302 days left until Canoecopia!     March 13 - 15
Just A Day On The River
-Darren Bush

Walking along the edge of a sandbar, I was following heron tracks, sort of lopsided four-pointed stars. They're not as big or impressive as sandhill crane tracks, but they're still quite large. The water the heron was fishing was a little seep between a real island and the sandbar, somewhat greenish with algae. A few glitter-like silvery scales showed signs of hunting success. Good work, heron.

The sandbar was a long one, different than the last time I had stopped there for lunch. The gentle but relentless current had pushed the whole thing downstream maybe 20 or 30 feet, so I was sitting on sand that was always there, but never really right there. There was a sharpish drop-off, and I was sitting high and dry. While it wasn't exactly warm, the sand was, and it felt comforting.

I don't get a lot of alone time. As an extrovert-presenting introvert, I need my alone time. I mean, I love all my friends and enjoy time with them, but time with myself is necessary for my brain to function properly.

My [insert superlative of choice] wife offered to pick me up at the takeout and shuttle me back to my truck, so all I had to do is drive and launch. There's a comfort and freedom knowing that at the end of the day, all I had to do is call and she'd be there an hour later.

Coronavirus. The electron microscopes make it look pretty, like a softball with cute little red spikes sticking out. There's some argument about whether viruses are living or not; I tend toward not living, just little machines that make everyone's lives miserable. Some make us more miserable than others. Some are annoying; some are deadly.

The day before Canoecopia last year was terrifying. I feel like I need to tell the whole story here so you can understand what it was like for me and for Rutabaga.

Thursday morning we woke to more bad news. The cases in Wisconsin were still low (two in our county), but we were hearing about more and more cases in the Upper Midwest. I walked around talking to vendors who were setting up their booths, and they were all asking the same question: Is this going to work? I answered that I really didn't know yet, but that the horse was pretty much out of the barn.

I started getting phone calls from exhibitors who were far away and had to drive to the show to set up on Friday. I said hold off, let me get a read on what's going on. At 11 a.m., the concert that was scheduled to take place across the street at the Coliseum was canceled. Too many people under one roof, and the governor was hinting at limiting indoor gatherings. At that point, I got in my truck and drove home, telling the staff I'd be back in an hour.

Those of you who have met my wife know that I married up in a big way. She is a rock, and the gentle voice of reason and stability to my highly creative but ADD tendencies. I said, "We need to talk." She said, "We need to pray."

We sat on the edge of the bed and did the pro/con thing. We didn't get very far when we came up with a big con: People will get sick and die if we do this. They will.

We prayed and said, "We're going to shut it down." The answer came immediately: Good call. And everything will be okay.

I was paddling a new boat and enjoying the feeling of getting used to it. I hadn't paddled it with a load yet, and she settled down in the water nicely, rolling side to side but in a comforting way. Most of my canoes have wood gunwales. I like the aesthetic. I like the feel and touch. It's just the way canoes should be, in my mind. A pack, a kitchen box, a few paddles, and a collapsable river table for sand management.

Just a zephyr of a breeze, and cumulostratus clouds blanketing the sky. A little sun poked through now and then. I pulled my boat up above the high-water mark and unloaded my gear. Lunchtime.

On day trips, I don't go much for the dried stuff. Sure, on long trips you gotta go light and nonperishable, I know that. But day trips? No portages or slogs, just 50 feet from the car to the shore, so I brought the cast iron pan. The cooler with steaks. A nice tall (nonalcoholic) weissbier. Grapes. Sausage and cheese. One dehydrated meal because I promised the sales rep I'd give it a shot.

The wind had picked up a little. It wouldn't hinder paddling, but it would make my cooking a little less efficient, so I propped my boat up with a paddle on the upwind side of my ersatz kitchen and fired up my Coleman 502. The Coleman 502 looks like someone took a Sawzall and cut the top off a lantern and stuck a burner on it. Fantastic stove for controlling heat, but it's a bit of a beast for ultralight tripping.

I got the cast iron blazing hot, added a little olive oil, and threw on my venison sirloins, with little bit of Montreal steak seasoning. The other food was prepped while the steaks were cooking, and I had timed it perfectly. On the rare side of medium rare. I thanked the friend who had harvested the venison and dug in.

Minutes later I was back in the truck, driving back to the Alliant Energy Center. I walked past my friends setting up their booths, and called the staff into the back office. There were tears as I said, "We've gotta call it. This is the second-hardest decision I've ever made." I gave what I thought were words of comfort, and while I have no idea what I actually said, I did tell them, "We're going to be all right."

Jim got on the intercom and called all the exhibitors in the hall to the customer service desk. When the group was assembled, I got up on a chair and stood there for 10 seconds, looking at their faces. Someone said, "Hey, we love you, Darren. Just say it."

Through my tears, I spoke. "Folks, we gotta call it. It's just not safe. And if we do this, people will die because of it." My daughter was holding my hand the whole time. She's as amazing as her mother.

The exhibitors nodded slowly, and broke into applause and shouts of encouragement, and then said, "Well, let's go break down." No one was angry, spending time and money for a no-show show. I walked around shaking elbows and thanking them. Many of them thanked me.

The next day, the governor limited indoor gatherings to 250 people. A week later it was 50.

Gluttony is the natural result of not estimating proper serving portions. I underestimated the size of my steaks, and to be honest, I usually pack for two as a habit. A nap was in order if I were to mitigate my overindulgence.

I threw my very large kneeling pad on the sand, my lifejacket for a pillow, and pulled my cap down over my eyes. The sun had poked through here and there, and naturally, it ended up in my face. I'm not sure if I slept, but at the very least I snoozed.

I decided it was time to get moving. I washed the dishes well enough to repack them (they'd get a good scrubbing at home) and took one last walk around the big sandbar, past the heron hunting grounds, and back to my canoe.

I don't remember much of the scenery from Gotham to Muscoda, about eight miles or so. I was deep in thought, pondering the events of the previous few months. I'm sure that I absorbed the beauty around me, but I was thinking about the Canoecopia aftermath, how kind people were that weeked, and how we had worked so hard as a team to figure out how to do business safely in the aftermath.

I thought of our banker, Ted, who called me Monday after the show to tell us not to worry about the money stuff-they had my back. Never mind the money I owed the bank (a substantial amount), they would work it out. I thought about his assistance with the Payroll Protection Program, and how we didn't have to lay off a single person. These people are like family to me. They are family to me.

I thought about the hundreds of you who bought Rutabaga gift cards to get some cash coming in immediately. I have nothing but undying gratitude for you.

I thought about how making the second-hardest decision in my life was ultimately one of the easiest. Good call, and everything would be okay.

P.S. People ask what was the hardest decision. I can't remember.
Canoecopia is presented by Rutabaga Paddlesports