Canoe Chronicles: The Obsession and the Search

I drove to Denton to buy a canoe in the middle of a pandemic.
I drove to Denton to buy a canoe in the middle of a pandemic. Photo by Jeff Balke
In the height of a raging pandemic, I drove to north Texas to buy a canoe. Let me explain.

My brother-in-law is an outdoorsy guy. Eric and his family live in Austin in a beautiful house that backs up to the city's green belt. My wife and I would visit for the views alone, but hanging out with them is always pure joy. The house is just a bonus. When we go, we are often treated to long hikes along Barton Creek, bike rides on the city's sprawling pathways and, more recently, a trip on the lake via canoe.

Eric often takes days-long canoe trips down the Rio Grande River with buddies or paddles miles out in the Gulf of Mexico in his kayak to go fishing. He loves it and I'll admit to enjoy being regaled with stories of fishing near oil derricks in a yellow plastic boat or how he and his friends carefully plot out rather impressive meals along their trips into deserted canyons.

It's comforting because it reminds me quite a bit of times I spent with my father as a child when he and I would take fishing trips together. He, like my brother-in-law, was an avid outdoorsman. My dad had more boats over the years than he had trucks, the latter of which he would drive until they almost literally fell apart. He did outdoors shows on Houston radio in the 1970s and wrote stories for fishing and travel publications in summers when he wasn't teaching school. And we fished...a lot.

One of his favorite types of boats were jon boats, the flat-bottomed green aluminum rigs employed by the Cajun Navy during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. They were fairly cheap, easy to pull behind a car and got us into some rather shallow waters in the spring when fish were spawning.

We spent too many weekends to count on Lake Conroe, Lake Houston, Lake Livingston, near the North Jetty off Bolivar and in small, almost hidden lakes in east Texas. Anywhere we could get the boat and a line in the water.

Now, with my interest rekindled thanks to Eric's enthusiasm and fish tales, I began weighing my options.

Initially, I considered a jon boat for myself. "Where will you put it?" was the most frequent question asked by my wife when such discussions arose, fearing the entire garage would soon be home to some giant boat. And the more I considered the registration for it, the trailer, motors, the space it needed, and my complete lack of recent experience with a power boat, the more I became overwhelmed.

This dragged on for years as my interest waxed and waned.

Then, in June, fortunately free from the clutches of COVID-19, we visited Eric and his family in Austin, they too sequestered from the virus and thankfully healthy. Our germ pods merged for a week, Eric suggested we get out on the lake. He does this every day. I know this because he sends me photos of his feet hanging off his paddle board in his favorite swimming hole.

From nearly the minute I was paddling along, I told my wife, seated in front of me, I was getting a canoe. It was the perfect solution. It was smaller than a boat, didn't require registrations or trailers, and wouldn't cost nearly as much. She, realizing she probably couldn't quell this desire and recognizing a canoe would be preferable to a large boat, begrudgingly allowed me my flights of fancy. I still had to find and purchase one, something I had dragged my heels on with a boat lo these many years. This time, however, I was determined.

A mad search began and little did I know that would take me all the way to Denton. Why, you might ask? Well, here's the thing, during this pandemic, apparently everyone wants a canoe. Manufacturers are back ordered for months. I found none at any sporting goods stores here or anywhere nearby. Used canoes, the method Eric prefers for acquiring his, yielded even more frustrating results. Within literally minutes of a good one appearing in Facebook's Marketplace, it would be snatched up.

I became so obsessed, I found myself scanning my phone repeatedly throughout the day on the lookout for a quality beginner canoe — something I became somewhat of an expert on after hours of research. It got so bad that one afternoon, while driving down the street, my wife nearly slapped the phone from my hand.  "Are you shopping and driving?" Admittedly, I was an idiot, but such was the level of my mania.

Just days later from the much more reasonable safety of my sofa, I saw a red Old Town Saranac canoe for sale on the Marketplace. Underneath, it said, "Listed 6 minutes ago." I pounced. After barely looking at photos and the description, I messaged the owner and said I'd take it. Sure, it was roughly 300 miles away and I had never attempted to strap a canoe to the roof of a car for a short trip, never mind one that would span much of the length of the state of Texas, but if he sold it to me, I'd figure it out.

He responded and said it was mine if I paid for most up front because he had already received three other offers in the 20 minutes since his canoe was listed. "But, you were first," he wrote.

So, there I was on my way to Denton for a long day of driving, complete with masks, snacks and brand new tie downs purchased from REI, a store I had never stepped foot in before. I had educated myself on using the tie downs via YouTube videos but had no clue if I could get it strapped down to the roof of my Subaru well enough to get it back home. And, yes, I said Subaru. I am fully aware of having emerged from this as a walking cliche.

Nevertheless, I got on the road and my life with a canoe was officially launched.

Canoe Chronicles is a series of posts on my life with a canoe during the pandemic. More to come!
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke