Two years ago, some friends and I bought a boat.
It began as a laugh on a river that wandered its way into a whimsy that solidified into a dream that, finally, exploded into a full-blown mission. Two years ago, sixty-three of my paddling buddies and I bought a brand-spanking new, shiny, green Blackfly Option canoe, and it was one of the best gifts we ever received.
Here’s what happened.
My friend Renee Garside and I were paddling on the Hiwassee River and giggling about our friend Woody. Everybody in the middle Tennessee paddling community knows Woody Woodall, but for those outside the area, his resume might read something like this:
• Whitewater canoeist, approximately 40 years
• Level IV Swift Water Rescue Instructor
• Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association (TSRA) – current president, board member, long-time devoted member and advocate
• Creator of highly sought-after paddling-themed art
• Ever-patient mentor (and frequent rescuer) of several generations of wide-eyed whitewater babes
• One of the people who built those river accesses we use all the time
• The guy who would probably give you the shirt off of his back even if he doesn’t like you
(Actually, Woody’s Facebook page describes his employment as “Think I’ll Fire Myself and Go Paddling,” which also sums things up pretty well.)
Renee and I were remembering an announcement Woody had made before a paddle a few days back. When he saw how many newbies were signed up, he ended the usual safety talk with, “Anybody who might require assistance or rescue or pullin’ out of strainers on this paddle is gonna need to provide me a major credit card number in advance. Thank you.” Then he walked off and left them looking around at each other, wondering whether they should laugh or dig out their wallets.
“Lord, I better give him mine!”
“Hey, what if everybody he ever rescued gave him a buck? Or five bucks? Then he could buy his Blackfly!”
Because Woody had a whole herd of well seasoned (read: old) boats that he paddled, with effortless grace, but he always talked about the day he’d upgrade to “his” Blackfly: specifically, an Option. He had tried out a friend’s, and it was love at first stroke. But the Blackfly had been placed on indefinite hold when Woody committed to working a part-time schedule so he could care for his aging parents.
“Maybe we should ask ‘em,” I said. “I actually thought about it once. Like, put together a Facebook group, or something, and see if people wanted to donate. There’s this thing called GoFundMe where you can set up donations. But then I thought it probably wouldn’t work, and everybody would hate it, and it would suck.” (This is my usual M.O. when it comes to following through on moments of inspiration.)
Renee was all over the idea, though – kind of like a pitbull with a ham bone. She’s also a TSRA board member, and she wanted to bring the idea up at their next meeting. She spoke in all “ohs” and exclamation marks for the next half hour. “Oh, I love it! Oh, we have to! It’ll work! We can give it to him for Christmas! Oh, he’ll love it! Oh, it would be so awesome! Oh, we really really have to do this! Please! Please! Oh, PLEASE!”
She wore me down. So I dried off and went home and created a secret Facebook page – that was how Project B came to life. I was pretty uncomfortable with the idea of asking people for money (and whitewater paddlers are not known for having wads of extra cash lying around), but two things made it sort of okay: 1) everybody loves this guy and 2) he’s earned it, a few times over. The invite was simple: you’ve been added to this group because you’re Woody’s friend. If he’s ever rescued you, mentored you, or just been there for you and you want to be part of this, here’s the link. If you can’t give any money, stick around for the fun anyway.
I was pretty excited to see what would happen. And a little nervous that folks would react badly because well…you just never can tell. Some of the invitees were people I didn’t even know personally, everybody from swift water rescue legends to TSRA old-timers to randoms who seemed to show up on Woody’s Facebook page a lot. (Family? Friend? Third-grade girlfriend? What the hey, you’re in.)
When the thing went live, I sat there (at work) staring at the computer screen, and in a few minutes, we got our first bite. A donation! $20! It was from Russ, a quiet guy who had only been around for a few months. Woody had approved of the young man’s interest and made sure he had good quality (if previously loved) rescue gear and a spot in an upcoming swift water class. A few minutes later I checked again … three more. $100. $20. $300? (That one was from “Swim Mer.” Guess s/he was paid up.) They were rolling in faster than I could keep track of them! I was a horrible employee for the rest of the day.
Renee and I had decided that we’d collect money until Christmas, and whatever we were short, we could make up ourselves, or with the help of a few close friends. That’s not the way things played out. I had set the GoFundMe goal at $1500 (I didn’t know then that with shipping, we actually needed $1760). Within six hours of my posting, we had enough for the boat and the shipping. By the next day, we had enough for new airbags and an electric pump. After that, we had to keep finding more things to buy.
I had been worried that people might be offended at being asked to donate for a new boat – a luxury item, for sure. Most of us in this sport aren’t made of money – hey, these folks probably wouldn’t mind having a new boat themselves, right? What I found out is that not only were they not upset at being asked, they were absolutely delighted with the idea – thrilled, over the moon, in love with it. They didn’t want to just give money. They wanted to be up to their necks in it and get their hands all dirty with it. Our friend Bob Snuck took charge of ordering the boat from Jeremy Laucks at Blackfly. Woody’s best friend, former TSRA president and fellow swift water rescue guru Charlie Wilkerson conspired with me on a regular basis, pumping Woody about gear he needed to replace, brands and colors he preferred, and texting me the results in real time. Allison Ware and Doug Hosler set about planning an “End of the Year Celebration” party at Doug’s house, where we’d decided to make this thing happen. John Schneider solicited photos and videos and put together a multimedia extravaganza of Woody memories to be shown at the party.
Sadly, we found out that you can’t just up and buy a dang Blackfly. You have to get on the list to get one made for you, and it takes weeks and weeks, and no amount of pleading or storytelling or offering of bribes gets you moved up in line. We were now faced with the dizzying task of keeping 70-plus whitewater paddlers’ mouths shut for several weeks about something they were monumentally excited about, including such times during which they might indulge in their relaxation substances of choice. There was that day I looked at my Facebook timeline and saw this message: “Hey, LC! Okay if I bring my money for Woody’s boat to the party?” PANIC and where is delete delete delete delete delete!!! Or when somebody meant to post a photo of an Option to the group page and posted it…to my timeline. (I paddle Jackson kayaks. Not suspicious. Nope.) Every time Woody mentioned his Blackfly during this time period, I was sure he was onto us. But, for the most part, the Project B bunch was almost miraculously silent.
To the outside world, anyway – within the group page, everybody had opinions on every aspect of what was to be done. Extensive arguments were made on everything from what color should be ordered (Charlie said he likes the green!) to where it should be presented to how it should be revealed…you name it, it was discussed to death. Everybody should probably have been huffy and in a bad mood, but they weren’t. We were giddy. We had $3200 and a friend to spoil, and we were determined to do it right. Who was luckier than us? It became a daily ritual to check in and see what piece of gear had been ordered, shipped…arrived. Every delicious detail had to be perfect, right down to the decal Charlie made of Woody’s signature, so that he could look like one of his own art pieces when he paddled down the river. For two months, people from all walks of life made a business out of obsessing on Woody’s Blackfly.
We got a delivery date, and the eagle landed. November 1 was set as D-Day.
It was my job to get Woody to the party, and I was a wreck. It didn’t help to have thirty nervous messages an hour wanting status checks. It also didn’t help that, that morning, Woody asked if I’d rather blow it off and go on the West Fork of the Obey to paddle. And I, notorious eschewer of social events, had to convince him that I absolutely wanted to skip paddling to go to a party. Why? I just…want to, that’s all. And then I finally had him in the car on the way there, and he started talking about how he thought he’d have enough money soon to order his Blackfly. “I thought I liked the green, but they have this purple that’s really sweet!” (Oh, no, you di’ent, Jack, and I can’t hear you and LALALALALALA.)
The short drive to Doug’s house took years, but we did eventually get there. Not everybody was able to make it, but most people did. I got away from Woody and snuck off with Doug to decal the beautiful boat, which was hiding under a blanket in the garage. I couldn’t believe it was there and I was touching it. I couldn’t believe we had pulled it off together…all of us.
The next forty-five minutes or so had to rank among everybody’s top ten weirdest party experiences ever (and in this crowd, that’s saying something). Everyone was acting just a little too casual and trying to eat, and nobody would look anybody in the eye. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I turned on Woody and said, loudly, “We have an ulterior motive for being here.” He looked confused (and maybe slightly embarrassed for me).
“We’re all here because we wanted to say thanks, for rescuing us, mentoring us, being our friend, and just being an exceptional human being. Here, we wanted you to have this.” I handed him a bumper sticker that said, “Kayaking sucks.” He had one of those on one of his old canoes.
Now, he looked dumbfounded.
Somebody else came up and handed him a new throw rope. “And this too.” And a waterproof case for his phone: “Here.” “Thanks, Woody” – new PFD. Also, three new paddles – bam, bam, bam. “Thank you!” “Love you, Woody!” “Thanks, Woody!” Then we pretty much shoved him out onto the deck, where some of the guys had moved the boat, with the airbags and the pump in it, glimmering greenly in the dark. All Woody could do was kind of croak: “No!”
And then everybody was laughing and crying and hugging, behaving not at all like one would expect from a crowd of seasoned, badass whitewater paddlers. Once everybody settled down, we explained to him that we had so much money that we ran out of things to buy, so we donated the rest to TSRA’s Pam Floyd Foundation, which funds rescue training.
After that, it was a for-real party. We stayed late and left tired and joyful and a little empty that our grand project was over, but looking forward to the Blackfly’s maiden voyage.
That’s the whole story – we bought a boat, and that’s all. It’s kind of scratched up now. But I suspect that every time that crazy little green canoe goes out on the river, it takes a little piece of lot of people on board, including some folks whose paddling days are long behind them now. Project B is a public Facebook group now, open to all river-crazies and any other kindred spirits who are open to the ride.
There’s something Charlie often says when someone thanks him for lending them a hand or his throw rope on the river, and I think of that when I think of Project B: “This is who we are. This is what we do.”
I hope so.