Rolling on the river

I know this is supposed to be where the story begins, but I’m going to fast-forward a bit to a key part of last weekend’s father-son camping and canoe trip.

I had the following conversation with Jacob — the 5-year-old, the new rotten one — during our first evening.

Me: “Jake, where are those snakes you were playing with?”

Jacob: “Oh.” (He says “Oh,” all the time, like it’s an exclamation point at the beginning of his sentences. “Don’t worry. They’re safe.”

Me: “I’m not really worried about their safety, buddy; I want to know where they are.”

Jacob: “Oh. They’re in our tent.”

Yep. Snakes. In our tent. Welcome to camping with my boys.

While this was the 15th-annual father-son canoe trip, it was my first. My friend, Jody Brinker, invited my boys and I. Jody sold it, starting with the amount of food and detailing how much fun I’d have spending time with the boys camping and canoeing, which he detailed well, explaining that on Saturday, there would be a short trip and long trip and on Sunday, just a short trip. He gave me tips about what we’d need on the canoe, how long each trip was, etc. Having never been on a canoe trip, let alone with my boys, I was excited.

But then, on the Tuesday before we left, during dinner at his house, I asked Jody if he was getting excited for the canoeing. Here’s his response, which I’m paraphrasing from memory: “Oh, I don’t canoe. It’s terrible. I went one year and the boys would fight and drag their paddles in the water. I was the only one paddling. It was awful. I haven’t gone since.”

My jaw dropped. Imagine my excitement level as a fully blown-up balloon pinched between two fingers. As Jody got deeper into his reasons for not going, it was like he released the balloon, which was rapidly making fart noises as twisted through the air before plummeting to the ground.

But, hey, the camping would be fun, right?

Many of the fathers and sons (and the mothers and daughters who would soon be enjoying their spa days and weekend full of peace and quiet) met for morning Mass before departing for the campsite.

Within the first five minutes we were there, while the first tents were still being constructed, Jacob had found a baby snake. It wasn’t any bigger than an earthworm, and he was letting it wriggle and squirm all over in his wide hands. Soon, other kids began to flock and Jake passed around the snake proudly.

Then he found another. Then another. He was like St. Patrick in reverse, two-fisting baby snakes and grinning ear-to-ear.

It was around this time when we had the aforementioned conversation about him putting the snakes in our tent. Now, to his credit, he didn’t actually put them in the tent’s sleeping area. Our small tent has a place for shoes that is zipped off, so he decided that would be a great place for Skiddy and Skiddy’s unnamed friend. He named his favorite Skiddy because “he skids around in my hand.” (Seriously, kids come up with the best names. My beautiful, devout wife and I just might give Jacob five minutes to assess the baby after it’s born and come up with a name.)

Sadly, Skiddy’s friend eventually slithered away after a botched handoff between kids, and Skiddy himself looked as though he’d lost his zest for life when I made Jake throw him into the woods behind our tent.

At Mass the next morning, Father Glenn Kohrman aimed his homily directly at the boys, challenging them to be kind to their brothers and sisters and to their parents. He shared the famous quote from Vince Lombardi, who said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” He challenged the boys to chase perfection. He also told them that if they take one thing away from the weekend, take this: “If you practice the virtues,” he said, “you will be virtuous; if you practice the vices, you will be vicious. Be virtuous.”

After breakfast, we were hauled off to start our canoe trip. After dragging the canoe 100 yards to the river, I got the boys set up: Grant in the front, Jake in the middle and me in the back (allowing me to monitor both boys during the duration of the trip — I’m not new to this parenting thing).

With Jody’s warning about the joy of canoeing still fresh in my mind, we hit the water. Within 15 seconds, we got stuck on massive concrete blocks somebody had dumped in the river. Awesome.

After that, though, it was mostly smooth sailing (fine, smooth paddling). It was a beautiful day on the Tippecanoe River in north-central Indiana, and my boys and I were loving it.

Despite a few hiccups, Grant learned how to steer the canoe, and Jake powered it in a straight line like a champion. They watched for turtles (which we found) and snakes (which we didn’t).

There was no fighting and minimal whining, and here’s why: Nothing unites brothers like a common enemy. Ours was a group of four canoeists who we had passed and been passed by several times over the course of the first few hours on the river. My boys threw down the gauntlet, and the challenge was accepted. The race was on.

After jockeying back and forth with them for half an hour, we left them in our ripples. Jacob was so intent on beating them that, as we floated down the river, he would shout at me for politely chatting with strangers as we passed. “No talking, more paddling!” he’d yell, like a regular Admiral Nimitz.

Being that I was the only one constantly paddling, I asked several times if they wanted to stop and take a break. They wanted no part of resting, because apparently they thought we were in the deciding race of America’s Cup, which I guess made me Dennis Conner, because we won easily, thrilling my boys to no end.

I learned several things on my first canoe trip: 1. Shift positions all you want, there is no comfortable way to spend nearly four hours in a canoe; 2.) My friend Jody was dead wrong. The boys and I had an absolute blast on the water.

Back on dry land, there were stretches of hours where I didn’t see my boys. They were off swimming in the river or chasing snakes and frogs and turtles and each other. They popped up for dinner only to disappear into the wilderness with the other boys. Late in the evening, as I lounged in a camping chair surrounded by new friends puffing on cigars passed out by Father Kohrman, the boys appeared again, telling me somebody had caught a snake — not a baby snake — which had been skinned and was marinating in a pot, preparing to be cooked.

I learned it doesn’t really take all that long to grill a northern water snake. Now, you might be asking: Did you eat the snake? No, no I didn’t. I’ve eaten snake before and once was enough. Did my boys eat the snake? Of course they did. “It tastes like salty potato chips,” Jacob said after chewing on a sliver of meat.

On Sunday, after Mass and breakfast, we packed up the tent and the clothes and the coolers and the fishing gear and the camping chairs and everything else and brought it all home. I didn’t bring home any snakes (as far as I know), only photographs and memories, which I will cherish for a lifetime.

At the forefront of my memories will be this one: On the second night, after a day of canoeing and chasing and eating snakes, Jacob climbed onto my lap and fell asleep as we sat around the warm, roaring campfire praying the Rosary. While one of my beautiful, precious, rotten boys was sleeping in my arms, the other was beside me, hands folded in prayer, being virtuous, leading 130 others in one of the Hail Mary’s.

This was, indeed, father-son bonding at its finest.

Scott Warden is the associate editor of OSV Newsweekly. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_OSV
For more of Scott's Confessions of a Catholic Dad, click here.