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Testing the Waters

Four days on New England's idyllic waterways. Is it enough to win a father's blessing for his daughter's new life?

My second thoughts about the wisdom of embarking on a four-day, father-daughter paddling trip start at the Magalloway River put-in outside of Errol, New Hampshire, before our canoe even gets wet. I set my water bottle in the stern and throw Dad’s in the bow. He walks over immediately and looks at his bottle.

“That’s the front,” he says.

“You’re right.” I stand closer to the stern.

Dad shakes his head. “But that’s the, the… girl place.”

In the silence that follows I debate my options. This trip, timed for July, the state’s best month, is an attempt to win my dad over to New Hampshire—rugged, rural New Hampshire, where I have just decided to live. The campaign started on the wrong foot: On what was supposed to be a proud tour of the home my fiancé and I are buying in North Conway, Dad almost passed out from the mold-remediation chemicals. And now, calling him a chauvinistic jerk (or telling him the weaker paddler sits in the bow) will not move us along our trajectory of love and understanding. I sigh. “Really, Dad?” I wonder if four days will be enough—or too much.

When I first pitched the idea of this trip a year ago, I told my father that it was a present in honor of his 70th birthday, but we both know it’s an olive branch. Though he’s lived in Minnesota since 1965, my dad grew up in Poland, and like most immigrants, he’s always dreamed that his children would follow in his hardworking footsteps. In his case, that meant earning a Ph.D. in engineering, then becoming vice president of two Fortune 500 tech companies. I knew this growing up—I just ignored it. Instead of his career advice, I focused on his passion: spending time skiing, paddling, and windsurfing. More than 15 years ago, I followed that lead to become a full-time climber and author, but he still holds out hope I’ll change careers. When I first told him I was thinking of permanently moving to mountainous northern New Hampshire, he emailed me links to the local rural poverty index and unemployment numbers.

At 35, I’d like to pretend I’m mature enough that my dad’s opinion of me doesn’t matter. But instead I concocted a scheme to strand us in a canoe together for four days—to get him to understand why the outdoors rule my life, why New Hampshire makes sense, and that I really am carrying his dreams forward.

Maybe someday I’ll grow out of this need for acceptance, but right now it’s not looking good. I’m not sure any of us ever stop wanting our parents to turn to us and say, “Good job, kiddo! You’ve done exactly what I’ve hoped. Let’s go celebrate your good choices.” Right now, I’ll just be happy if he lets me choose where to sit in the canoe.

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