The ninth, almost annual, Great Canoe Meltdown and Fishing Frenzy began in traditional confusion, with tortured renditions of "The Volga Boatman" and a riverside debate about food.
"Better to bring back 40 pounds of uneaten food than be without the one jar of olives you really need," argued Dennis Diamond, who by virtue of his girth and legendary appetite on past canoe trips served as spokesman for those in the four-canoe caravan advocating wretched excess. "When the food is gone, the fun is over."
"We don't need to worry about food on this trip," countered Kelly Coleman, a silver-tongued salesman from Ohio who could sell smile buttons at a public hanging. "With our talent as fishermen and a few voodoo chants to the river gods we'll catch enough fish to feed everybody in the state of Virginia. Dump the food. Use the space for frosty grog."
Great debates on matters of global consequence have been a cherished part of these trips since 1974, when three days of rain and too much bologna and white bread on Virginia's Rappahannock River prompted such probing questions as "When does the fun begin?" and "How long can this trip go on?"
Because every trip since then has been on some fast whitewater river, much of the late-night conversation has focused on learning to coexist with cowardice. During last year's open canoe trip down Georgia's Chattooga River, a tough, pounding river used in much of the movie, "Deliverance," we discussed proper etiquette for contacting next of kin.
But this year, after deciding to forgo the thrill of whitewater action for the piscatorial pleasure of seeking some of the world-renowned smallmouth bass in the Shenandoah River, our group of seven had time to consider less weighty subjects.
The first topic was how to punish Coleman for losing a stringer of more than a dozen fish just an hour before dinner.
"At first glance, you might think it was my fault. But those fish were so big and smart, they plotted this great escape . . . " said Coleman, who had learned many campsites ago to immediately take the offensive and hold it until the blaze of a wood fire could mesmerize his foes.
For 10 years we have played our respective roles beside a variety of lovely rivers, with affectionate loyalty. John Wilson, a 35-year-old graduate of Gonzaga High School who is now working as a construction supervisor in San Francisco, is always trail boss. All major questions of where, when and how, all emergencies are deferred to Wilson, who is competent and clever the way some people are tall.
Scotty Pearson flew in from Houston to act as anchor for the trip. As quiet as Coleman is talkative, Pearson serves as ultimate judge of humor. Make him laugh out loud and you know you have delivered a nice pitch. Even the rookies who fill out each year's trip assume a role to play with deliberate exaggeration.
Bill Allman, for example, a 29-year-old writer for Science 84 magazine who knew just one of the members of the group before the weekend, immediately became Mr. Science on the Shenandoah, the answer man for questions great and small.
Allman spent the first few hours of the trip proving that it is very easy to get snarled in a variety of trees and on any number of rocks while simultaneously solo paddling a canoe and fly-fishing in fast, shallow water. At the campfire the first night, Allman demonstrated that a pair of lightweight running shoes can be transformed beyond recognition if left too close to a roaring fire for half an hour. The next day, he broke his fly-fishing rod, then lost a borrowed spin-fishing outfit in one of the few deep-water sections of the river.
"This is the first trip I've ever been on where we ran out of fishing rods before we ran out of cold beer," said Allman, after two more members of our party laid waste to fishing equipment.
It would be nice to blame the Shenandoah's fish for that destruction. But you do not come to this river looking for lunkers. The South Fork of the Shenandoah, which the local Indians named for "daughter of the stars," is a sweet, clear and mostly scenic river chock full of fish that rarely grow larger than a few pounds. But with light tackle and the right attitude, the Shenandoah can be a nearly continuous fishing thrill.
Bluegills and other pan-sized sunfish put up a disproportionate fight on a light line. And even a seven-inch smallmouth bass can be electrifying when it tailwalks across five feet of river.
By the end of our trip, we had eaten or released nearly 100 fish, camped two bright nights on wood-lined shores and caught up on a year's worth of storytelling. And we still had cold beer and fried chicken for the ride home.
"Now that," Diamond said, "is a well-planned trip."