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Willem Lange: Paddling Down the River With Good Company for a Good Cause

Just about 30 hours ago I turned into the narrow entrance lane to the refurbished and improved boat launch site in Orford. There were people everywhere in white T-shirts with the word “Volunteer” on the back, waiting to help the expected crowd. I was early, as is my wont, so I got a lovely spot to stash my canoe and gear beside the ramp. A pair of ladies under a small tent fly handed out registration packets — a T-shirt, schedule of events, a waterproof numbered tag to affix to the canoe, and a yellow wrist band, like the one you get in a hospital, with the same number on it. At another table, two more volunteers with a bagel-slicing guillotine (a gadget new to me), many dozen bagels, and tubs of cream cheese dispensed a light breakfast.

I’ve been to lots of events like this over the years; my first thought was, “Wow, they’re organized! They’ve done this before.” Cars with canoes and kayaks on top began coming in one after another and unloading, till the grassy area around the parking lot was a vast splash of primary colors. A small drone fitted with a Go-Pro camera hummed overhead, filming the scene, while its owner watched it and fiddled with the controls. I sat on the bank beside the ramp, washing down the bagel with the last of my coffee bought in a general store on the way down from Montpelier. People came over to chat. A very friendly place.

PaddlePower is the brainchild of West Central Behavior Health, a nonprofit mental health agency with headquarters in Lebanon and clinics around the Upper Valley. A particular focus is the treatment of depression and prevention of suicide. By coincidence, this year’s event was held just days after the tragic and surprising suicides of two prominent public figures: the actor and comedian Robin Williams and, locally, Vermont Law School professor and Vermont Public Radio commentator Cheryl Hanna. As an undercurrent to those well-publicized deaths, the agency notes that, although the subject is very little discussed, suicide is the third-leading cause of death in people under 35 in the United States. This two-day flotilla down the placid river from Orford to Wilder is one of West Central’s ways of raising money for its cause and increasing public awareness of an all-too-common problem.

My paddling partner on this jaunt was Scott Ellis, a former teacher at the Cardigan Mountain School and now director of outdoor programs at L.L. Bean in West Lebanon. He’s a very creative user of the tiny new (and waterproof) GoPro videocam, which can be mounted almost anywhere, from the gunwale of the canoe, to a hat, to the end of a walking stick. Sitting in the bow, he often raised the camera to about eight feet above the water to film the surrounding scene and paddlers and, on occasion, turned it 180 degrees to see if the old man behind him was doing his share. I don’t think he ever caught me malingering.

When it was finally time to go, cheerful volunteers waded into the river to steady the boats as their paddlers got in and shoved them out into the stream. There was apparently an announcement regarding when we all might start paddling, but somehow Scott and I missed it. I’d brought my fastest canoe and didn’t feel like being an also-ran, so we took off. Half an hour later Scott looked over his shoulder and said, “Whoops! There’s nobody behind us.” So we bobbed around for a bit, regretting the headwind that was pushing us back upriver, until the safety barge that was supposed to lead the armada caught up, scowled at us, and ordered us to wait for the rest. We did.

Single kayaks are faster in the water than double canoes, so we were soon trailing perhaps half a dozen of the fastest. This was my first time in a canoe this year, but I knew what to expect from my lower back. A supportive seat back and a couple extra naproxens helped to keep the fire down there to a dull roar. The headwind was a pain, but everybody else had the same problem. It was a pleasure to get to the midmorning rest stop at the North Thetford boat ramp.

The features of a canoe voyage on calm water most likely to produce excitement are embarking and debarking. Sure enough, we were treated to at least three spectacular “fails,” as YouTube calls them. No harm done — unless sharp blows to dignity and submerged cellphones count. The day and the water were warm, and the company sympathetic.

We ate like alfresco kings. Among the generous donors supporting PaddlePower are several restaurants and delicatessens. There were snacks and cold drinks at the rest stop, cold cut sandwiches and all the trimmings at lunch, and in the evening at Storrs Pond, a supper of lasagna, chicken breasts, meatballs, salads and more trimmings. At both lunch and supper there was live music, as well as a lovely masseuse with her own tent and massage bed and a crowded dance card.

After a hot shower, I bedded down in the back of my truck, awakened only briefly around two in the morning by a rain shower tapping on the aluminum cap. Another donor restaurant brought a hot breakfast and coffee, and then it was off to the river again.

The patrol barge and its adamant commander controlled the start this time, so we were unable to sneak away. Scott and I were really into the rhythm by now, and the run past Hanover to the finish at Kilowatt Park in Wilder is a breeze. Again the volunteers picked us out of our boats and brought them up to our vehicles.

We had another great music-accompanied picnic lunch, with ice cream sundaes at the end. My canoe safely on the rack and ready to roll, I was planning to bring a still-faster boat to PaddlePower next year. What fun it is still to be able to do at least some of what you’ve loved to do for so long, and to do it for a good cause, as well.

Willem Lange’s column appears here every Wednesday. He can be reached at willem.lange@comcast.net.