For a couple of years the father had been telling his son he wastoo young. Too young to go on the long fishing trips, too young for the hikes and the camping and canoeing.

In truth, the man was afraid to take the boy out because he believes that first experiences inprint themselves on the memory, and he had visions of the boy's being bored or frightened or hurt and never coming to share his love of wild things and places.

The man's father - the grandfather the boy never knew - had been past 50 when his son was born. There had been no hikes or hunting, nevera campfire in the woods not a night together in a tent. There was no tradition to follow or pass on, and the man, still finding his own way through the basic outdoor skills, feared that he would be a poor teacher.

But to keep telling a six-year old boy who is bold and curious and active that he's too young is to disparage his growing sense of himself - itis literally to belittle him - and so one day this spring the man and the boy set out to canoe and camp overnight on the Rappahannock River from Fauquier Springs to Kelly's Ford. They started on a Friday, a school day, because weather and water levels don't follow the calendar.

With them, as safety man and surrogate grandfather, went a friend who knows about boys from having raised a pair of them. He knows about fathers, too.

The upper Rappahannock was chosen on the advice of Scott Carter, son of the late and famous river-running Randy Carter. "It's where dad tookme and where I took my boy at about the same age," he said. "There's just enough riffles to keep it interesting and to get him used to white water. The fishing's good, and there are plenty of nice places to camp. The distance is short enough to keep him from getting bored, and at theend of the trip there's a good long class III rapid. It's right above the takeout, so if you dump him you can put him right in the car to warm up."

The motion of the canoe fascinated the boy, and he picked up the principles of keeping it right side up almost without being told. As it turned out, it didn't matter when he forgot and leaned over to look for fish or grab floating leaves. His 50 pounds barely rocked the boat even when he stood.

Around a gentle bend half a mile downsteam the river was suddenly full of cows that had wandered in from the bordering pastures. Some ran and some stayed, and the boy loved it. "This is as close as I've ever been to a cow," he said.

The man still was runimating over that when the boy cried "Look! A tow-headed cow! Heads on both ends!"

The man thought it was damned decent for Mother Nature to time the birth of a calf for the benefit of a passing . . . until he saw the flies. The cow was snall and the calf was very large, with its left foreleg doubled under. It had stuck at the shoulders and died, perhaps the previous night. The cow, with a recently dehorned bull standing guard, had labored until she collapsed.

It was deeper lesson in the facts of life thn the man had anticipated, and of course they could not just go away and leave the desperate animal. The friend went for help while the man and the boy scouted for bugs and talked about how animals and people are born and die, and whether some tracks in the field had been made by a bear, and how the turkey vultures were circling, and why the farmer had cut the horns off the bull and when would it be time for the boy to get a snack from his army ammo box.

The friend came back and said he had found a man who said it was one of Henry Fletcher's cows and something would be done right away. Nearly an hour passed and nobody came, and the cow grew so weak her respiration was hard to detect. The men looked at each other and then rolled up their sleeves and pulled the calf out. Within five minutes the cow was breathing deep and gently, and her eyes were placid; on the assumption that somebody really was coming to tend the animal - someone did, and she recovered - they went on downriver.

As they rounded the next bend a wood duck came splashing an peeping across the stream 20 feet from the boy. "What's the matter with it, Dad?" he asked as she flopped and struggled. "It is drowning?"

"She wants you to think so," the man said, backing water. "Look over by the bank. She has ducklings there, and she's trying to draw us away from them." The tiny bits of fluff stayed frozen until the canoe loomed over them, and then dived. The man backed the canoe a few feet and waited. One by one the ducklings popped up, snatched a breath and dived again. The mother duck fluttered until she saw it was fruitless and then took off, circling back upriver and perching in a nearby tree. The men and the boy moved on downriver lest she abandon her brood.

The plan of the trip was to stop every half-hour or so and let the boy run around on the bank and explore, so he wouldn't get bored. There weren't that many convenient places to stop, but it didn't matter: He had a dip net to capture leaves and sticks and bugs with, and things to eat and drink, and over-arching branches to snatch at and a gentle rapid now and then for him to cheer.You don't see as much wildlife when you go hoorawing along, but nobody was going to tell him to be quiet.

Soon there was a suspension footbridge to explore, and a deer to not quite see, and tracks along the bank that had to be figured out. Deer and raccoons and muskrats, of course; a beaver, maybe. And just possibly an otter. All the stops added up to more time than had been allowed, and when at five o'clock it began to rain, despite the weatherman's promise, they abandoned the planned camping spot and started looking for any handy one.

The place they found, at the foot of the fun-scariest rapid of the day, was beneath a mighty sycamore in a level, grassy stretch of fallow pasture. A ridge spur rose high above the flat, with a gentle vista of mile or more. It was so perfect as almost to seem contrived. There were no roads, no fences, no "posted" signs, no trash or other sign of man. The ground was even soft enough for a boy to push in tent pegs by himself. The rain was just hard enough to make the unspoken point that, when you're outdoors and it rains, you stay outdoors.

Between setting up camp and dinner, the boy wandered in slowly increasing circles from the men. "Hey Dad!" he said. "Let's climb the hill."

We need to finish setting everything up before it gets dark," the man said. "You go ahead up and tell us what you see."

"By myself?"

"Sure, No cars to worry about out here." The hill was steep; the figure of the boy grew very small. Every hundred feet or so he turned to look back, and shout "Look at me." At the top his head was a dot above the waving grass. He looked back and then disappeared. A moment later his head popped up again, and he waved, and then he went out of sight.

Fooling with the stove, the man made a point of not looking toward the hill, and the friend bustled around with the venison chops. After what seemed a very long time, several minutes at least, the boy shouted again, and the men looked up. He raised his arms like a victory sign, which it was.

The meat tasted good, the boy said, what kind was it? Told it came from a deer the friend had shot, he reflected for a moment, looking disconcerted. Then he ate two chops, and about half a pound of wild rice and three cups of milk and everything else that was lying around loose.

It was half past nine, and the fireflies were out. He ran around in the meadow and caught one, but there was no jar to keep it in, so he released it inside the tent, where it flashed brilliantly against the green fabric while he lay in his sleeping bag and hugged his tiny teddy bear and listened to Arnold Lobel's Grasshopper on the Road .

"Hey Dad!" he said a dozen times after the story was over and it was time to go to sleep. Each time his voice piped higher and more musical as he grew sleepier. Hey Dad why do lightning bugs flash. Hey Dad does it hurt deers when you shoot them. Hey Dad do you really do this for work and they give you money. Hey Dad what if a bear came in the tent. Hey Dad where do birds go when it rains. Hey Dad do we really have to go home tomorrow. Hey Dad where do rivers start.

"Hey Dad!" The man waited, but no question came. Under the sound of the rain on the tent he heard the boy's breathing, deep and regular, and he reached over to tuck the sleeping bag up under his chin, and pet him.

In the morning the sun came bright and warm, with a breeze, and dried everything out while the boy fished and digested his pancakes. The first fish, a tiny bluegill, came to the hook almost the moment the boy lowered it in the water, but then there weren't any more. The man tried his hand, and caught an even tinier one, and that was the total haul for trip. The fish went into a bucket and home to the aquarium (where, apparently ignorant of turtles, they went almost immediately into Sour Sam the snapper and Dots the spotted turtle).

The day was a long, lazy float, longer than expected because ofslow water and a headwind, stops to get more pebbles for the bow gunner's shlingshot, and lots of what the man had unwisely told the boy were termed pisscalls. Pulling to the bank for one, they almost ran over a muskrat.

There were a dozen wood ducks, but on the lower river they seemed more accustomed to canoeists, and cut short their acts. A pair of hawks teased the men, moving from tree to tree downriver just out of identification range, and the watchers were surprised by what must have been spotted sandpipers, shorebirds seeming wildly out of place.

The white water began two miles above the takeout at Kelly's Ford, riffles followed by Class II rapids chosen to ease a young boy into the experience. They bumped a rock. "Don't bump rocks," the boy said, crouching in the bow.

For a while the man was able to avoid rocks. "Hey Dad!" the boy said. "Let's bump some more rocks." They bumped some more, shouting and singing. Then came the Class III boulder-ledge rapid at Sandy Beach. The man, not wanting it to be too exciting, tried a route to the right of the channel and got wedged between rocks.

The boy was quietly uneasy, watching his father waist-deep in the foam, dragging the boat across the slippery rocks. Once back in the main channel, the man hesitated until it was too late to choose which way to go around a huge boulder in the center sluice and ran up into it.

"Hey Dad!" the boy said. "Let's not bump any more rocks. I'm a little bit scared."

"I'm a little bit scared, too, Doodle," he said. "But we're almost through the big rapid, and when we get down to the bridge there that'll be all."

There was half a mile more of mild white water, with the boy holding on harder than was necessary. At the foot of the rapid there was a patch of rocks in quiet water, and on them stood a pair of mallards, the drake's green head iridescent in the slanting evening sun. The ducks stood placidly as the canoe drifted upon them, and began a slow retreat only when the boat came within 10 yards. The boy relaxed and watched them and then they were at the takeout and the end of the beginning. CAPTION: Picture, THE BOY FOUGHT BOREDOM BY FISHING THINGS FROM THE WATER WITH HIS NET, AND BY SWITCHING FROM ONE CANOE TO THE OTHER WHEN THE MEN STOPPED FOR A REST, By Hank Burchard