For more than 45 years, I have gone fishing with my wife’s family and our own family up to Sportsmen’s Camp in Ontario. The camp lies a few miles beyond the last outpost of civilization, the tiny town of Gowganda with its small general store and even smaller post office. From that point north, there is not much but woods all the way up to Hudson Bay.
Fishing is the main activity in camp, and every morning motorboats head out on Firth Lake in search of bass and walleye. I have a confession to make. I had never myself driven a motorboat. Now I’m not talking about a fancy motorboat with a steering wheel and ignition key, but the old-fashioned kind with the motor in the back of the boat with a starting cord.
When we first started to go to the camp, my wife Ellen’s dad always drove. Later, her brother Jim took over driving the boat. Now my two sons, Matt and Phil, take turns driving. On every trip, I fished, but I had never sat in the back of the boat, yanked the cord to start the motor and set off. Why was that, and why did it matter?
Well, it mattered because over the years I had become nervous and avoided doing it. Now to every fisherman or woman, that probably seems silly. What, after all, is there to driving a boat, second nature to so many? I read recently that, “Everything is hard until you learn it, and then it becomes easy.” It was certainly that way for me when I first learned to drive a car, or when I first began doing public speaking. Now, both are second nature to me, but driving a motorboat was another matter entirely.
I worried that I might not have the right action to pull the cord and start the motor. Would I know how much gas to give the motor to keep it running? Would I miss a marker and hit an underwater rock? If the motor stalled out on the lake, would I be able to get it running again? And above all, would I be able to dock the boat without crashing it, which seemed to require just the right touch and timing to turn the boat around and cut the motor so that it drifted light as a feather to the dock?
So I decided last summer to ask Phil to teach me to drive the boat. I thought he and I would do it on the sly because I was embarrassed to not be able to do something most others in camp learned as teenagers or even younger. But soon the whole camp seemed to know and took it in stride.
One of the owners of the camp, Jack Newton, set aside a day to take me to a nearby lake. There he ran me through the basics of the boat motor and its operation, and I practiced driving the boat up and down the lake. This included starting and stopping the motor, going forward and in reverse, going fast and slow, and turning the boat.
It was all pretty straightforward, and it was fun to rev up the motor and zoom across the lake. Back at camp, Phil gave me further practice, including the dreaded docking. Even that was easier than I thought, and I never rammed the boat into the dock, my worst fear.
At the campfire that evening, Jack hailed me as “Captain Bob,” and I admit I wore it as a badge of honor. It was empowering.
When I reflect on this experience, it makes me think of the movie “On Golden Pond,” when the character played by Jane Fonda had to conquer her fear of doing a backflip dive, and how liberated she felt afterward. Actually, I have never learned to dive. But I think I will save that for next summer.