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Dragon Slayers

An overnight canoe trip turns into a successful test of courage _ and wits.

Bob Meers considered the question, then offered a carefully crafted response.

"Nope," the veteran canoe outfitter said. "Nobody's seen that ghost for some time now probably two or three months."

My companions, whose ages ranged from 11 to 13, thought the old man was kidding.

"I'm serious the woods are haunted by the spirit of a Confederate soldier whose head got blown off by a cannonball," I lied.

Meers nodded, then gave me a wink.

"But don't worry," I continued. "Our campsite will be at least a quarter-mile from the cemetery."

The boys were the ones who pointed out the rows of bone-white tombstones glistening in the sun as we drove down the country road on our way to the Nobelton Canoe Outpost. Then they saw the coiled razor wire that surrounded a prison a short stretch down the road.

"I hope we're not camping near that jail," one of them said.

The opportunity was just too good to resist.

"Actually, it's not a jail," I lied. "It's a hospital for the criminally insane."

But I told my comrades not to worry. We would be camped too far away to hear the screams.

The three boys, a pair of brothers and a neighborhood friend, were about to embark on their first overnight canoe trip, a leisurely 18-mile paddle down the Withlacoochee River. I knew the adventure would test them physically. It was up to me to add a few mental obstacles.

You see, in order for a boy to become a man, he must face a challenge and persevere. The proverbial slaying of the dragon, so to speak. In Africa, the Masai send their young men out to hunt lion armed with nothing but spears. But here in Florida, where large, man-eating carnivores are scarce, one must rely on the imagination to add an element of danger.

My indoctrination came at age 8 on a wilderness lake along Maine's Alagash Waterway. My father had taken the Jeep into town for supplies. My brother, noticing a raccoon had gotten into our garbage, pointed out some bones scattered along the creek bed.

"Looks like the bears got dad," he lied. "I'm in charge now. I'll give you a head start. Run!"

What happened next is not important. Results are what count.

I thought about sharing that story, and others, with the lads as we stopped at the spot the river forked. But I decided against it when they looked at me for direction. So I threw up my arms and said I was as lost as they were.

"Looks like the current goes this way," one of them said, noticing that the leaves were drifting to the left. "Is that right?"

I shrugged and let them lead the way. Two hours later, we stopped where the small, swampy run rejoined the main branch of the river.

"Hey, guys, I hate to tell you this, but I think we went the wrong way," I lied. "We've got to paddle back up against the current."

My paddling partners were furious. How could I be so stupid, they said. No, they weren't paddling upstream. They would rather die in their seats than paddle another stroke.

Then one of them noticed the broad expanse of river at my back.

"Wait a minute," he said. "We're going the right way."

Which is exactly the conclusion I came to 30 years earlier after running frantically through the woods for a half hour with a demonic sibling in pursuit.

"Wait a minute those were chicken bones," I suddenly realized, stopping dead in my tracks.

From that point on, the young warriors, like so many before them, began to question the decisions that affected their destiny. They had learned to take control of situations instead of allowing situations to control them. They had faced their fears and persevered.

Back at the Canoe Outpost, the rocks, logs and shallow shoals that caused so much trouble were forgotten. Instead, they remembered the wide, alligator-infested lake they conquered at twilight when they thought they could go no farther.

The dragon was dead.

Nobleton Canoe Outpost

NUMBER TO CALL: (800) 783-5284.

WEB SITE: www.nobletoncanoes.com

IF YOU GO: The Nobleton Canoe Outpost offers a variety of day and overnight trips. The following excursions offer an excellent introduction for first-time paddlers. All these trips cost $30 for two people, $35 for three.

Hog Island, 5 miles from Outpost, 2 hours float time.

Iron Bridge, 8 miles from Outpost, 3{ hours float time.

Silver Lake, 10 miles from Outpost, 4{ hours float time.

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