Life Along the Mighty St. Lawrence

JUSTIN SORENSEN / NNY OUTDOORS

By: Scott Smith

As the door is unlocked and light arcs into the boathouse, a certain something makes its way into your olfactory senses.  A musty, damp and entirely wonderful smell of old life jackets, hemp rope, fishing gear, motor oil and stale gasoline.  Throw in the high probability of mouse mess in the cabinets, and you get the picture.  And, I love it!  That first opening of the boathouse in the springtime is always pretty special.  It marks a new beginning, new projects, new adventures and memories of summers past. 

     What we call the dry boathouse was built about 1880 and was originally a skiff house.  The end facing the River had a shallow dock and a ramp on which the then-ubiquitous St. Lawrence Skiff would reside.  Along one wall is a well-worn work bench with various well-worn tools lined up on the wall behind it.  A line-up of old outboard motors fills the gap between the end of the bench and the far end of the boathouse.  My Dad called these the ‘runners’, the ones he liked to get out on a regular basis.  He collected old outboards, maybe as many as 300 at one point, but he had his favorites and several of them wound up down here.  I still drag a couple out every summer and make some smoke with them, knowing he’d appreciate it if he was still here.

     An assortment of water toys are piled into our own St. Lawrence rowing skiff, tucked along the west wall of the boathouse.  The toys include a couple of plastic kayaks, an old set of water skis, a couple of tow ropes, paddles, oars, mismatched boat cushions and a large tow tube in need of air. 

     The door of a small white cabinet on the wall at the end of the boathouse opens to reveal several fish-shaped pencil outlines that loosely resemble northern pike.  They are signed and dated by my Uncle Robert and Uncle Hollis, along with size information and lures used.  The cabinet was originally in the long-gone boathouse that used to occupy the slip next door.  Now owned by my aunt and uncle, the boathouse that originally went with their cottage succumbed to ice and rot over 40 years ago now.  We saved a few things from it, among them this cabinet, with its family fishing history intact.  I like to think it still has some of that old place’s boathouse smell retained in the grain of the old wood.

     My trip down memory lane is interrupted by my 7-year-old, asking where his stick boat is.  I made several of these for my kids and friends’ kids, based on a design my Dad made for my brothers and I when I was about that age.  We wrestle the boat and its tangled string and stick out of a pile of planter boxes on the bench.  He runs off to zip the boat up and down the dock, while I return to my task.

     Yes, my task – the reason I’ve opened up the boathouse and entered the time warp within.  Gas tank.  Oars.  Cushions.  And Johnny Cash.  Johnny Cash is a pieced together outboard motor, the core of which my wife picked up for me when she took a load of junk to the scrappers a few years ago.  I assembled a complete motor using up some odds and ends I had squirreled away, resulting in a motor that runs great, but is as ugly looking as they come.  It has parts from Evinrude and Johnson outboards ranging from 1958 to 1982, hence the name, inspired by his song “One Piece at a Time” about building a Cadillac with pieces smuggled out of the factory in his lunch box. 

JUSTIN SORENSEN / NNY OUTDOORS

     I carry these items out into the daylight, brisk but clear for an early April Saturday, and lay them on the dock.  The old Starcraft aluminum 14-footer, also known as “The Tinny,” still lays half-rolled up against a rock wall a few feet from shore.  With a bit of effort, I roll the boat onto its bottom, and half slide, half drag it into the water and tie it up to the dock.  I then set about assembling the various items into the boat, with clamping Johnny Cash onto the transom saved for last.

     There’s something about going through this process that is comforting, in a way.  More so now, with children of my own.  At seven, he may not yet be aware of what the process means.  He lives a different life than I did.  I was a summer resident – he’s growing up here.  I was away from the River for more than half the year – it’s always right there for him.  But the process, the ritual, if you will, is still there, even if it has changed to some degree.

     I remember helping my Dad get things opened up in the spring, back when the place was more of a cottage than a home.  Those first weekend visits involved getting the water on, hoping there weren’t any cracked pipes.  Back then the water pump was in the boathouse and I tried to be there when Dad opened it up so I could get that first whiff of the summer to come.  I know, I know, work now, play later.  But couldn’t we just get the little aluminum boat out with that one motor we tuned up over the winter?  More often than not, we did manage to do just that.  A father and his son, out for their first ride on the River, welcoming in a new season.

     I hook up the fuel line, give the bulb a few good squeezes, set the throttle, pull the choke, and three pulls later a cloud of blue smoke wafts from the back of the motor.  The motor coughs and sputters a bit before settling into a smooth idle.  By this time, my 7-year- old has bored of the stick boat and wandered over to see what I’m doing.   A big grin takes over his face as I motion for him to untie the bow line, as I undo the loop at the stern.  He clambers aboard and we’re off for our first ride of the season.  A father and his son, a cycle renewed.