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Opinion: Bill Walton, The River Cruise

Artificial Intelligence says I need a cruise

You all know how Google keeps track of all your searches and magically sends you advertisements for cars, new dining room tables, alpaca socks, and Tom Cruise movies even though what you commented on was one of those Rhine River Viking cruises.

What, I said to myself, and perhaps I said it out loud, was something like "I bet one of those river cruises would be fun. And enlightening. And expensive," since I would have to pay the Single Supplement unless I could find a travelling partner.

It must be that new AI thing everyone is talking about. Let AI write your next novel; let AI pick your next vehicle; let AI take that exam for you; let AI find you the lover of a lifetime; let AI and Google book your River Cruise! The thing is, I never entered anything; I just mentioned it out loud – to myself.

Granted my TV and computer are connected, wirelessly, through the Cogeco router. But so far as I know, I am not connected to either. Okay, I speak to the computer once in a while. I think the microphone is turned off and there is a sticky over the camera. How it – the AI – made the connection between Viking and me is a great unknown, for I am anything but a Viking. Maybe a woodsman who wears strange headgear like those old Vikings. Then the synapses clicked: my brother and me, exploring like Vikings, had done a ‘River Cruise’ in our misspent youth.

Somehow, the algorithm that is me, shared the accumulated data of more than 80 years and suggested to the advertising branch of Viking Cruises that I was a potential customer. I am gaining sympathy with the protesters of last year who thought the government was interfering in their lives. It is not the government, for we all know how inept they can be, but the algorithm-building data collection systems in our computers, our cell phones, and any other electronically-connected devices like your new refrigerator that are impinging on our lives. Anyway, the AI program knew that I was once a river cruiser.

That was back in the days of the Sportspal canoe craze.

Everyone had to have one of those lightweight, wide, buoyant canoes. A very safe vessel in which children could experience the joy of paddling. I rented one for two weeks during my summer vacation. The plan was for my younger brother and me to launch the canoe early in the day and paddle down the South River (from South River) to Trout Creek. We would pack a lunch and refreshments as well as our fishing rods, for surely there were trout to be had on this wilderness river.

Our lunch, while perhaps not matching those on the Viking tour ships, was adequate. We each had two Klik sandwiches, several of Mother’s ginger snaps, and a large magnum of Sparkling Duck. To those who are fortunate to have been born after the days of cheap sparkling wine, count your blessings. Likewise, with the Klik, which was a canned meat by-product much like Spam. With a generous slathering of French’s mustard, it was edible, even tastier when heated over a campfire. Black forest ham, it was not.

Off we set, Dad promising to meet us at the junction of the South River and Highway 522 near Trout Creek. We would be there by 5 p.m. This was before the day of topographical maps that now show, in precise detail, the path of the South River. Rapids are even marked thereon. (Backwoods Bill Steer would have advised us against this venture.)

We were young, strong, and willing paddlers – down current – singing the few words we knew of coureur de bois songs. And being a little dry of throat from singing, we were sipping on the Duck. A little swift water was no challenge for the Sportspal. Then we heard the rushing of water, as in a falls.

It was a set of rapids, not quite a falls, but there was no way we could run that – in any canoe. There was no brushed-out portage for we were certain humans had never ventured here before. The brush was so thick we could barely walk through it let alone portage the Sportspal with its wide, and foam-padded, gunnels. We would have to ‘walk’ the canoe down through the rapids, holding it by ropes. The empty Sportspal rode high on the fast water. Well, not quite empty: it held our lunches, fishing rods, and the half bottle of fine wine.

Halfway down the rapids, the canoe escaped us, bounced a couple of times off boulders, flipped once, and came to rest in the eddy pool below the fast water. Did I mention that the Sportspal canoe was constructed of a very thin skin of aluminium?

The bow had been rendered asunder, much like, proportionately, the Titanic. One paddler could sit in the stern, lifting the hole in the bow out of the water. Despite re-bending the aluminium tear, the newly christened SS Duck took on too much water so one of us would hang on the side and swim or walk beside the canoe.

Our fishing rods had been lost to the swirling waters. The lunch bags, although soaked, were in the bow. The soggy bread was discarded but the Klik was edible and knowing it might be our only sustenance for a while, very tasty, we said afterwards when telling the tale.

As the crow flies, it was not that far from Trout Creek from the disaster point. Alas, the South River meanders – a cursed word to Vikings such as we - and we were more like lame ducks than crows. The appointed hour was nearing when we finally came to a farmer’s field. Picking up the SS Duck, we made it to the farmhouse, begged for the use of the phone, and called Dad.

The lady of the house offered us hot coffee while we waited. She mentioned that we looked a little like the two fellows who had dropped in last year with their canoe. It was one of those new fibreglass canoes with a cracked hole in the front.

These were my memories as the ad for Viking Cruises popped up on the side panel of the Google page. Imagine, it said, floating comfortably down the Rhine, exotic castles to the right, rolling vineyards to the left, complimentary champagne or wine with lunch served on the viewing deck. Casual dining in the evening under the stars. Perhaps a duck a l’orange, monsieur?

Ah well, they probably don’t have a toasted Klik sandwich on the menu. Maybe next year when the AI logarithm calculates that when I say ‘cruiser’ I am talking about my motorcycle, not river cruising on one of those long canoes with ensuite bathrooms, balcony, and look – there’s a castle!

Bill Walton

About the Author: Bill Walton

Retired from City of North Bay in 2000. Writer, poet, columnist
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