THREE BOATS AND A DOG
By Bill Coolidge
Before I-69 cut a wide swath of birch, maple
and pines, bulldozing old logging trails, Rip and I walked
those endless paths, jumping at the whirl of partridges who
leapt into the air as we approached, then pausing to watch the
orange caterpillars make their way across a fallen leaf. Rip
bent down, sniffed, backed off, continued on, always leading.
The sun as our compass, we wandered northeast, treading softly
on pine needles in the green glades accompanied by the sound
of wind rocked pines, the penetrating shrill of a red tailed
Before pontoon boats, before the lean, swift, glossy bass
boats and before jet skis, Rip and I could glide out into the
sweet, calm morning of a deep clear northern Michigan lake. He
sat trembling, waiting impatiently, on the sandy shore until I
pushed and pulled a brown Dunphy lapstrake boat into the
water. As soon as my head nodded, Rip leapt over the gunwales,
landing on the wide pine and oak floor. Secure.
At her wide stern was a 3 and 1/2 horse Johnson. An old one my
dad had kept in the garage for years. The kind where I wrapped
the rope, round and round and then with all the strength my
10-year-old skinny body could muster, I’d pull. Straight
back as if I had a bow and arrow in my hand. “Ha-whump, ha-whump.”
I pulled again. Success. She coughed and sputtered but caught
on. I quickly pushed in the choke button, turned the engine
around and we put putted backwards beyond the dock. Rip’s
back paws on the front seat, two front ones on the bow. Then,
like a barge, we plowed the water, leaving a big wake, going 8
knots per hour.
Rip looked back frequently as a seagull flew on by, as if
telling me to “Gun it, catch up with the seagull.” I
pretended not to notice his gaze of frustration. There we
were, a boy with his black and white English setter breaking
the silent waters, up the lake a mile and back, his
boundaries. I remember the churned water, the puffy exhaust,
the exciting smell of gasoline fumes, looking behind at what
we created, endless waves.
When I turned 12, my dad loaded his green aluminum “duck
boat” on top of the family Ford station wagon, “Let’s go
to the marina and talk to Ron Gardner.” I joined him in the
front seat, Rip jumped in the back, we headed north. I thought
we might purchase some new seat cushions to replace the old
blue ones that came with the Dunphy.
As we walked into the square tin building, my dad yelled out,
“You around here, Ron?” It was before Memorial Day. Life
hadn’t speeded up. Boat workers were still sanding,
painting, putting boats in the water. A short lean man walks
out, blue shirt and pants, scruffy gray/black whiskers, pipe
in his mouth, a bit snarling, “Whaddya you want Jack?” Ron
grabs a dirty towel and begins to clean his hands as he
watches my dad check out the new Johnsons and Evinrudes.
“Brought up the old duck boat, Ron. She’s aluminum, about
12’ long. I’m giving up on the old Dunphy. What do you
think we could put on her? A 7 and 1/2?”
“Naw, that’d be too much, Jack. A 5 and 1/2 be as much as
she could handle.”
“I want her to plane, Ron.”
“No problem, Jack, she’ll go 15, no trouble.”
“What do you think, Bill?”
“Oh, that’s fine, great,” shaking my head up and down. I
didn’t realize until then, that this discussion about the
engine and the boat included me.
The new green engine came with a separate red gas tank and a
cart to lug it out to the boat and back to the garage. It also
had a forward, neutral and reverse gear. As we drove home, I
kept turning around and looking at it. Rip kept his distance.
But my dad never said, “Bill, this is yours.” How could he
say that when I had three older brothers? They never had their
own boat. My dad did say, “If you want to use the boat, you
have to buy the gas.” Back then it was 33 cents a gallon.
Since my brothers had all aged out of mowing lawns, I went
knocking on doors. $1.25 a lawn. With four or five lawns a
week, I earned the gas money.
My dad carted the engine down the white dock, then me with the
oars and cushion, followed by Rip. I went back to the car and
with both hands carried the red gas tank, stopping along the
way to rest.
Starting this engine felt different. A black choke button to
pull out, squeezing the black round bulb to get gas into the
carburetor. Rip was confused. He sat on the shore, looking
back at the Dunphy vessel, laying on sawhorses and back at the
“Rip, get in!” My dad yelled as he pushed us off the
shore. Rip jumped as he always did but this time his claws
didn’t catch and he skidded off the seat onto the floor and
stayed there. His tail was not wagging. I pushed the prop into
the water and pulled the cord. Started on the first pull. I
set the lever into the forward. Rip looked timidly over the
gunwales of the boat, his tail limp.
“Go up front Rip!” I yelled over the noise of the engine.
Rip tenderly placed each paw forward, squirmed up to the front
seat, stood there, legs shaking. He put his front feet on the
bow but kept looking behind at me. Unsure. We planed, Rip
stretched his head forward, his nose catching the windborne
scents of water life, his ears flying behind.
Occasionally I wanted to go out on the lake by myself, without
Rip. About four in the afternoon, when the sun warmed the
ferns and pine needles in the back yard, Rip took a nap. I
tiptoed down to the dock and looked behind, safe so far. I
pushed the boat out and started it, but before I went 50 yards
down the beach, Rip would be high jumping docks and barking at
me. Furious. Neighbors would stop their activity and watch me
skimming the water, Rip hurdling the docks, howling. I’d
slow down and turn into shore. Upon hitting the beach, Rip
jumped in, stood on the seat and waited for me to push us back
into deeper water. No eye contact.
For three summers we were constant companions. His black and
white snout would widen into a great smile, drool hanging off
his lower lips, eventually smacking onto my chest. He loved to
bark at seagulls but eventually his eyelids closed into finely
levered slits as if he were entering a dog dreamworld filled
with the scent of pine and the steady pounding of the boat
skipping over waves. He learned how to lean into the turns and
when I slowed down to beach the duck boat, he’d turn around
The pounding of the waves, however, loosened the rivets
holding the boat together. Each Memorial Day, my dad would
bring up a riveter, but by the third summer I carried an old
Rival Dog Food can in the back of the boat. I’d have to bail
out the water as we cruised the lake.
In the Fall of my 15th year, I was riding with my dad in the
stationwagon. A man blinded by the sun, low at 5:00 p.m., made
a left-hand turn into us. I fell forward and broke my wrist.
The insurance company settled for $1500.
That spring, my dad said, “Bill, that old duck boat can’t
take any more pounding and I’m tired of riveting. What about
using your insurance money and we’ll buy you your own boat?”
I was amazed. I hadn’t realized how much my dad trusted me.
I also didn’t know he had picked the boat and motor, a new
15’ oak and pine Century with a 30 horsepower Johnson
electric start. A steering wheel behind the second seat,
mahogany deck, a beauty.
“You can use it to go to work.” I had found a summer job
working at a grocery store about three miles from our house. I
wiped the back of my hand across my eyes, when he said this,
pretending I was swatting a fly.
Ron Gardner had her all ready to go on Memorial Day weekend. I
pushed the red button and she started up. Rip jumped off the
dock and landed securely on the wooden front seat. Quickly he
put his paws on the deck and looked behind at me, “Ready?”
I met girls while I worked at the grocery store. After work or
on my day off, I walked out to the end of the dock, cushion
and oars in hand, preparing to go and visit one. Without Rip.
He jumped in anyway and I stood on the dock and whistled, “Come
on Rip, not this time.” He turned his head toward the wide,
deep part of the lake, longingly. Waiting in the silence, he
would eventually jump back on the dock. I’d hear the pitter
patter of his paws ambling back to the house. He never looked
Some Tuesdays, though, on my day off, I made a sandwich and
threw a couple of dog biscuts and we would head off for an
uninhabitated island about two miles away. We went ashore and
explored the old vine filled paths; Rip skirted back and forth
as if we were hunting pheasant. Some evenings, after supper,
we would cruise down to Perrett’s Point where it was marshy
and where the muskrat and otter lived. Slowly we would ramble
through the cattails, Rip peering down. His tail wagging
As I became an older teenager, Rip aged even more. He laid
down in the backyard, facing the woodpile where the chipmonks
roamed. He slept longer in the afternoon sun. I believe he
slumbered, waiting for my whistle and call, “Rip! Come on,
boat ride!” Sometimes I’d call, often I wouldn’t, but
when I whistled, he’d always come running.