The Blueberry Tour

Having witnessed all this from the bank a few meters downstream, my son said, “Dad…” shaking his head as he spoke, “man, I thought we’d lost you there.”  He didn’t say what I imagined he was thinking:  How stupid can you get, dad?

Today, my son and I are tight.  But this didn’t happen until after he had become a father himself.  People marvel at how much we are alike today, but this probably has had more to do with genetics than anything else; we had scant opportunities to be father and son while he was growing up.  Divorced from his mother when he was still a toddler and separated from him for years while I was stationed at various army posts many miles away,  I was not there for my son to emulate.  But, as he visited with us over the holidays this year, we talked about this and we expressed our gratitude to one another and to the fates for the few special times that we did have together, times that eventually led us to be such good friends.  One of those times happened long ago during a short vacation trip in the Alps of Western Europe.  It happened, as I recall, pretty much like this… 

I asked one of our German tour guides when we would get to see the blueberries.  He just smiled a knowing smile as if the tour’s name was some kind of inside joke among his countrymen.  Blue- berries, real blueberries, I have since learned, are endemic to the northeast coast of North America and that they grow only there and in a few other isolated spots in South BlueberriesAmerica and Australia where climate and soil conditions are just right.  Prized for their sweet tangy taste and deep, dark blue color, they are shipped all over the world to where very high prices are commanded from affectionados.  So there would be no blueberries on this tour.  The tour would be… was intended to be, about something else, something scarce and precious.

I had read the recreation center brochure back in 1977 before booking the tour for myself and my teenage son who was visiting us in Germany from the states.  My son was barely fourteen then and I had not had much quality time with him since he was a toddler.  Actually, I had not had much time at all with him and I wanted to start building a relationship… to make up for lost time and opportunities to be a dad.  From the brochure I knew that he and I would be spending an early morning together on Lake Eibsee in the southern German state of Bayern learning how to paddle kayaks.  Then we would bus trip the rest of that first day through beautiful mountain passes into Austria and trail hike up into the Alps.  I knew that we would be spending a night breathing fresh mountain air and overnighting in a high mountain meadow chalet.  This would give us plenty of time and opportunities, or so I thought, for father-son chats.  The next morning we would each be claiming tour kayaks and shooting rapids down the northern side of the mountains back to the same lake from which we started.

What looked to be a challenging physical activity turned out to be no big deal on the still waters of the lake.  I had worried about falling over in a kayak, rolling over upside down and being trapped, there to drown in panic.  But our guides demonstrated before we even got into a kayak how easy and automatic it is to slip out of one these little boats when capsized. With a little practice, if the water is deep enough, one can just give a little flip of the paddle and roll completely over to the upright position again.  My son was able to do this trick.  I never could.  But, hey, he was much younger and athletic than I was.  He was also determined to show-up his old-man.

After the lake practice session and a quick breakfast of brötchen (literally “small breads”), cold cuts, cheeses, juice and strong coffee, I anticipated being able to engage my son in conversation on the bus trip.  I would ask about his other family, his mother and younger brother.  I would ask about his school and his friends back in the states.  I would ask about many things and I was determ- ined to listen to him, but I never got the chance.  There were other young men on this tour, come too with their dads who probably also hoped for the same kind of scarce, precious opportunity to build father-son relationships as I did.  All the young men chose to sit together in the back of the bus.  The fathers sat quietly alone as I did in the front.

At the drop-off point in Austria, we claimed our backpacks, listened to the guides’ instructions about trail safety, and then took off in file, two-by-two.  With my son beside me for the first mile or so, I attempted conversation, but my son wasn’t sharing much.  We stopped after half an hour for a potty break and to fill our canteens at a trailside artesian well.  When I came out of the porta-potty, my son was gone — left ahead of me with one of the other young men whose dad then joined me for the rest of the hike.  We walked pretty much in dejected silence together, talking little after learning from one another about what units in Germany we were assigned.  Then the trail got steep.  Still a smoker back then, it became more and more difficult for me to keep up.  By late afternoon I was trailing with half a dozen other stragglers, all of us dads, all of us smokers.  Huffing and puffing the last few hundred meters of the trail, which seemed to vanish altogether against an almost sheer cliff of rock, I finally caught up to the rest who were waiting for us at the top.  My son had only a few words and a knowing smirk for me:  “What kept you, dad?”

No… there would be no blueberries on this tour, at least not the kind I had expected and hoped for.  Just sour grapes.

The mountain meadow was absolutely beautiful.  And, at this altitude, even in late July, as the sun began to slip beneath the surrounding peaks, we all quickly sought the warmth and shelter of the chalet come hostel.  There was a great fire Mountain Meadowblazing in a fireplace made of river-washed boulders.  The great room of the lodge smelled of aged pine, smoke, and sausage cooking in the adjoining kitchen.  There were roebuck and red deer antlers on every wall, and photos too of past visitors not recognized by any of us Americans.  The photos went back to the turn of the twentieth century showing visitors, some of them in WWI and II German uniforms, some of them in lederhosen.

We all just sat there, as close to the fire as we could get, too tired to do much else while waiting for a hot meal to be served.  When it came, heaping platefuls of potatoes, sausage and fried eggs, we wolfed it all down chased by several choices of good German and local Austrian beers.

Soon as dinner was over, most of the party crashed — my son and the other young men upstairs on straw-filled mattresses in bunk bed-like racks.  He turned-in without so much as a, “good night, dad,” when I said good night to him.  I was so tired though that I excused his snub and don’t even remember for sure where I slept myself.  Perhaps it was right there on the floor beside the fire.  But I think I remember a big four-poster and a German feather bed, my reward for being the most senior in the party, both in age and in rank among the other adults who were all members of American armed forces.  Maybe that memory was just a dream. I don’t know.  But I do remember that a handful of dads stayed up playing chess.

Morning came too early; I woke to the smell of brewing coffee.  Ummmm… Breakfast was once again brötchen, cold cuts, and cheese.  I shook off stiffness, poured a cup of coffee and built myself a sandwich.  I asked where I might wash-up and was told that there was no running water in the chalet, hot or otherwise.  “Don’t worry,” said the guide, “you’ll be clean soon enough.”  Anticipating cold mountain river water, I immediately caught his meaning.

Outside, a small herd of goats had gathered begging handouts from the younger members of our party, my son among them.  The goats were getting more and more aggressive and I remember one of the guides telling our sons to stop spoiling them.  “Grab your gear and let’s go,” we were told.

It was only a short, down-hill walk to the head waters of the river that we would be running.  My tired bones were glad of that.  We soon came to the “put-in” point; red, yellow, green and blue kayaks were lined up near the truck that had brought them upstream for us.  In a single, large pile near them were helmets, in another there were life vests.  There were skirts in a third pile, elastic-hemmed canvas aprons to be worn with suspenders and stretched over our kayaks’ openings to keep them from flooding in turbulent waters.

We threw our backpacks on the truck, which would transport them back to the starting points, suited-up, then claimed a kayak and dragged it to the water’s edge.  There we experienced the shock of ankle-deep, near-freezing river water as we climbed-in, buttoned-up, and pushed off with our long, double paddles.  We whooped and squealed with glee for a few moments in the relatively still waters of the river as we splashed one another with our oars. Then we gathered, sculling in place to hear more instructions from our guides before heading downstream.  Important pointers included something about how to avoid “The Narrows.”  I heard, but failed to take heed.

The first small stretch of rapids, Classes I through maybe III (medium-sized waves with 3 to 5-foot drops requiring some maneuvering around boulders, but presenting no real danger), lasted for a thousand meters or so.  They were most exhilarating for us as beginners, but they were behind us before we knew it.

In a quiet pool area of the river, we waited for all members of the party to catch up, laughing and splashing one another some more until our guide told us what lay ahead: Classes II, III and some IV rapids (large waves, boulders and drops requiring considerable maneuvering and some danger for the inexperienced).  After a couple of thousand meters or so from where we were, we would encounter “The Narrows,” a two-foot wide, vertical crack in a large rock through which the river venturied with extreme force.  It would be on the right-hand side of the river, we were told, and we were warned to stay far to the left-hand side to avoid it.  Only the most experienced of kayakers should ever attempt to run it, we were told.  If any of us were concerned about safety, we should put-out here and rejoin the party farther downstream.  The truck would transport us.

I remember looking around, into the faces of all the others, wondering if any would put-out.  If any had, perhaps I would have do so too.  But none did.  I caught my son’s attention, “You alright with this son?”

“Are you kidding, dad?”  This said, he was one of the first to point his kayak downstream and paddle for the whitewater.  “Yahoooo,” I heard him yell.

Two or three of the other dads paddled after their sons before I was able to gather my own resolve to go for it.  Whatever happens, I thought, at least my son won’t think I’m chicken.

KayakingIt was upon us long before I anticipated, The Narrows was dead ahead and I was on the right-side of the river… the wrong side.  Stupid!

“Paddle hard to the left-side!” I heard someone yell from the bank – too late.  The force of the rushing water was just too much for me.  Worse, I had my kayak turned completely sideways trying to paddle around the rock.  I hit with such force that my kayak was pulled over.  Fortunately, I was able to roll to the left, my head upstream as the water’s force folded my kayak literally in half.  The kayak and I were then sucked right through sideways and I was trapped, unable to extricate myself from the fold.  I emerged on the downside with the help of two guides who were waiting there to “fish-out” hapless beginners like me who might not do as we were told.  How I escaped serious injury I will never know.

Having witnessed all this from the bank a few meters downstream, my son said, “Dad…” shaking his head as he spoke, “man, I thought we’d lost you there.”  He didn’t say what I imagined he was thinking:  How stupid can you get, dad?

The tour guides let me use another kayak, which surprised me, and they didn’t ask me to pay for the one I had ruined either  They must have factored the loss into the cost of the tour expecting it to happen from time to time.  But, oh how I wish it hadn’t happened to me, especially with my son watching.  Sour grapes…

I ran the rest of the river without mishap, but my son was always way ahead of me.  I didn’t see him again until putting-out at the far side of Lake Eibsee, which our river flowed into.  It was a small lake, but without the rushing water of a river to propel my kayak along, progress was slow, and my arms felt like lead before the day was over.  “Hey, dad,” my smiling son called out from the bank, “what kept you?” 

I vowed to one day give up smoking and get back in shape.

So, what did I learn about parenting on this so-called, blueberry tour?  I’m not sure.  But I think I learned that we cannot always make things happen with others when and how we want,  especially with young people.  All we can do is our best.  I also think I discovered a maxim:  seeds sprout best and the roots grow deeper when the planting takes place in the early Spring.  Accordingly, I would advise all parents to spend quality time, and lots of it with their kids before they grow into adolescence; teen- agers want nothing more than to distance themselves from us — unless it’s the keys to the family car. 

While reminiscing with my son about this trip, I was somewhat astonished to learn that what he remembered most vividly about it was that I had run out of money before the trip was over.  For us to share a meal the last evening of the trip, I had to ask him to contribute some of his earnings from babysitting our neighbors’ children.  He was less than thrilled to have to do so, and even more put out with me when the pizza we ordered that night was served with toppings that included recognizable bits of tomato.  To this day, he still hates tomatoes.

No, I didn’t find blueberries when I expected I would back in Germany when my son was still more interested in himself and his friends than he was in family.  But blueberries, like all good things, eventually come to those of us who never give up looking for them.

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Published on January 5, 2008 at 3:18 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks Kent, what a great, well written story. You had me all the way. Hope you publish these some day.
    My mother always used to say,”Everything comes to those who wait.” Amazingly it does. One just has to pray for patience!

    Yes, it is so important to talk with your children and participate in activities all the way through their lives. Never stop the open dialogue and sharing as it keeps the family together. My new son-in-law is amazed at how close we are as a family because it is something he has never experienced.

  2. Gee, Dad was I really that self absorbed? It is interesting how we change as we mature. I’m sure that I was a typical teen and totally missed your focus on becoming closer, but obviously from your comments I did have some respect for you. I still feel like we did some bonding on that trip though, and though I may not have said it I am greatful to you for sacrifice of time, money, and punishing yourself in the name of “bonding”. I often think of myself as a young father, and wish I had spent more time with my children also, they grow up so fast and become strangers before our eyes. What do I remember most about our excersion? The pizza we ordered was covered in sliced tomatoes, we slept 7 or 8 to a bunk like sardines, and I was terrified that my Father had drowned. Perhaps you were the Blueberry on the tour, blue from the cold water.

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