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Know the West

Bury it standing


A few weekends back, I was out in the front yard, digging a deep hole. I cut out wedges of turf to mark the dimensions, then went down through layers of topsoil. The first foot was easy, through rich moist dirt. After that I hit seams of gravel. The ground got drier and harder the deeper I went. Before long I was having to pound away with the shovel, chiseling grudging inches. As the hole deepened, the angle of the shovel handle became awkward. I reached in with a bucket to scoop out dirt. It was cool, but I started to sweat. 

Cars went past. Drivers looked over at the growing mound of dirt, another weekend project. I imagined what I'd say if someone asked what I was up to. 

"Planting a canoe," I'd respond. 

I've had this canoe more than 20 years. It's a Royalex boat with mahogany gunwales and ash thwarts, once a cutting-edge hull design. It carried me all the way across Canada in the mid-'80s. It spent a 10-month winter of 40- and 50-below temperatures on the shores of Lake Athabasca, patiently waiting for the ice to go off. It has carried the supplies for entire summers, sat heavy on my shoulders across dozens of portages, weathered rapids and storm-tossed lakes, served as a windbreak while I cooked dinner on the tundra. 

All in all, a faithful and beautiful craft. More than that. A companion. 

As the hole got deeper, I re-measured the stern of the red canoe. I shaved some dirt from the sides, kept pounding, past three feet. The ground became hard as concrete. I lay on my belly and hammered awkwardly against the bottom with a big screwdriver to loosen dirt. The inches came slowly. My back ached. I could hardly reach the floor of the hole to scoop out loose dirt. With my head down inside, it smelled of grass and earthworms and drought. 

Last winter, the old canoe developed the mother of all "cold cracks." It's a syndrome common to Royalex hulls with wood gunwales. The plastic and wood freeze and thaw at different rates, stressing the hull to the point that it cracks. Loosening the gunwales helps alleviate the problem, but even so, hairline cracks are common. This crack went through the entire hull and spread almost halfway around the canoe. 

I noticed it in the spring, and had spent much of the summer thinking about what to do. We didn't paddle that boat anymore. We'd moved on to different canoes. 

I thought about carting it off to the dump, leaving it there among the piles of human detritus. But I didn't like the feel of that. I considered patching the hull with strips of fiberglass and giving it away, but I knew the boat was done, that whomever I gave it to would be saddled with maintenance and sooner or later the inevitable problem of disposal. 

The thought of burying the boat flashed through my mind. It's not easy to bury a canoe, not like when we laid the kids' favorite hamster to rest under the apple tree. But the impulse had the right energy. Maybe, I thought, I should sink the canoe to the gunwales somewhere in the yard as a kind of planter. We could fill it with flowers and pretty rocks, bits of driftwood. 

One night, before sleep, I told my wife, Marypat, that I had this crazy idea about what to do with the old canoe. She listened. She didn't say anything for a while, long enough that I wondered if she'd drifted off. 

Then she turned to me. "What if we buried it upright, like a totem pole?" 

As soon as she said it, I knew she was right. 

"Cool," I said. "Let's put it right out front. You can't hide a totem in the back." 

I wanted the top edge of the stern seat above ground. At that, the boat would be sunk more than 40 inches down. I scraped away at the hole until I could barely reach anymore, thinking that the tradition of burying someone six feet deep must have come from country with really thick topsoil. 

It was dusk by the time everything was ready. I drilled some drain holes in the stern of the canoe. We lugged it from the canoe rack. The kids came out to watch. A neighbor strolled over. 

It was a tight fit, just what I hoped for. The sharp stern wiggled down, came to rest against the bottom, the bow towered 14 feet in the air. 

We poured gravel into the hull to weight it down, tamped earth back in, then more gravel. It didn't take long. We stood back. The boat faced more or less east. The hull was beautiful, sleek, a taper against the sky. It made me think of paddling across Lake Athabasca on a still day, near twilight, with an island camp full of blueberries rising ahead. It made me ache for days on the water; a sweet ache. 

Just before dark, I went back out with a metal platter and a glass vase filled with polished river rocks from the Yellowstone. I set the plate just behind the rim of the stern seat. The rocks gleamed there in the pale evening light. 


Alan Kesselheim is a freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana. He is the author of nine books and hundreds of magazine articles, and the proud owner of a few canoes.