Right now the 64th annual Ford Indianapolis Boat, Sport and Travel Show is the center of the Hoosier outdoor world but sports shows in general hold a special place in the heart of all youngsters and most outdoor writers. When I was an actual, practicing 12-year-old boy, the “Boat Show” was certainly one of the highest points on my yearly calendar. Indeed, at that point in my tender youth it would have been difficult to choose between walking into the show and catching a ten-pound bass.
Many other readers can likely remember the magical moment of stepping through the doors to be greeted by the smell of grilled onions and popcorn floating over the buzz of a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. Periodically a duck call would ring out and the public address system would boom with garbled announcements for the upcoming lumberjack show. There were decoys and dogs and fishing poles and every sort of gear imaginable for sale, all of which led to earnest self-promises of saving summer lawn mowing money to finance a headlong dive into the big bargain bins next year.
There were other enticements equally magnificent. Boat companies were foolish enough to bring huge cabin cruisers into the arena and allow youngsters with non-existent credit ratings to get their grimy hands all over the plush interiors. In most cases the salespeople were charitable and would at least allow a quick once-over before shooing the urchins over the transom with a stern look.
It is somewhat sad when you consider that entire Canadian forests were clear-cut in order to manufacture the brochures that I personally carried home by the armload each year. Those brochures sustained the wild heart of a budding mountain man during those cruel days in school while waiting for warmer weather and fishing season.
My favorite reading material was from the companies that offered Canadian wilderness canoe trips in Quetico Provincial Park. The booths from these outfitters were lined with paddles, pelts, maps and all sorts of neat stuff along with the obligatory stuffed walleye and northern pike. While the décor was neat, the brochures were the fuel for flights of pure fantasy.
Those lithographed 4-color promotional pamphlets were adorned with pictures of sparkling lakes and rushing rivers, happy fisherman with giant pike and rustic cabins set deep in the wilderness. These scenes alone were great but the big payoff for a youngster who longed to lead expeditions into the wilderness as a heroic, albeit young, guide was the equipment checklists. Each outfitter gave a list of standard and optional equipment that could be rented and those lists served to inspire wistful thoughts of gear-laden canoes moving silently towards the interior and adventure as a short heroic figure from central Indiana led the crew through terrible hardships.
Even as a youngster, I had some kind of weird planning fetish. I actually enjoyed preparing for adventures nearly as much as I did leaving town and those checklists offered a wonderful starting point for countless mental adventures. Those psychic voyages caused many sleepless nights as I wrestled with the difficult decision whether to take a full-size axe or just a white gasoline stove into the bush, even though I would be in my twenties before actually making such a trip.
Expedition vittles were another item to be carefully considered. The brochure descriptions of the tasty freeze-dried menus sounded incredibly enticing as I imagined whipping up instant ravioli, green beans and chocolate pudding to serve the crew as we huddled around a picturesque birch bark campfire on the shore of a gin-clear lake. It wasn’t until years later that I actually began to eat freeze-dried camping food and discovered the benefits of “not knowing then what I know now.” For all the romantic outdoor gourmet talk, I eventually learned that the stuff was far less palatable than portrayed, more gnat-ridden and caused a certain common side-effect that I won’t describe here.
Unfortunately as years passed, the expositions seem to lose some of their luster. The shows haven’t changed; indeed they have gotten better in some ways but the special luster begins to fade with each passing winter and each acre of real world that passes under the boot soles. Now, visiting those popcorn-scented aisles is still fun but in the end, it is just another diversion instead of Christmas and a trip to Walt Disney World rolled into one.
At least until you see that the sparkle is still present: gleaming in the eye of some passing young kid with an armful of brochures as the great circle of sport show life begins anew.