COVID-19 and social distancing has been an up and down experience for me, which is likely true for many of you. The bad days are highlighted by feelings of loneliness, uncertainty and isolation and, for me especially, feeling stuck. There are plenty of silver linings, though — I listened to the entire Harry Potter series (Jim Dale is an all-time great narrator), caught up on movies, cleaned the basement, came close to perfecting my no-meat bolognese recipe and, of course, lots of quality time with my wife and our four pets.
The best moments, though, have been spent with my father.
My dad, Don Morris, is something of a paddling legend here in northern New York, having co-authored North Flow with the late Paul Jamieson and paddled just about every stream, creek, river, pond and lake in the greater Adirondack region. I grew up riding along in canoes with my parents, and later paddling with them on flatwater and whitewater. Dad taught me to roll a kayak — insisting I learn to do it left and right handed, and without a paddle — and how to scout rapids.
A couple of years ago, Dad was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. We knew something was wrong for a while, but the official word still hit hard. As the disease worsens, I find myself overcome with regret. My dad and I spent a lot of time together outdoors, but not a lot of time talking — maybe that’s true for a lot of fathers and sons. There’s so much I don’t know about his life, and so many things I wish I’d asked. The great Albus Dumbledore — I’m a nerd, I know — once said something about regret being his “constant companion.” For me, there’s certainly truth in that, but dwelling on the past is not, I think, a good use of time.
When the warmer weather arrived earlier this month, I decided it was my turn to take my dad paddling. I take care of loading the boats, picking the destination and all of the other preparations, the same way he did when I was a kid. Living in Saranac Lake means we can jump onto any number of sections of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail — the Raquette, Lake Flower and Oseetah, the Saranac — without going too far afield.
We’re still not doing a lot of talking — such is the nature of Alzheimer’s — but that’s OK. Sitting quietly in our boats, taking in the views and watching the wildlife wake up from a long winter; it feels like enough.
Over the last several months, and in honor of its 20th anniversary, I’ve had a chance to get to know many of the individuals who helped shape the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, both the physical trail itself and the organization tasked with caring for it. Time and time again, I’ve heard the same message: the trail connects us geographically, yes — but the real magic is in its power to connect us with nature and each other.