chemistry lab

Little Miami River, Ohio, USA
Vashon Island, Washington, USA

A river in Ohio farm country pulls our canoe along at a lazy pace, winds us through fields and pastures. We scoot beneath branches, paddle a bit, talk, watch cows watch us, and paddle a bit more, two peas in a pod on a peaceful day. Until the river passes beneath a fence and Ken, in front, lifts a strand of barbed wire and jerks like a marionette under a mad puppeteer.


He turns and says with his eyes what he can’t say with his voice: Yes, the fence is electrified. On impulse, I rush to jump out, but there’s no time. I stretch toward the bottom of the canoe, but the barbed wire hangs too low to slide under untouched. We look at each other from either side of the fence, from within our aluminum canoe on a river full of water, and I reach out to lift the wire. Even though I fling the wire over my head fast and heave myself underneath, the deep hum of electricity that passes through me lasts too long.

As the river carries us away, Ken finds his voice.

“I couldn’t figure out what to do!” he says.

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We take deep breaths and tell each other the story again and again. Like me, Ken remains cool-headed beneath our chatter. I guide us around the river’s curves. He paddles in a steady rhythm. We don’t need to stop, or howl, or wring our hands. Here, inside our crucible, what I most need I already have: a best friend, a calm influence, a fellow science major ready to dissect the incident from all angles and examine the how and the why while the what fades and the frayed edges mend.

People together in a canoe are like cosmonauts in a spacecraft, twins in a womb, separate yet bound together. In a canoe, we share a mobile clubhouse, just us, come what may. Even a short canoe trip triggers a chemical reaction in a confined space. We affect each other, and the way we affect each other affects our trip.

From the moment any two of us meet beside a canoe with the intent to paddle together, we develop joined rhythms peculiar to our chemistry. We stow our gear with precision and shove off from shore with finesse and dry feet. When I paddle from the stern, you tend to paddle on the right. When you sit in the stern, I talk more. You point out the wildlife I would have missed.

But with a different person in the canoe, the chemistry changes. Now I trail my hand through the water and forget to paddle. Now I am a slob with wet feet and mischievous thoughts. Now I remain silent when I sit in the bow, except for this urge to giggle.

In tall grass on the shore of Vashon Island, in Washington State, Flora and I stand with our hands on our hips and stare at our friend Amy’s canoe.

“You take the stern,” I say.

“No way, sweetie. Then I’d have to steer. You go,” says Flora.

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After we shove off, Vashon Island, my home for eight years, looks like a foreign country. This far inside the inlets of the island, calm water and heat induce a stupor. Birds fly by, cabins perch on the brink. We float within a curve of pine trees and green water.



“Let’s stay out here forever.”

She sighs and puts her paddle across her knees. We drift.

“Look at that,” says Flora. She leans over the edge of the canoe until the tips of her hair float like seaweed. “I can see all the way to the bottom. And, hey, look – a fish.”

“Now I’m hungry.”

“I was hungry before we left. And I’m in front so I’ll beat you to dinner.”

“Let’s see how fast we can go,” I say. I steer the canoe back toward Amy’s house.

“Yeah,” says Flora. “We’re not mere wimps on a sedate tour of the backwater.”

“No way.” I shove my paddle faster through the water.

“We’re empowered wild women, home after months on the prowl, laden with …”


“Yes, laden with fish and ready to see our men-folk.” Flora stretches for each stroke and I match her pace.

“My heavens, sweetie, we’re good,” she says between breaths. “Let’s shoot right up onto shore.” We rocket toward Amy’s patch of shoreline with the expectation of a smooth inland cruise that neatly parts the grass and keeps our feet dry as we disembark.

The water feels like cement against my paddle. I shove against it with all my strength.

“Make way!” yells Flora.

When we ram the foot-high cliff, camouflaged by grass and amnesia, the back of the canoe rears up like a rodeo bronco. Flora shoots into the space in front of her seat and wedges into a knot of limbs. I fly forward into the bottom of the canoe, onto my back, and soak up the seawater that splashes over us. We sway with the canoe, incapacitated, and shout our laughter into the summer air.

Alchemy strikes again.

When we enter the half-cocoon of a canoe together, we take two trips. One trip moves us through the world out there: scenery, air, water. We encounter a tricky fence or a mis-read shoreline. We float past moose and otters, cows, bogs. We paddle into the evening sun.

But don’t forget the other trip, the chemistry experiment of you plus me in a canoe. No matter how far we roam together, this trip is local, alive in the connection that passes between us, alive like electricity, or laughter.

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