An Inflatable Raft

Trips to Lake Erie weren’t uncommon for my family. Sunday trips on the boat, yearly weekly vacations, regular fishing trips. We rented cottages where we docked. It was an area I knew well, its channels, the shorelines. The channels, its cocoa-colored waters that smelled of dead fish and gasoline. The channels were lined with docked boats, some of which quietly leaked fluids. The fish didn’t seem to mind, though. I still caught them there: bullhead, sheephead, perch and the occasional crappie. And I didn’t mind, either. I grew to kind of like the smells–well, what came with them.

We’d go on vacation, I’d fish. If I went with Dad to work on the boat, I’d fish. I’d fish among the canvased boats with their leaking and promises of expeditions. Sometimes between them, sometimes accidentally casting on top of them. All the while, knowing that I would one day have a boat of my own. Even after seeing the struggles my dad and uncle went through to keep them running–afloat, even.

But that wouldn’t be for some time, I knew. At least until my mid-teens when I’d acquired a paper route and found other means of getting money, such as mowing lawns and caddying. Making my own money allowed things to be more in my reach. Including a boat. Of sorts.

One day, I spied an inflatable two man raft in a catalog. The picture showed someone paddling in it in some sort of chlorinated water. It seemed a boring thing, putzing around a pool in such a thing. I could think of a hundred better uses. But I only needed one. As I looked at the price, things all fell into place. A boat. I could afford it. And it was portable, to boot!

I remember opening the box, the smell of new rubber, putting together the plastic oars. But most of all, I recall the excitement of opportunity. And the next time we went to the lake, I took it.

As an adult, I know the foolishness of fishing in an inflatable raft. One stray hook could mean a long swim back to shore and possibly my fishing gear. Hell, I knew that back then. But that was a thought that had no bearing on my decision. The raft came with a handy little foot pump, which my lungs were grateful for. I could have taken it for a spin in the channels, just to test it out. That thought crossed my mind, as well. But I took it straight into the lake itself.

Calling it a two man raft was a stretch. It had just enough room for me and my tackle box. I had no idea how two grown men could squeeze into it–at least without a surgical alteration or two. One-and-a-half man raft sounded more accurate. And I hadn’t inflated it quite enough: the loops that I slipped the oars through were loose and bowed down dangerously close to the water as I rowed. But row, I did. I could correct it another time.

After the first twenty feet or so, I felt exhilarated. I wasn’t even sure why. Perhaps it was the whiff of independence.┬áThe waves rolled under the raft, it bowed with them, on top of them. Nothing like the stiff resistance of my Dad’s Lyman. I’d never been on a waterbed before, but was certain that was what it would feel like.

I didn’t go too far out–not by boat standards. Maybe a couple hundred yards. Just far enough to know I was free from the shoreline. I cast my line, rigged with a hook and sinker, into the lake and leaned back.

I sat for a while, gently floating, my reel ticking gently when I had to compensate for slack. Leaning back, the lap of the waves was close to my ears. The sky was a bit bluer that day, the air a bit fresher. And I was 200 yards closer to adulthood.

Then something hit my line with a fury.

Setting the hook was now instinctive, having done so hundreds and hundreds of times before. I sat up in my boat, feeling the weight of the pounding fish on the other end. The excitement of a big catch. The anticipation of the fight and finally seeing what kind it was. But then realizing something I hadn’t taken into account. The boat was moving. And at a fairly good clip. I didn’t have the rigidness of shoreline, or the weight of a wooden boat below me. Just myself and air-filled rubber.

I did the only thing I could, keep reeling; all the while at the mercy of the fish on the other end. A thought crossed my mind. That of the legendary sturgeon that once swam the waters of Lake Erie, and supposedly did on rare occasion. As my raft was whisked away further from the shore, I could only think of what would happen if I landed one of those beasts on my lightweight watercraft: I would never see home.

The fish was no sturgeon. It was, however, big enough to take me where it would. And it did for a while, until I was eventually able to reel enough to get it close to the boat.

Then it broke water, I saw it, a large catfish. A great christening for my one-and-a-half-man raft.

But then another thought: catfish fins. Sharp, bone-hard. Little knitting needles that were the bane of all things inflatable. I’d handled many of them; learned to hold them with their fins between my fingers so I wouldn’t get poked. There was little I could do, however, when their bodies thrashed about.

I extended my pole out from the boat, to try to keep the catfish at bay. I had to lean over the side to reach it, then. My weight on the side of the boat, it gave. Water poured in. I backed off of it. Don’t under-inflate raft. Check.

The front of the boat was fatter, had better support. I leaned over that, pulling the big cat that way. But it was wider, and I had to lean over it further to keep the fish away from the boat. There, hung perilously over the front of the boat, the raft’s tow handle buried in my chest, I grabbed for the cat. It thrashed. I winced, pulling it away from the side. Then it settled. Another attempt, another series of thrashing, another wince.

The third attempt, I had him, a solid grip just below his head. I set the pole down and wrenched the hook free of his mouth. Then, relief. One last look. One last moment to admire my catch. That’s what fishermen do. Then I let it go.

I took a moment or two to settle myself. I could have destroyed my new boat. It could have sank and I would have lost my gear. But I hadn’t. Me, my tackle and boat were all still here.

I glanced at the shoreline. 300 yards out now. 300 yards further. 300 yards closer.

I baited my hook and cast my line.