Thanksgiving Canoe Trip

by Eirik Rutherford from Kingston, ON
Oct 5, 13

It was Thanksgiving, 1992, and I came home from Concordia University to have the traditional Thanksgiving dinner with my folks, and to see my friends who were coming back from their schools.  

I took the train with Pat Downie, one of my best friends.

Pat and I spent the trip talking about how terrible we were going to feel on Monday after a homecoming weekend. And I said to avoid those blues I would spend some time outdoors.  

And so it happened that after the traditional Thanksgiving feast my parents and I set off onto the lake in our canoe, lovingly nicknamed the Yellow Submarine for how low it rode in the water. And for those of you who don’t know canoes, sitting low in the water is not necessarily an indicator of good stability.

Now. I am the youngest of six children, which at this time put my parents in their sixties. My father, of old Kiwi stock, was the loafers and knee socks type. My mother hailed from a farm in Norway. They were both athletic in their day, but canoeing was not a part of their collective experience – and at this stage of life they were not as steady as they had once been. However I had every confidence in our ability to paddle a canoe into the lake and get some photos of the fall leaves.

In my narrowed view through the lens of my camera, I hadn’t noticed that we had drifted quite a way from shore; or that my mother, in the middle of the boat, had decided this would be an appropriate time to stretch her legs – by grabbing the right gunwale and rising to her knees. The Yellow Submarine pitched to the right – which of course made my dad throw his weight to the left. My mom compensated by moving even further to the right. And my dad, now not sure which way the boat was heading, shifted right too.

Before I could blink we had capsized.  

When I surfaced, my dad, a very capable university professor, was having a panic attack and yelling for help. 

My mother, thankfully, was hanging on to the turtled canoe. 

Having successfully righted the boat, but failing at several attempts to get both of my parents back into it, I decided that we needed to get moving. I was worried we wouldn’t survive in the cold water for too long. So I got my dad into the swamped boat, settled him, and then I swam back to shore pulling the canoe, with my mom hanging onto the back. My dad was still yelling for help, even though there wasn’t a boat or cottage in sight.  

After what seemed like an eternity, we got back to our launching spot and more importantly to the carpark. I’m not sure if it was the shock of almost killing my parents or my exertion in that cold water, but I was shaking furiously.  

Thankfully I still had the car keys in my pocket. I instinctively took off all my clothes and jumped into the car, started it and blasted the heat. And then I looked up and saw my parents, stark naked themselves – very practically – carrying the canoe to the car to put on the roof. And that’s when I noticed a canoe come into sight of the launch, probably to see what all the yelling was about. They took one look at my naked senior-citizen parents dragging the canoe to the car and quickly started to back-paddle out of sight. I have often wondered what that unsuspecting couple thought. 

Still buck-naked, I got out of the car and helped my parents get the canoe onto the roof. We were ready to go home when it dawned on us that we had no dry clothes to wear and we still had to drive through downtown Kingston to where my mom had left her car. 

Ever the practical Norwegian, Mom didn’t see the point in driving all the way home to get clothing. My father and I used the floor mats to cover our appropriate bits. My mother covered herself in the backseat with an open umbrella. The people we passed on the country roads gave us barely a passing glance. Once in town, however, the tourists in the coach bus that pulled up alongside us got the best show. I can just imagine the postcards home about the strange Canadian Thanksgiving rituals. 

By the time we got home there was time for a shot of brandy to steady my nerves before I had to leave to catch my train. I found my friend Pat on the platform. 

I spent the trip back to Montreal recounting all the gory details. We laughed until we were sore.

I lost my camera in the water that day and all the autumn pictures with it.  

I suffered a greater loss three years later when my Dad passed away. I give thanks every year for that time with my parents, not only because we survived it, but because it still brings tears of laughter to my eyes when I think of it. I have a digital camera now and three kids of my own. I also still have the Yellow Submarine. One of these years I will try my luck with the younger generation and perhaps I will finally get those fall photos.