Some friendships are meant to last a lifetime, while others are little more than passing fancies or temporary acquaintances. The person one is in the formative years of college is often very different from the person one becomes when retirement is reached. Friendships are formed over common interests, whether they are sports, the love of travel or nature.
In the case of author David Morine and his friend Ramsay Peard, their college-era bond was solidified around all three, as both men loved canoeing, experiencing new places and being out in the wild. In classic “bromance” style, the two became friends at the University of Virginia in the late ’60s and had stayed in touch — as one is wont to do with old friends — over the years by phone and with the obligatory yearly holiday greetings.
Over the years, plans were made to reconnect and to spend some time together on a river — like in the old days — but busy lives, as always, interfered. Eventually, knowing that Morine had written several books about conservation and outdoor living, Peard called him up with a spur-of-the-moment idea: The two men should share a canoeing trip on the Connecticut River, an activity out of their comfort zone for the men they had become but well within the wheelhouse of who they had once been.
The challenge is taken up, and the premise for Morine’s next book, “Two Coots in a Canoe,” is born. Feeling too old for the rigors of camping, the two retirees dream up a slight twist to their journey, one that they hope will generate some publicity and establish a “hook” for the book. The men set out, intent on making their trip entirely by relying on the kindness of strangers, a tactic that does indeed get them noticed by a sleepy local New Hampshire newspaper.
The nearly 30 volunteer “strangers” who house them for the nights of their adventure hail from the Connecticut River Watership Council membership, and they prove to be some of the book’s most fascinating characters, each of them challenging the men’s settled and often outdated ways of thinking. Each overnight manifests as a unique experience, throwing the “two coots” into the company of people they might never have otherwise met.
Thus, the book becomes much more than a simple diary of the day-to-day eddies and currents along the 400-mile trip. The story is as much about friendship — the evolving friendships of youth and old age — and about finding the comfortable line between sharing a small boat for 400 miles with someone you have had a separate life trajectory from for more than 20 years and the inevitable bond that arises after having spent a similar amount of time circling the sun.
Folksy and humorous, akin to Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” and “Never Sniff a Gift Fish,” by Patrick McManus, “Two Coots in a Canoe” is a charming snapshot of New England, providing a captivating glimpse of life along the river. Their hours on the river give them time to contemplate life, aging, friendship, etc. Like with a mismatched married couple, there is plenty of bickering, all of which is amplified by the canoe that feels smaller as the days progress.
Darker currents surface throughout the course of the book. The author is an active proponent of river conservation, and he uses the journey to hand out grants to worthy nonprofits along the route. In spite of the efforts to clean up the river, and though some stretches are lovely and peaceful, he is saddened to discover that many miles of it are not. Forever altered by large dams and levees, and by factories taking up prime riverside real estate, the water, in spots, is dirty, filled with dead fish and an overpowering stench of waste and rot. As Morine points out, “Rivers can’t survive unless they’re constantly moving. That’s how they breathe.” He is heartbroken to discover that full-out resuscitation is needed.
All in all, the trip ends on a bittersweet note, as the author learns things about his canoe companion and the friend he thought he knew so well. Ramsay has demons that he carries with him, and the trip with the author’s old college friend proves to be his last, as those demons haunting his soul ultimately win out. “Two Coots in a Canoe” is poignant, yet simple, and it serves as a reminder to not take life too seriously and to get out and explore before it’s too late.