Any remaining shreds of pre-kids camp canoe trip confidence immediately evaporated as Austin stepped from the anchored dock into the unsteady hull of the bright red Pelican canoe.
The vessel rocked violently as his legs wobbled while attempting to sit in the bow of the boat, knuckles white as his hands clamped tightly on the canoe's sides.
"I want to get out," he declared between gasps of breath, the canoe still shifting side-to-side as we started to paddle away from the dock along the shoreline of the Quemahoning Reservoir south of Johnstown.
"Sorry, Austin," I tried to reassure him. "Everyone has to go at this point, and we need to stay with the group. We will be OK."
My words didn't help. He continued to shake, and with each movement, the canoe shifted unsteadily below. Of course, this didn't help instill confidence as Austin continued to beg for us to paddle to the shore, his volume increasing proportionally to his internal panic level.
I sat on my knees, both spread as far apart as possible in an attempt to offset the sudden jerks from side to side. As much as I tried to convince him the canoe wasn't going to flip -- I envisioned us plunging at any moment into the lake below.
In preparation for the increasingly realistic odds of such a flip, Gordon -- the other youngster in the canoe with us -- and I maneuvered close enough to the shoreline to keep the waters below shallow, but also far enough away to let Austin know we planned to keep forging ahead.
Slowly, with each paddle stroke away from the dock, and with each few-minutes clip we remained upright, Austin's rigid composure softened.
"Look," I told him, motioning forward, "there's a rabbit up ahead! He's not even nervous about us getting close. How cool is that?"
Austin watched the wild creature as it took a quick drink, sniffed the air, and leisurely hopped back into the woody shoreline.
"Hey," mentioned Gordon, "there's a deer."
A small doe walked the shoreline parallel to us, more curious than cautious.
As we rounded a bend and entered a small cove that showed no signs of trails, trash or other human interruption, there were many natural sights to take in. A bald eagle soared in the distance. A few brightly colored butterflies flittered near some flowers on the shoreline. A fish jumped in a still area ahead of us. A small turtle popped up its head to glance at us as it swam past.
Austin verbally responded to it all with just one word -- "Cool!" -- but his body language expressed much more. The tension in his shoulders disappeared. His fingers regained their color as he slowly loosened the death-grip on the canoe's hull. The ride underneath us smoothed considerably.
The week-long kids camp experience that summer, a number of years ago, provided a quite a few memorable moments, but none were as impactful for me than that canoe trip.
For Austin, the hour-long paddle was about much more than overcoming the fear of flipping into the murky waters below. There is no magic pill that can give someone the confidence-boosting therapeutic payout of an outdoors milestone moment like a canoe or kayak trip into the unknown.
It is this sort of experience that helped spark the concept of the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper HERYN (Helping Engage our River's Youth with Nature) program -- an effort to purposefully connect young people with the recreational and therapeutic benefits of the Susquehanna River and its network of tributaries. We will be doing day-long sessions helping these youngsters learn the skills they need to successfully enjoy time in a kayak and fishing.
The goal goes beyond fostering a life-long love and appreciation for the sports themselves, but also to create a vested interest that fuels the next generation of river-based stewards.
Help our association obtain the tools necessary to share these sort of life-changing experiences with more young people. All money raised during our 2020 #GivingTuesday campaign will be put toward kayaks, a kayak trailer and final preparations for our Riverkeeper patrol boat. Plus, our association's board of directors will be matching up to $2,500 of donations received for our #GivingTuesday campaign. See more information below!
I personally can't wait to get more young people on the water and begging for more, kind of like Austin did as we climbed out of the canoe and onto the steady foundation of the dock after our memorable trip.
"That was fun," he stated through a smile as he walked confidently toward a small staging area near the dock while showing off his newfound sea legs.
In ironic contrast, I struggled to keep up, hobbled by the pins-and-needles sensation of my feet slowly regaining blood-flow from an hour-long canoe trip on my knees. I barely made it to where the group gathered before I heard Austin's question.
"You ready to go back out?"
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John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.