It was Michael, the eccentric hippie renegade, who collared us and made us return the canoe that we stole.
Well, perhaps "stole" is too strong a word for what Dave and I did. We only snuck into Camp Albocondo under cover of midnight, lifted one of the red fiberglass canoes from the racks, found some boards which we could use as paddles, and hauled everything down to the river and put in. Then we shoved off downstream into the darkness.
All right: stole.
But we did intend to bring everything back in a few weeks. When you are 16 or 17 (it was in the late 1960's), sometimes moral distinctions can be a little fuzzy. We reasoned: hey, they're a camp; they're rich; they won't miss one canoe. How wrong we were, as you will see.
It was early winter and there was a pretty good nip in the air, but we were bundled up and we had physical exertions to keep us warm. I paddled stern, guiding us down the swift current of the Toms River, deep in the piney woods where the stream is narrow and twisty. My friend Dave was in the bow, and he couldn't do much more than fend off with his board, as we would come around a sharp bend and get caught by an unseen snag across our passage. Obstacles would loom up quickly in the starlight, and Dave had only his right arm to wield the paddle; he was carefully favoring the left, which was in a cast and still tender from having been recently broken. That's right, and don't ask me what we were thinking, but I believe we had been planning this escapade for awhile, previous to Dave's accident.
I don't remember if it was cloudy or clear, but there was enough light to see a little. It was an enchanting passage through the winter woods, taking on a dreamlike quality after about two hours; Dave hunkered in the bows, fending off with his makeshift oar, and getting progressively colder; his broken arm beginning to hurt more. I steered as carefully as I could, surging with the current around snags and bushes if I could manage it, as they hove into view in the dimness.
The dream was abruptly shattered by an ominous glow and a gushing sound coming from up ahead. We emerged around a bend into an open reach of water with no trees, and a baleful glare of floodlights around us, as the current propelled our boat straight into and through the gushing effluent from a huge 6-foot outflow pipe, dumping liquid waste from the nearby Toms River Chemical plant. The horrid gloop was brown and foamy, and stunk violently. (This dumping was illegal even back then in the 60's; the plant, known then as CIBA, was always in legal battles, although the outflow pipe was a pretty long way from the camp, and it's likely that campers seldom or never came this far. Not at night, anyway.)
The stench and globs of brown foam stayed with us the rest of the way downriver. Surging along on the dark, swift current winding amongst the trees, mile after mile, we were afraid to splash even a drop of the now-stinking water into the boat.
As dawn was breaking, we reached the river's mouth by Toms River town, where the stream opens out into the expansive reach of water that turns into Barnegat Bay. Our destination at this point was about a half mile further across the open water, to a grassy point of land where we intended to hide the canoe. Then from there we would hike to our homes, before our parents were even aware that we had been out.
We made this last stretch paddling straight into the teeth of a horizontal blizzard of light snow, that had sprung up from dead ahead. We forged into it across the open water in the pale light of dawn, the frigid wind-driven wavelets breaking against our bows, and Dave helping to paddle as well as he could. We made it across to the point of land, drew up into the long grass and hid the canoe. We were exhausted, freezing, and exhilarated. We had done it. Now we parted, and hiked to our respective homes and a few hours of bed.
So that was that. But who is this Michael, how did he find out about our caper, and what happened next?
Michael is David's older brother, and, simply answered, Dave told him what we had done. As I mentioned, we were more proud than ashamed of it. But Michael was a deep-eyed, evangelistical hippie who believed in Truth and Justice; his long penetrating gazes straight into my eyes would make me begin to squirm, and wonder why he didn't look somewhere else for awhile. But what we had done was Wrong; we would not be bringing the canoe back in a few weeks under cover of darkness: we would be bringing it back now; this very hour, and confess to the faces of the camp owners.
As of this point, the canoe had been hidden in the snow-dusted long grass out at the point, for several days. We hadn't felt like venturing out into the winter blasts again, to use it.
But whether or no, Michael was insistent; we lashed the boat onto the top of his car, and drove it back out to the camp up in the woods.
There were people in the camp office. They saw their canoe drive up. They were astonished; it belonged to a private member, who had been combing the river up and down for days, bereft at the loss of his prize boat. Where had we found it?
Dave and I were led forward by the noses, as it were, and forced to produce our tale. The man's jaw dropped, between gratitude, anger, and plain bewilderment. Anger won out, to be replaced again by gratitude, and finally, a helpless loss for words. He just couldn't figure out what to say. We left him with his property; we being much reddened about the ears as we sheepishly left the office, carrying with us a deep lesson that has endured. And my belated thanks to Michael, for helping us end it right.
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