Women and the Global Imagination: Just a Few Old Girls on Boats

by Ruth Ann Dandrea

Filed under: Blog, Women and the Global Imagination |

In our Winter 2014 issue Alicia Ostriker curated a poetry portfolio on Women and the Global Imagination, and we so enjoyed its contents that we wanted to keep the dialog surronding this theme going on our blog. Here, Ruth Ann Dandrea shares the sense of solidarity and fulfillment found when a group of women decided to go kayaking together. We hope you enjoy reading. If you like what you see, please become a subscriber to Prairie Schooner today. To take part in the dialog, follow and interact with us on Twitter.

Just a Few Old Girls on Boats

I’m fingering the calluses on my palm and smiling.  Not since I was ten years old and climbing on swing sets, dangling from monkey bars have my hands been so summer-roughened.  The dish-detergent-lotion-hands-you-love-to-hold television commercials never took on me, though I was a child of the fifties and among the first generation of American kids raised by Howdy Doody.  I preferred Bonanza and Wagon Train, and living close to the bone.  Callused hands didn’t mean I wasn’t a lady; they meant I’d been having fun.

The idea for the extravaganza that has brought so much child-like joy to my life was hatched last summer while a few friends and I kayaked South Lake (which is mysteriously just north of North Lake).  We were musing about the beauty around us on the still and silent mirror the lake had become, and one of us, it might’ve been me, said “women on the water.”  Simultaneously, we four chimed the acronym that would become this summer’s password, “WOW!” 

An organizational meeting in late June provided us a cadre of willing paddlers and a schedule.  Thursdays, no matter what, were our days.  We’d meet at a local diner, eat breakfast, catch up on each other’s week’s doings, then head to whatever Adirondack waterway we’d drawn from the hat for the day, wrap our ready hands around wooden or plastic, cushioned, gripped or smooth as stone paddles, and kayak.  On any given Thursday we numbered from half a dozen to a dozen women, friends and friends of friends who’d heard about us and wanted, also, to join the fun.  A highlight of our summer was when a new paddler joining us for a first jaunt recounted purchasing her kayak at the Northern Outfitter’s store in Whitesboro and being told:  “There’s a group of women who kayak the quiet waters of the Adirondacks.  You might want to look them up.  They call themselves ‘WOW.’”

That the forces that converged to make this one the hottest, sunniest, surest, and truest summers of recent memory certainly helped.  Only one trip found us waiting out a passing thunder bumper, but then we plunged into the headwaters of the Mohawk River and paddled downstream, to Delta Lake, sharing the river with green egrets and kingfishers.  But even the Thursday that predicted rain held clear.  And we climbed into our kayaks that early September day in the deep and narrow waters of the Erie Canal above Lock 20, waited while the passage filled, then, when the heavy metal doors pushed open and we were waved on by the lock master, drifted into the chamber.  Ten women in multi-colored boats lined the concrete container, clinging to slimy ropes as the waters brought us down and down and down until Kathy called out, “I’m at the end of my rope,” and I, too, noticed the heavy anchor that weighted the rope’s bottommost depth.  But then the water stopped leaking, a second pair of doors swung inward, and, blue sky reassuringly above us, we paddled out and on down the canal to Kitty’s for lunch.  Beautiful.

Stopping for lunch, more typically on a sandy lake beach or clinging to a river-drowned tree’s limbs, became a ritual of sharing everything from tabouli to fresh backed chocolate chip cookies and soup-like sips of melted miniature Reese’s peanut butter cups.  But mostly it was stories.  Stories of past paddles, kid stories, animal stories, stories we’d read in books and learned from and loved.  We talked about the water, the world, wildness and wonder.  We told our own stories on the echoing wind.  Then, slathering ourselves in sunscreen, we paddled on. 

When you sit with nature for long enough periods, you begin to learn to connect to the animals and flowers around you.  We paid attention to everything.  Identifying the peculiar pink lotus blossom of the Lower Hinckley, the broad-leafed arrowhead at the swampy end of Little Long Lake, the tiny pink brush-like blooms of swamp smartweed on the West Canada Creek found us, fed us with happiness.  Stacey, the middle school science teacher among us, pointed out the carnivorous sundew on one paddle after we’d portaged our boats over a quarter of a mile mud to miss the rapids on the Moose River.  And a strange, fluffy moss called liverwort. Perhaps our most spectacular and surprising flora discovery was a whole stand of the elusive Cardinal flower we stumbled on while hiking a trail at the far end of the Whetstone Gulf reservoir.  There it stood, bright red, all red, fire-engine red, right there in a fairy circle at the water’s edge, its magic doubled by its duplication in the water below it.  When we sighed in perfect contentment at its extravagant beauty, I’ll bet red breath streamed from our half-opened mouths. 

Animals, too, communed.  The eagle over the Lower Hinckley never flinched at Barb’s yoo-hooing call to the rest of us to watch, though we failed to follow her eyes to the sky.  Carol did locate the aerie, though, and we sat in awe below it.  Pondering.  After-paddles we searched Ted Andrews’s text Animal Speaks to find just what it might mean that a damsel fly alit on Kathy’s toes, and stayed.  And we agreed wholeheartedly when his words assured us our encounter with the beaver, who, suddenly aware he was swimming among us, raised his small, football shaped head a bit, circled it in distress, plunged and left us with a resounding slap of his tail on water, signified “the building of dreams.” On Adirondack waters, our dreams built themselves.  The red salamander on the trail, the blue heron silently stalking, the surprise of the bull wading in the West Canada, and the little white dog who came yapping mysteriously from the other side of a small island where we’d stopped to swim all melded into our days, our lives.  When, on leaving a lake one sun drenched afternoon, weary of muscle and burnt of skin, we heard a lone loon echo its eerie, haunting call, we understood ourselves to be just part of the whole. 

While our Thursday escapades were largely flights to communal solitude, there were encounters with people.  Other paddlers waving a hello.  Morning people walking shoreline properties startled over their coffee cups at the sight of a parade of rainbow boats floating past.  Campers cooking breakfast.  The lock master on the canal assured us that yes, he’d had that many boats in the lock at one time before; he’d guided some twenty Boy Scouts through once.  “Were any of them seventy years old?” Kathy queried, and he quieted, shook his head, ran his hand through his hair, and watched us. There was the sweet, if misguided young man who, seeing us put out below the bridge in Old Forge, remarked, “I think it’s wonderful that women like you still do this.”  Women like us?  Why we’re just a few old girls on boats!  There was the tugboat captain on the Erie Canal who wondered as we passed, “How far do you have to go?”  Have to go?  Why, we’re just a few old girls on boats; we don’t have to go anywhere.  We want to go.  The construction worker on the bridge under which we drifted had it most right, “Looks like fun,” he called.  It is.  Fun.  Pure and simple. 

Which is not to say there weren’t difficult moments, too.  Mostly our primary problem lay in getting there.  After breakfast we’d caravan off only to miscue, lose each other in traffic and end up spending the first forty-five minutes of our morning tracking each other down.  How reassuring, like reinforcements arriving over the ridge in every war movie you’ve ever seen, it felt when a familiar car would find us toodling around a rest stop wondering where every one went.  A couple of us spent worried moments proverbially, up creeks without our paddles.  Carol’s got swept downstream in a portage on the Mohawk, mine nearly snapped in half, wedged between two rocks in the swiftly moving waters of the West Canada.  (A place, of course, it ought not to have been inserted in the first place—low waters, fast waters forcing us to use innovative and less than effective methods of stopping and going.)  A canoeist who joined us on one rocky trek punctured the mylar shell of her boat.  We tiredly tugged and shoved at a paddler’s stuck truck after one beautiful day skimming along a luminous lake until a nearby camper came to instruct and help.  And I haven’t even mentioned our encounter with the big, bizarre, brainlike fungi floating just under the surface of the waters in the Whetstone Gulf.  Sometimes we worked at what we were about.

But mostly we played.  Laughter lay like morning mist over every lake we paddled, but none more so than North Lake.  Remote, lined on one side by typical campsites, on the other by primitive, walk-in only lean-tos, the lake is quintessentially Adirondack.  Wind wafts scents of cedar and pine.  Beavers leave gnawed-on piles of pick-up sticks.  Blue Bottle-gentians climb the byways of shoreline debris.  And over it all a blue sky that can’t be real and puff clouds floating.  We typically end our treks with a swim; it’s hard to resist surrendering oneself to the silky, tannic waters of a mountain lake, and though this trip, late in August, found us submerging in breathtakingly chilled waters, Bonnie, the musician among us, insisted we stay, perform a piece of water ballet choreography.  Carol will cross her foot over Kathy’s, who’ll put hers on top of Mimi’s, who’ll lay hers over Joan’s, and so on around the charmed circle of seven women.  On a count of three, we’ll fling back our clasped hands, lift legs, and float.  Just a few old girls.  Making a woman-star on water.  Every body a petal.  Every mouth opened, despite the likelihood, inevitability of sinking.  Laughter lapping at our shores, lunging over self-created waves, leaping lily pads, living on sunrays, echoing love.  

Just a few old girls on boats.  We floats.
Livin’ life from the water,
Paddlin’ just as we oughter,
WOW!  Just a few old girls on boats.

(Lyrics and music composed by Bonnie Sanderson, en route to a Moose River paddle.)


Some dozen summers have elapsed since this writing our first sojourns, our paddle dippings have dripped their spreading circles in some hundred lakes and streams, a rainy Thursday idea culminated in the publication of a part-guidebook, part-memoir, sent us off on subsequent book talks, and our paddling schedule now skips across the stratosphere to the inboxes of over a hundred women. 

Still Thursdays batches of us meet to pursue pleasure beyond the next beaver dam, to talk the problems of a world gone wild into water that saves us.

Women on Water have only one rule:  there are no rules.  (With its self-evident corollary, no men come along on our kayaks.) 

Ruth Ann Dandrea has previously published short fiction in literary magazines. She also co-authored a memoir/guidebook chronicling the paddles of a group of women on Adirondack waters called WOW: Women on Water, published by North Country books, named the Adirondack Center for Writing's Best Nonfiction Book of 2012.