Monday, August 29, 2016

"Two Coots in a Canoe" about two sixty-something men on a sometime contentious month-long paddle the length of the Connecticut River

       In 2003 two sixty-year-old retirees, David Morine and Ramsey Peard leave their wives and families for a month to paddle a tandem canoe on the winding Connecticut River from the U.S./Canadian border 400 miles to Long Island Sound.  They had been best friends when students at the University of Virginia's graduate school of business administration but, while keeping in touch, had seen very little of each other since graduation in 1969.  The pair thought the canoe trip would be a great way to refresh their friendship.
       Not really, if you accept the perspective of Morine, bowman for the trip and author of "Two Coots in a Canoe." about the experience,  published by Globe Pequot Publishing (2009).  Morine's rather matter of fact account of the trip leaves the reader wondering how in the world the two very different men became friends in the first place.
       As we learn of the life stories of the two men as told by Morine and revealed by interactions with the people they meet along the way, the two men were different in nearly every way from how to steer a canoe through a bend to what to wear when you are the stranger in a small New England town.
        The trip serves as a handy literary device for Morine, a published writer, to include the stories of a diverse collection of people the pair meets during their month-long river adventure.    In addition to the life stories of the two central characters, Morine and Peard, a Princeton University blue-blood who proposed the trip and who serves as the politically conservative foil to Morine, a Boston-area native who headed land acquisition for The Nature Conservancy for 18 years, space is given to discussions of the demise of farming in New England, the boom in higher education, gay rights, the decay of small towns after their manufacturing base dies and, of course, the river and the conservation efforts to protect it.  The old coot persona the two men embrace is on full display when they come in contact with younger people along the way.
        Where did all these colorful, accomplished strangers come from?  Both Morine and Peard state early in the book they had no interest in camping, sleeping or eating on the river bank, even for just one night.  Instead they would get bed and board from "strangers" along the river who would invite them in, exchanging food and a dry bed for the experience of meeting them and hearing the story of the trip.
         Ripping a page from Tennessee William's "A Streetcar Named Desire," the well-heeled seniors considered this their version of "depending on the kindness of strangers" or just plain "mooching."
      Not wanting to leave this crucial detail to chance, well in advance of the trip, a press release about the trip was sent via email to 1,500 members of the Connecticut River Watershed Council.  Those who wanted to host the pair replied and arrangements were made.  A story about the trip published in a local paper a few days before the two men launched issued the same invitation to a larger audience. 
        As it turned out many of the hosts were known to Morine, who had spend 30 years working in conservation in the area.  However, a stupid decision not to bring a cell phone, maybe in a effort to preserve a shred of wilderness feeling for the trip, meant they would have to meet others as they searched for a pay phone each evening to contact their hosts for the night to come and pick them up from where they landed.
          Readers of the book who do not live in New England and who are not avid conservationists may find the copious space given to describing the many conservation groups that have formed to protect land along the river from development, their funding sources and the motives of the people who lead them, tedious, detailed and boring reading.
         Another criticism I have is that someone looking for detailed information about paddling the Connecticut River will not find it in "Two Coots in a Canoe."  While the pair must have known more about canoeing than they let on in the book to even consider such a trip avid paddlers will want to consult guide books on paddling the river for info on what they will find, where to put-in and take out etc., etc.
         Treat "Coots" as the color commentary to the game that is really being played in the guidebooks and maps of the river.
         More interesting are the pair's take on the lives of the people they so briefly interact with.
        Real insightful observations are rare from either gentleman but there was this after an afternoon at Dartmouth College: "Living in a college town gives old geezers like Ramsey and me a chance to interact with coeds, and that made us feel young again, like we were still in the game."
          The book's prose does not rise to the level of great non-fiction adventure travel writing as practiced by Paul Thoreau and Bill Bryson but is straight forward and readable.  (Morine had five books to his credit before "Coots" was published but gives credit to Paul Flint "for making everything I write readable.")
        Near the end of the book tensions between the two men which had been simmering since the launch from Cannan, VT. reached the boiling point. The book has a decidedly downbeat ending.
 "Two Coots in a Canoe" by David Morine is available from Amazon.  My copy came from a local thrift store.