The Only Canoe on the Bayou, 1976
by Margaret Donovan Bauer
Upon returning to south Louisiana in late June of 1976 from my fifth year of summer camp in western North Carolina, I informed my parents that I wanted a canoe. “We’ll talk about it at Christmas,” my dad said. I’m sure my friends believed my family’s perceived wealth (by the standards of the tiny town of Franklin) must have meant we got everything we wanted, whenever we wanted, but no, we did not get such large gifts as an actual, full-sized boat just for the asking, although it is true that a canoe would not have been out of the realm of possibility for a Christmas or birthday gift. But my birthday is in February, so neither of those occasions promised good canoeing weather. Plus, I didn’t want to wait several months. We lived on a bayou. I wanted to enjoy the canoe for the rest of the summer.
“I have the money,” I told Dad. “I can buy it myself if you’ll take me wherever canoes are sold.” He was skeptical, assuming I had no understanding of how much money a canoe would cost, so I showed him my little navy Commercial Bank deposit book, in which he read, to his surprise and delight, that I had just over a thousand dollars in the savings account he had helped me open to put my earnings in. I worked after school and during the summer as a gopher for his law firm. He could not imagine how I had managed to save a thousand dollars making fifty cents an hour supplemented only by my weekly allowance (which was just a few dollars a week, by the time I was fourteen, as I was when I showed him the bank book). The answer was simple: I put most of my earnings in the bank every week and did not make withdrawals. I was saving it, not even knowing yet that there might be something I wanted to spend it on at some point during the ten months between my birthday and Christmas.
In my memory, Dad took me to Lafayette that very day, though it was likely the following weekend. In any case, he rewarded my thriftiness by helping me to find what I was looking for as soon as he had the time. I could have bought a pirogue locally, of course, and a used one for likely very little money, but I wanted an aluminum or fiberglass canoe like the ones we had learned to handle at Camp Green Cove. Such a purchase required going to an outdoors sporting goods store in Lafayette, about forty miles west of Franklin. To reward me for saving my money, while he did not pay for the canoe (it not being my birthday or Christmas), Dad did pay for the paddles and kneepads.
My red and silver canoe, probably about fifteen feet long, was the only aluminum canoe on the bayou that I ever saw, and it did get a lot of use from my friends and me. Two or three of us would take it either northwest toward the Eastwood Bridge or southeast toward a quarry in Garden City (an incongruously named tiny village a few miles southeast of our house, which was right outside of the Franklin town limits). The quarry was much more fun than just paddling into town. We’d pull up to the bank there to hang out on the closest thing to a beach one could find on that bayou. Most of the banks on both sides of the bayou were muddy, overgrown, snake-infested—certainly no place to picnic. With cypress trees growing out of the shallow water, getting too close risked a snake dropping into the canoe.
In the middle of the bayou off the bank of the quarry, my best friend Monique and I could show the others how we’d learned at camp to flip the canoe over, standing in the canoe with both hands gripping one side, one foot against the other side, then rocking and ultimately pulling the boat over our heads. We’d then turn it back over and paddle in it full of water back to shore. After passing that particular safety test at camp, we had often flipped canoes just for the fun of it—and for the opportunity to swim in a warmer section of the lake. The designated swimming area was less open, shady, and where the snowmelt from the nearby mountain ended up—in short, cold water. We swam in it only for the twenty-minute swim test the first day of camp and then during free swim periods only the few seconds it took after dropping from the rope swing into the water to get to the ladder to climb up and get in line again. The canoe side of the lake was more temperate for swimming, though certainly not as warm as a Louisiana bayou. The Bayou Teche felt more like a bath than a cool swimming pool, so warm in fact that it only cooled us off because the humid air around us in summer was stifling, the temperatures in the nineties at best, often over a hundred degrees.
Approaching puberty before my last summers at camp, my friends and I enjoyed canoeing over as far as we were allowed to go toward the boys’ camp. The closer we got, the more likely we might get a glimpse of some of the Camp Mondamin boys canoeing or sailing toward Camp Green Cove waters to get a glimpse of us. Similarly, back home on the bayou, we also enjoyed running into our male schoolmates during our canoe trips up or down the bayou. A few of them had small powerboats—usually a pirogue with a two-or-so-horsepower motor on the back, allowing for much closer encounters than the Mondamin boys waving from their boats, scoping out girls they might look for at the weekly square dance but closely chaperoned by camp counselors. Summers at home in the 1970s involved hours of unsupervised adventures for young teens in the safe environment of a sleepy south Louisiana town and its surrounding area. Our boyfriends on the bayou would circle my canoe, creating waves from their wake, not enough to do more than rock the canoe a bit, but I can hear us squealing feigning annoyance, see us splashing water with our paddles at the offenders. And my teenage self is thinking, what a great way to have spent a chunk of my savings.
I wonder what my daddy would say if I told him that I got my first “real” kiss, the one when you both figure out where the tongues go, thanks to that canoe. Some of the boys we knew met a few of us at the quarry. Among them, my childhood sweetheart Tim, who grew up to be a very sweet man. Of course Daddy would not have been thrilled that his little girl was growing up, but he knew Tim was a nice boy, the son of one of my favorite and the parish’s most respected teachers. Dad would have been touched to know that thirty-five years later, Tim drove the three-and-a-half hours down from his home in north Louisiana for Dad’s funeral. I know how grateful I felt when the next person in the line of people who came up to speak to us after the service was my sweet first beau, grayer at the temples, but with the same warm smile that reaches into his blue eyes. Perhaps I owe some of my recent nostalgia for childhood to the presence of people like Tim that day, who brought with them memories of a time when fun could be had by just putting boats in the water.
That canoe was the first of several big-ticket purchases I have made in my lifetime. I learned from that experience to save my earnings so that when I wanted something “big” I could buy it for myself. A house for example, a 1925 bungalow within walking distance to work, which I bought for over twice more than what I’d intended to spend on a condominium since I was still single. I had resisted buying a house without a husband, but I’d realized I was no longer dating men whose smiles reached their eyes, and I’d finally taken myself to a therapist to find out why. At some point, she pointed out to me that my life was quite full, reminding me of how much I enjoyed my work and what good friends I have. A husband would be icing, she said, and cake is just fine without icing. But, she noted, perhaps I needed a project for my non-working hours while I learned how to choose being alone over staying with the wrong man. Knowing how much I hated the dark apartment I’d rented to save money for a couple of years flying back and forth to my previous residence where I’d left my last love interest, she suggested I find a home in my new home state. It was a year since that relationship had ended, and I was still living in that dark apartment where the ivy I’d moved from one residence to another since college had not grown a single leaf. My therapist even gave me a tip to start my search, a house she knew about for sale close to the university where I teach. When I called the realtor to get more information and set up an appointment to see the house, I was too embarrassed to tell her that the house was much more than I intended to spend. But when I drove down the street of the house to meet the realtor, I passed a For Sale by Owner sign in front of my house. When the realtor arrived, I told her, “I’ll look at this house with you, but,” I said, pointing at the slate green bungalow two doors down, “that one is mine. Please help me get it.” She did. This house is in Greenville, North Carolina, which has been my home for over twenty years now.
I said every summer upon returning from Camp Green Cove that I’d live in North Carolina one day. Sure enough, I ended up with an ideal job on the eastern end of the state. What happened to the mountains? I remember thinking as I looked out of the window for the final flight to my interview, the Charlotte to Greenville leg. I was confused. I had researched the job but not the region, thinking I “knew” North Carolina. I had not, however, realized what a long state it is, and the terrain at the eastern end is much more like Louisiana than the mountains of summer camp.
On the plus side, it was still snowing in Indiana where I was teaching at the time of this interview, but in Greenville, azaleas and dogwood were blooming, and I reveled in the warm spring air during the campus tour. I was told that we are close to the beach here—although I would later find out that the Atlantic stays cold through June, not unlike that frigid swimming lake at Green Cove (I was used to the beaches that line the Gulf of Mexico, warm like a bayou as early as spring break).
At some point after I found my dream house, I dated a guy for a while who took me out in his boat to fish on what he called “creeks” but which I found more like the bayous of south Louisiana than the creeks I’d stepped or hopped over when hiking in the mountains at camp, or at least easily waded across. Although my relationship with the fisherman was another one that did not work out, the experience reminded me of my love of being on the water, warm water you can swim in without being too cold, and I embraced my new home region, even if it is not the North Carolina of my youth. The rivers here in eastern North Carolina are not rapids like in the western end of the state but broad and slow-moving like the Mississippi, even bay-like, where I have bought a second home on the Pamlico River, a writing retreat about twenty miles from my home in town. Perhaps coming full circle, I bought this home on a wide river in North Carolina with a man whose warm smile reaches into his big brown eyes.
A year later, I bought a boat for us. He buys the gas—and has been buying the gas for some dozen years now.
“Bayou Teche” art by Jane Desonier, mother of Margaret Donovan Bauer.
A native of south Louisiana, Margaret Donovan Bauer is the Rives Chair of Southern Literature and distinguished professor of Arts and Sciences at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. She has served as editor of the North Carolina Literary Review since 1997. She is the author of four books of literary scholarship, the last one A Study of Scarletts: Scarlett O’Hara and Her Literary Daughters (2014). Her recent honors include the North Carolina Award for Literature and the R. Hunt Parker Memorial Award for significant contributions to North Carolina literature, both presented in 2017.