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By David Cowardin
Duluth Outdoors Editor
My parents were on their way to Duluth for my 24th birthday and I gave them a call:
“How about we paddle the Brule?” I asked my mom.
There was a brief silence on the other end of the line, hesitation that said she wasn’t thrilled about the idea but wasn’t prepared to say no on my birthday. So 20 minutes later I had my canoe strapped to the roof of my vehicle and was on my way to meet my parents in Superior, Wisconsin. From there we consolidated vehicles and navigated through the city’s orange-cone maze before moving onward to Brule.
We met my friend Joe at Brule River Canoe Rental where we loaded our kayaks in his van to be shuttled to the put-in site. My parents took that time to find the right lifejacket before we were ready for the trip.
“Beautiful,” my mom said as we settled in our boats and started paddling. Her admiration of the river reassured me that she approved of the trip … that she wasn’t just agreeing to paddle because it was my birthday. It came at no surprise because my mom is always up for an adventure. Little did she know, the adventure was about to get much more interesting.
“I can’t wait to get to the ledges,” I said.
“The ledges?” my dad gave me a sidelong glance.
I explained, from what I could remember, the geography of the river and the steps (ledges) that come before a series of rapids. My parents didn’t say much, just settled in and paddled down stream, occasionally scraping the aluminum canoe along the rocky bottom.
I shot through ripples and dipped around rocks, eventually circling back against the current to check on my parents. I didn’t anticipate the canoe catching bottom as frequently as it did. I felt bad but also enjoyed watching my parents work together to navigate the river.
“Left, left!” my mom would holler, pointing with her paddle at a rock directly off the bow. It was like watching the Maclean brothers from “A River Runs Through It” shoot the chutes. As the canoe spun around in the current my dad would turn his body and kneel on the bottom, eyes flickering from rock to rock downstream, trying to determine the best course of action while my mom continued to point out rocks with her paddle. I imagined them 20 years younger, bonding for the first time. It was a cheap way of eliminating the guilt I felt for dragging them toward their destined doom.
As Joe and I circled back again, we pointed our boats upstream and watched my parents come toward us. It was like a drive-in theater. We were carefully tucked away in our respective eddies watching the grand performance in front of us, a pattern that was becoming routine … one that was about to end.
For the last time, my mom pointed out a rock with her paddle, clinging to what confidence she had left in my dad’s ability to maneuver a 16-foot canoe between rocks positioned 10 feet apart. The performance was quickly reaching its climax.
The bow barreled into a rock and the stern swung downstream.
This time the stern was met with an unwavering rock, positioning the canoe in a perpendicular position to the river. The current slipped beneath the canoe and my parents leaned to the wrong side, and …
My parents no longer looked 20 years younger and the guilt I buried away throughout the first leg of the trip came rushing to the surface. I undid my kayak skirt and waded upstream to help. My dad’s knee was bleeding from hitting a rock and my mom looked like she just participated in the Polar Bear Plunge.
Slowly we heaved the water-filled canoe to shore where we flipped it to drain the water. I apologized to my parents for guiding them blindly down unfamiliar water. But I should have thanked them because it was the best birthday present I could have asked for. My parents were willing to get bloody, wet and bruised for me. They were willing to embark on an adventure with their son, because time spent together is short.