The first howls of the wolf cubs sounded shortly after nine o'clock, just as the full moon came out from behind low clouds. They echoed musically from the cliff across the Shenandoah and then were answered by the young of another pack at a campground a little way upriver.
In the tent with me lay my nephew John, 14, sleeping off the effects of his first day of paddling a canoe and of the five or six pounds of steak he had refueled with. The howls were coming from the neighboring tent containing his sisters Nancy, 13, and Jennie, 10, and my son Mark, eight.
They were literally bouncing off the walls, and their tent bulged and quivered like a sack of Kilkenny cats. The temptation to tell them to quiet down and go to sleep rose reflexively and faded upon reflection: Why should they? The whole purpose of such a trip is to break the ordinary pattern of life, and the kids were hardly likely to damage a tent that had once withstood 90 knots of wind over an open beach.
The girls had a lot of steam to let off because they live in Canada, where winter seems to run right through the school year, and had spent much of the day trying to remember not to rock the boats that had brought us down the river to their first night in the great outdoors.
I had spent most of the day biting my tongue and trying to keep up with John, who had picked up more about canoeing in a few hours that I had known at the end of a three-day beginner's course. With the encouragement of Mark, who was his bow man, John had developed a fondness for ramming the other boats, and the horseplay was a little rough for a cool day on cold water. A capsize would not have been dangerous, for the Shenandoah was running low and slow, but it would have been unpleasant until we could have got everybody ashore and dry.
I held my peace, most of the time, and relied on the judgment of Joe Sottosanti of Shenandoah River Outfitters in Luray, who was our supplier and guide. "The boy's got good balance and control," Sottosanti said during the lunch break. "I wouldn't worry about it; everything I packed in his boat will float. He isn't going to turn my boat over, and if he dumps yours, shame on you."
I envied Sottosanti just sitting back in his boat like a big placid bear. He and his staff have been taking novices out for years, sometimes hundreds at a time, and haven't lost one yet. I was beset with the anxiety of being an uncle, which is a special role in our family.
Our uncles are supposed to be able to do just about anything well, to have lots of time for nephews and nieces and to tell great stories that grow out of the nutty situations they're always getting into. Mainly you're supposed to be able to tell them anything in confidence and to do things with them that your own parents might never think of, and probably wouldn't approve of.
My Uncle George, who is a doctor, took me out drinking before the law allowed. He told me war stories until I got loaded and then gave me a long vivid lecture on the creative and destructive effects of alcohol, being funny and gory in turns. My Uncle Clarence, who was a farmer, let me drive a tractor when I was too young, and after I almost knocked down the house with it, he let me drive it again. My Uncle djohn, who was a diplomat and writer, earned his place in heaven by listening respectfully far into the night while I, at 15, lectured about what was wrong with the world and how to write.
So Uncle Hank lay silent in his sleeping bag and listened to Nancy and Jennie and Mark trying to scare each other, and succeeding. The riot went on until one o'clock. I had to stay awake because, occasionally, they would call out for reassurance about some shadow or noise; and another rule about our uncles is that they are always supposed to be there when you need them.
Between times they would forget I was there, and so I got to listen to them asking Mark whether Uncle Hank always goes out and eats weeds and flowers from the ground (Sottosanti and I had tried to feed them a soup made up largely of wild mustard and violets). And I got to hear Mark's answer, which was, "Oh, yeah, he's crazy. He eats anything. I bet he'd eat a bug."
"Let's catch one and see if he will," Jennie proposed.
"Ooh, no," Nancy said. "He might do it."
I began to relax along about then. Apparently I was measuring up as an Uncle.