When I was a young warthog, growing up in the small town of Fort Erie, a good part of my time in the summer was spent on the Niagara River.
One of the few rivers in the world that flow north, the Niagara started in Fort Erie, where Lake Erie emptied into it and it flowed, generally at a speed of 7-8 knots, for some 24 miles down to the rapids and then over Niagara Falls and on into Lake Ontario.
My friends and I all had inner tubes which we could blow up and float down the river in town. There were a series of docks along the river in town where you could land and walk back to the place you started and do it all again. Sometimes we would even do it without the tubes.
Because we were young and stupid and the river, we believed, was our friend, we grew up without any real sense of just how dangerous that fast flowing water could be. There were no shortage of undertows, and we used to hear stories about them, but we always believed getting caught in one of them would never happen to us.
One day, one of my pals, or maybe it was even me, had this idea to see if we could float our inner tubes the entire length of the river, down to the white water where the rapids started, then paddle in to the town of Chippewa and hitchhike back home.
I didn’t realize it at that time, but in order to make this happen we had to build a strong team.
There were eight of us. 5 boys and 3 girls. We met at Crescent Beach, about two miles from the mouth of the river, which was where our adventure would begin, and talked strategy.
We would need inner tubes, of course, and bungee cords to fasten them to each other. We would also need need good trash bags for our clothes and flip flops and some way to tie them all together. We would also need sunscreen and hats because the sun reflecting off the water would be quite intense.
One kid even arranged with his older brother (who thought we were crazy), to drive his truck to Chippewa and pick us up when we were done, providing of course we weren’t turned into hamburger floating in the Niagara gorge.
We were a resourceful bunch and it only took a day or two for us to get organized.
On a bright sunny day in July, we waded out into the shallow waters of Lake Erie and fastened the tubes in a circle formation. We attached all the trash bags which were sealed with a lot of air in them so they would stay afloat.
We then pushed our little flotilla out into the lake until we felt the current of the river drawing us down toward the Peace Bridge, about 2 miles downstream. We all climbed aboard our tubes and away we went.
Two of us were designated navigators. One on each side of the inner tube cluster. Whenever we started moving too close to the centre of the river or too close to the shore, we slide off our tubes, kick real hard and push the cluster back on course.
The object was to stay as close to shore as we could because we knew that when we hit Chippewa, the speed of the river would accelerate dramatically. If we were too far from shore we would stand a pretty good chance of going over the Falls.
That was in our minds, but as was previously mentioned: young and stupid and convinced we would live forever.
The trip took the better part of 3 hours, and for the most part, it was just a bunch of kids on the water, risking being grounded for the rest of the summer if we were ever found out.
The ride itself was really quite enjoyable. The Niagara Parkway, which ran along side the river between Fort Erie and Chippewa is one of the nicest places in Ontario. We chatted and ate the chocolate bars we had stuffed in our pockets and generally watched the world go by.
Never having been on the water that far up the river, we were actually quite surprised at how quickly the placid water turned to the foamy faster rushing stuff. A little calling card for the rapids ahead. But our team was dauntless and we rode it for a while until we saw the town of Chippewa ahead of us.
Then four of us got out and pushed our flotilla like crazy until the churning water flattened out. The kids inside the tubes stretched out on their backs to get their butts out of the water to lessen the drag.
All this time we could hear the thunderous sound of Niagara Falls in our ears, so you might say we were highly incentivized.
By the time we got to the place on shore where my friend’s brother was waiting for us, we were exhausted. He stood there leaning on the fender of his truck with his arms crossed and a smile on his face. and said, “Well, you guys are gonna have a story to tell your kids, aren’t you?”
But we never told anybody, and I never mentioned it at all until I told my kids about it one time when we were coming home from Fort Erie along the Parkway.
Teamwork is essential for getting things done. In this case, it was about saving ourselves from whatever would have happened to us if we had blown the project.
Granted, the consequences of blown teamwork aren’t always as potentially severe. But it’s not about blowing anything. It’s about succeeding together and the satisfaction that comes with it.
Last summer I was down in Fort Erie having dinner at a Chinese restaurant on the river. After dinner, my sister and I were standing on the bank of the river and I was astonished at just how much faster, not being young and stupid, that water seemed to be flowing.
My sister knew the story I just told you, and she turned to me and said: “Jimmy, look at that river. You were such an asshole when you were younger.”
I seldom argue with my sister because she’s a lot smarter than I am. And I wasn’t about to start then.
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