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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?

We spend our last full day hiking 6 miles along the Rapid River. We leave the camping area on foot and head east on a rocky path. Within a mile, we’re on an 8-foot-wide swath with as much grass as rocks—exactly the width to accommodate a tenacious kayaker with a pickup. (We’re outside the refuge, and paddlers use the “road” to access play holes.) Our goal is the former home of Louise Dickinson Rich, author of the 1942 bestseller We Took to the Woods, a treatise on simplicity and awakening in the outdoors. A half-dozen other dwellings now surround Rich’s home, but hers is preserved, museum-style, to look as it was in the 1930s when she raised her family here. Dad and I walk through the home and he asks me if I could see myself living like this. I consider the giant, wooly long underwear and wood stove and envision the now-empty larder fully stocked. I tell my dad that I’d like to think that if I were a woman in the 1930s, this is what I’d have chosen. “Maybe what I’m trying to do is my own modern-day version,” I say.

“With ice picks?” Dad asks.

“Ice axes,” I correct him. “But yes.”

“You lead quite a life, my dear,” he says. He’s said this to me before—many times—and I’ve always heard judgment in his tone. Today I hear appreciation.

We’re back at our tent by 2 p.m., disassemble camp, and canoe a mere 15 minutes across the Rapid’s mouth to a rocky point for our final evening out. (I was lucky enough to get the coveted single site when I made our reservations two months earlier.) Ramrod-straight red spruce canopy our tent site and water surrounds us on 270 degrees. We agree it’s time to teach the poodle to swim. Dad scoops him up and carries him squirming into the water, holds him in place where it’s just deep enough so Ptarmigan can’t touch the bottom, then releases him to gasp and flail his way to shore. I watch and tell Dad it’s just like the toughen-up-Majka campaign he launched when I was five—when he forbade me from shoes, showers, and my tiara and made me eat any unfinished dinners in the garage instead of at the table. “Careful it doesn’t go too far,” I tease him. “You did that to me and look what happened.”

The swimming experiment works so long as the tripe treats last, but once they’re gone Ptarmigan refuses the water and chooses to gallop in fervent circles around camp, trying to shake off the various near-drowning experiences. Later, in the tent consumed with wet-dog smell, Dad assures me the poodle will swim when he’s ready. “You just have to keep taking him deeper and deeper.” He pulls Ptarmigan close so they are spooning with both of their faces toward me.

In four days Dad has already started bonding with Ptarmigan. The poodle, for his part, does not seem confused that my dad can both adore him and push him. Maybe he understands the pushing is often a sign of the love. I recently read of a dog that swam 3 miles across Lake Michigan, but I just want a good, affectionate poodle that likes to splash in the water. “Maybe I don’t need to toughen him up,” I say.

“Of course you do,” Dad answers. “How else will he become a mountain poodle for my mountain daughter?”

I reach across the gap between us in the tent and find his arm and give it a squeeze. The darkness covers my tearing eyes.

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