreed. He also seemed pleased that the experiences had not resulted in patches on the hull. Its closest call was avoided with a dicey last-second portage exit to avoid going down the throat of The Narrows, a boat-eating Class 4 stretch of the Grande Ronde River.
Oh yeah, and the time I forgot about the canoe on top of the van and started to drive into the garage – another disaster averted by last-second panic.
I bought the Dagger Legend in the 1990s as Dan Hansen and I were researching our guidebook “Paddle Routes of the Inland Northwest.” Spokane Canoe and Kayak Club outings had opened our eyes to many of the flatwater and whitewater trips in Eastern Washington, North Idaho, Western Montana and southern British Columbia, and we were eager to explore more.
Both of us had young families. The kids were too young to shoulder a backpack but just the right size for tucking into a canoe with a cooler of food and sometimes with overnight packs for family outdoor adventures.
As long as we were spending so much time paddling, Hansen and I decided to take notes and compile our information to help others find their way to primo canoeing and kayaking waters.
The resulting book is now repackaged with two other books into a tome called “Paddling Washington: 100 Flatwater and Whitewater Routes in Washington State and the Inland Northwest.”
Other boats in the Landers fleet also played roles in the field research. The 17-foot Mad River Explorer often was the loaner boat to friends who joined us. The 18.5-foot Wenonah Odyssey lightweight Kevlar canoe was the choice for researching long flatwater trips such as the scenic 23-mile length of Slocan Lake along British Columbia’s Valhalla Provincial Park.
The high-volume Legend, however, was an all-round boat for a generalist like me. I rigged it with flotation bags and kneeling pads for whitewater, but I often took advantage of its huge capacity for coolers, kids, fishing tackle, a dog and camping gear for multiday trips on rivers such as the Missouri.
The fascinating central Washington desert stream named the Winchester Wasteway often beckoned the red canoe for a fix of beaver sightings, sand dune campsites and coyote serenades.
Some of the Legend’s most frequent destinations wouldn’t have been possible without the foresight of others. In the 1980s, the Spokane County Parks Department negotiated a deal to take over 7.5 miles of the Little Spokane River to create a natural area from St. George’s School nearly to the Spokane River. The effort fended off looming private ownership so a natural area could be preserved and public access to that prized river stretch could be guaranteed.
The Legend also made trips up the serpentine mile of Rock Creek into the basalt canyon of Bonnie Lake. Whitman County officials in 1983 supported boaters in a challenge by a sportsmen’s group that had leased the surrounding private land.
The hunters didn’t argue that the lake was public water, but they contended they could keep the public off the creek, which is the only way to access the lake from a public road. Officials disagreed. Thanks to that ruling, Bonnie Lake has become a popular undeveloped destination for paddlers and anglers.
Having a handsome tandem boat on my roof rack opened paddling opportunities even when friends or family couldn’t join my research trips.
On my first visit to the Granby River near Grand Forks, British Columbia, I found a local club of canoeists and kayakers playboating at a wave feature they called Spit Wally’s Hole. When I said I needed a partner to explore 12 miles of the river, I hit the jackpot. An experienced local couple immediately volunteered.
“My wife will go with you and I’ll paddle solo,” a man said in a moving moment of trust.
Similarly, I showed up in Winthrop one late-winter day with a plan to meet a local paddler and lodge owner to accompany me down 11 miles of the Methow River to Twisp. When we met at the Duck Brand restaurant, several people wondered why I had a canoe on my roof rack instead of Nordic skis for the abundance of snow that still blanketed the banks of the river. A woman said she would shutter her real estate office for the afternoon. A man said he could put off his chores for a few hours. And just like that, we had three boats launching for the icy excursion.
“Sometimes you forget about the beauty of having a river running through your town,” one man said as he thanked me for inspiring him to idle his skis for a sunny winter day and get his canoe off the sawhorses and onto the water.
The Legend, however, was well acquainted with the virtues of having the Spokane River minutes away from home.
My daughters, Brook and Hillary, each took their turns in the bow over several years to celebrate Fathers Day in the Spokane River Canoe Classic. Over time, the red canoe floated nearly the entire 111 miles of the river from its source at Lake Coeur d’Alene to its confluence with the Columbia at Lake Roosevelt.
The St. Joe River also gave the Legend tastes of both flatwater and whitewater. The accessible portions of the St. Joe’s 134-mile course from the Bitterroot Divide to Lake Coeur d’Alene give boaters options ranging from challenging rapids at Tumble Down Falls and Skookum Canyon to serene lower river stretches and bordering lakes.
The red canoe got lots of pampering with UV protectant on the hull and light sanding and oiling of its handsome wood bow plate and gunwales. But the nicest things I did for the boat involved scouting and occasionally chickening out of running questionable river stretches.
I didn’t just ditch the trusty Legend last week. I sought a new owner who would treat it like a puppy and give it a good home. I’m pleased to have found the perfect family, although I apparently couldn’t hide my struggle with seller’s remorse.
The day after the new owner left with the Legend, I received a text message: “You seemed a little sad about the canoe going away,” he wrote. “There’s nothing about this deal that can’t be undone if you change your mind.”
When he added that he couldn’t wait to launch the boat with his wife and explore some new waters, I was at peace. They would only add to the red boat’s bulging cargo of memories.