An Elegantly Simple Act

By Doug Elwell

This is a work of creative non-fiction. Some names, characters, places, dialog or descriptions have been changed or added. In those cases, any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Fred wanted to give him something of himself but he wasn’t sure what. The boy was his grandson after all and Fred didn’t see him often enough to be much of a grandfather. He thought about that and what there might be that he could give the boy to fix his place in the lad’s mind. He was getting on in years and wasn’t sure he’d have a place in the boy’s memory and that was what he wanted before it was too late—to not be forgotten by the boy. The boy knew the old man as Pop and Pop had sent him a photograph as a souvenir in September after the boy returned home from his vacation. In it Pop had his arm draped over the boy’s shoulder and had him pulled in close—the way a grandfather should. The younger man on the far right in the photo was the boy’s father and the three of them had just shot a long rapid in the river when the photo was taken by a passerby who was sitting on a rock with his dog. He was nine when the picture in front of the canoe was taken those years ago.

Pop was deep in thought as he sat in his wicker chair on the porch and watched the boy dig potatoes for his grandmother in the garden in front of the cottage—deep in thought. His daughter, the boy’s mother, sat nearby on the swing with her mother who the boy called Nana. The boy’s mother and Nana held hands because they didn’t see each other often and they had been close when the daughter was young and she nestled in the luxury of being a young girl again in that short time that summer. And she breathed in every moment of it—moments scented with the crisp pine air of the Maine woods she had known and loved as a girl. Soon she and the boy and the boy’s father would be back in Illinois and their visit to the cottage on the bank of the Penobscot in the pine woods of Maine would be but a memory. After the boy came in with the potatoes for Nana, Pop got up and drove the boy and his father down the lane to the river in his old sedan.

They loaded the canoe onto the roof of the car. A neighbor met them there and drove them north on a road that followed the river upstream. The boy watched the heavy pine forest that lined the road scroll by. They drove for a long time along the river until the neighbor pulled onto the shoulder and stopped. The canoe was lifted off the car and set at the riverbank. Pop stood—looked up the river then down. He scanned the far bank—nodded—said, “Ah-yuh.” He took his hearing aid ear piece out of his ear and the battery pack from his shirt pocket and put them into the glove box of the car. The man drove off leaving them there at a place on the river where it gurgled around the ashy branches of a fallen pine tree.

“I’ll take the front.” Pop looked at the boy, “You sit in the middle and your dad will sit in the back. Okay?”

“Yessir.” The boy felt a little funny around the old man he called Pop because he didn’t know him well. He was supposed to like him but he was so old and he wondered what there was about him that he could like. It was as if he was another species—ancient like a dinosaur or a rock or something like that. There were spots on the backs of his hands and he could almost see through the old man’s skin and he didn’t think he could hear anymore either. But the boy did as he was told and squatted into the middle of the canoe.

Pop looked at the younger man, “When we get there keep paddling as hard as you can. I’ll do the rest.”

The younger man, the boy’s father, nodded.

Pop climbed into the canoe, pushed it away from the bank and they drifted slowly downstream. The water was smooth. It was quiet there in the emerald water that was clear green from the weeds the boy could see on the bottom of the river. He looked up when they passed a black sow bear and two cubs on a sand bar. She glanced as they floated by then went on about her business. Pop said she was probably looking for clams. The boy leaned and looked again into the clear green water—watched the weeds and stones on the bottom of the river creep silently by beneath the canoe. They drifted like that for a long time and the river turned left then right a couple times. Around one bend the boy saw an abandoned sawmill on the west bank and a long chute that Pop said once was used to pull logs out of the river into the mill. Another sand bar this time without bears. Pop said over his shoulder, “We’ll be there in a few minutes.” Then to the boy, “You sit still. Don’t move when we get to the rapids.” To the boy’s father, “Remember—keep paddling hard as you can.” The man nodded.

The boy didn’t know what to expect of a rapids. He didn’t know of any on the Embarrass River back home in Illinois. It was a slow brown river that snaked across the prairie under the cover of thick old trees that weren’t pine and didn’t smell.

Picture courtesy of Northeast Whitewater,

Picture courtesy of Northeast Whitewater,

From far ahead the boy heard a faint roar that sounded like a train crossing a trestle like the one west of his town. And as the canoe drifted slowly through the calm water the roar grew louder. The river turned to the right and the boy thought the roar was about to swallow them up. It frightened him and he held tight to the sides of the canoe. Then the river turned sharp left. The roar filled his ears and Pop in front rose up onto his knees and put his paddle in the bottom of the canoe behind him. He pulled out a long pole and the boy didn’t hear any of that—the roar of the river. He felt it in his chest as the canoe shot toward the rapid as if in a race with the speeding current. He looked past Pop at huge boulders that rose up six and seven even eight feet high strewn pell-mell in the river. Smaller ones scattered about. Water splashed over and around—threw white sprays in all directions and the boy couldn’t see a way through them. They looked like a wall and he was scared and he held tight—held tight—to the sides of the canoe expecting to be slammed against the rocks.

Pop used the pole to push the canoe off the boulders as the current catapulted them on with the speed and fury of a runaway train. He pushed the nose of the thing to the left then right then left again threading the canoe through the maze of boulders that thwacked its sides—threatening to dash it to pieces with each turn. The boy didn’t see it coming when the bottom fell out of the front of the canoe as it dipped into a slide of foamy white exploding water. All he could see was a wall of water rising then the nose of the canoe crashed into it then shot upward and icy cold spray gushed over Pop and him as the canoe rose to meet the next slide—and the next—and the next—and the next. Each time more icy cold water cascaded into the canoe. The boy shook his head to clear his eyes and Pop was still there poling left and right threading the canoe through the rapids. Spray from all sides slammed into them but Pop was still there and the canoe caromed drunkenly down and down and down the steep rapids. The boy gripped the sides of the canoe—hands drained of blood—feeling.

When the boy thought it would never end—that they would go on forever, the boulders got smaller and the torrents of water that plashed over and into the canoe began to ebb as if they were tired and the boy heard the roar of the river falling away. Pop poled to the right into a channel between the smaller boulders—threaded his way through them as if he were weaving a tapestry. Then they were back into the calm of the river as quickly as they left it ages ago. He sat back on the seat and put the pole into the canoe—turned to the boy—smiled, “Hand me the paddle son.” The boy handed the paddle to him. “Now take that coffee can on the end of that cord and start bailing water.” While he did that the current slowed as they drifted on downstream. The boy looked at Pop’s broad back and strong arms as he paddled the canoe slow and steady now. He didn’t see the spots on the backs of Pop’s hands either. He was bigger than he was at the beginning of the rapids and the boy didn’t know how he could have grown so big in such a short time. They steered to the bank of the river. When the front of it slid into the sand, they got out to pull the canoe out onto the sandy bank. Pop and the boy’s dad turned the canoe over to drain the remainder of the water then carried it a few feet above the bank.

“How about that son?”

“Can we do it again Pop?”

He smiled, “That’s enough for today.” He looked at the boy’s dad—smiled, “—water level’s perfect.”

A neighbor of Pop’s sat at the roadside on a flat boulder with his dog, “Shoot the rapids Fred?”

Pop nodded, “Ah-yuh.” He took a camera off the front seat of the car and asked the man to take their picture with the canoe and river in the background.

They climbed into the old sedan left there by the man who drove them up the river. Pop reached into the glove box and pulled out his hearing aid, put the ear piece in his ear and threaded the wire to the battery pack in his shirt pocket and turned it on. They drove the quarter mile up to the cottage. When he stopped the car Pop switched off his hearing aid.

Nana and the boy’s mother were sitting on the porch when they drove into the yard. The boy wriggled out of the car—ran to the porch—soaked—eyes wide—blurted out the details of their shooting the rapids adventure. Nana slapped her crossword puzzle onto the table, stomped across the porch to meet Pop at the steps. “What’s the big idea taking this child down those rapids? You could’ve killed him—and you and Bob. What if you had a heart attack or something? What if you got thrown out of the canoe? You aren’t a goddamned boy scout any more you know Fred. For chrissakes you’re seventy two years old. Sometimes I wonder about your judgment. You’re getting crazier by the day—can’t let you out of my sight for a minute—old fool.” Droplets of spittle sprayed in all directions.

Nana on the porch steps chewing on Pop. She pulled the boy to her, “You okay child?”

“It wasn’t like that Nana.” The boy squirmed away—ran to his mother—stretched his arms wide, “—the rocks—a hundred times bigger than this—and Pop, he—.”

Mother smiled wide—pulled the boy to her—held him close—nestled her head against his, “I know son.”

Pop looked past Nana at his daughter and grandson—nodded, “Ah-yuh.”


The man looked at the old photo. In it the boy stands between Pop and his dad on the bank of the Penobscot. A beached canoe rests behind them. Pop and the boy are smiling. The boy’s dad is wearing a baseball cap and his features are in shadow.

It was an elegantly simple act.

© Doug Elwell, 1999-2014

A recovering educator, Doug Elwell spends most days writing, reading about writing and thinking about writing. His work occasionally appears on True Stories Well Told. Doug can be contacted via email at:

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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