Rick Ranson’s Paddling South: Winnipeg to New Orleans by Canoe (NeWest Press $16.95) is an enjoyable little book about a unique canoe trip. Two recent high school grads set out for an epic trip back in 1969 with lots of pluck, minimal prep, and a too-small 16-foot fiber-glass canoe. Their paddle up the Red River and down the Mississippi reads like a cross between Huck Finn and Easy Rider.
Or, like a south-bound Canoeing with the Cree with Credence playing in the background.
There’s adventure and plain-old danger all along the route. The two set off, ostensibly, to celebrate the centennial of Manitoba joining Canada. In reality they’re two young adults celebrating youth and independence. They have close-call after close-call — with dams, dead-heads, tow-boats, and ocean-going ships. They rub up against hippies, millionaires, mobsters, and prostitutes. A family paddle in the Boundary Waters it ain’t.
Ranson tells the story in 3-5 page vignettes. The story hops down the route picking the trip’s most colorful, most telling, and most interesting moments. Ranson is deft with his descriptions: The over-loaded canoe “rode like a ’53 Cadillac, all soft and heavy.” Clouds moved across the sky “like a herd of elephants.” The wide, complicated river south of St. Louis “flowed like braided rope,” “like a whole lake moving south at five miles an hour.”
He peppers the narrative with a colorful wit, describing a tow-boat worker having “the kind of teeth that made you wish he wouldn’t smile” and recounting a rainy period in Missouri in which “Noah would have been nervous.”
But Ranson’s polish doesn’t varnish. The trip feels real, too, in Ranson’s telling. Threaded through the vignettes is the hard reality of the trip – the monotony of paddling, the real threats to life and limb, and the strain the trip took on his relationship with partner John Van Landegham. “Like a bad marriage we never made eye contact … passed the time within our own invisible walls.”
Their trip was long and hard, but Paddling South is, for the reader, a pleasant little adventure.