The Making of Men
Madison County father takes three sons on canoeing adventures down three different Virginia rivers as a rite of passage for each.
They pulled hard, paddles going deep. It was the summer of 2016, the midday sun glaring down on the father and son as they cut their two-man canoe through the still waters of the South Anna River.
Like his older brother before him, Elijah Owings, 15, was on a nine-day expedition with his father canoeing down one of the winding waterways that traverses Virginia. Starting their journey near Boswell’s Tavern in Louisa County, where the water was just deep enough for a canoe, the pair followed the South Anna River into the Pamunkey and York rivers on their way to the Chesapeake Bay.
It was a rite of passage: A raw, real, intense initiation into manhood, established by his parents, Mike and Becky Owings of Madison County, after they were inspired by the book Raising A Modern-Day Knight.
It was also a trip that Elijah would never forget.
The scene sounds idyllic enough: Squirrels scampering in the treetops, otters lolling around in the water, a blue heron lumbering in the air, and bald eagles soaring sharply silhouetted against the brilliant blue sky.
But, with a laugh, Elijah — now 17 and headed to Liberty University in the fall — shares a different perspective. “We’d canoe beneath trees with snakes dangling right above our heads. We saw tons of snapping turtles, one looked like it weighed about 50 pounds,” he says, his eyes widening as he demonstrates the turtle’s size with his hands. “The canoe would bump into a log and you’d see all these snakes suddenly slither off the log and hear snapping turtles plopping down into the water.”
After such a disconcerting scene, Mike says, “That’s when I had to say, ‘All right, Elijah, you have to get out of the canoe and help me carry it over the logjam.’ Hebrews 10:38 says, ‘The just man will walk by faith, but anyone who shrinks back, God will not take pleasure in him.’ It reminded me of that verse because, by faith, Elijah would have to get into the water. He was nervous, but he didn’t shrink back.”
Logjams were places where large trees had fallen across the river, blocking the way. In waist-high water, Mike and Elijah hauled the 70-pound canoe, laden with supplies, over and around countless deadwood obstacles. “It was really tough, especially after you’ve been paddling for so long,” Elijah says. “It’s not like this was a leisurely trip. It was really intense, long and hard.”
As Mike explains, that was the point.
Mike intended the nine-day expedition to be challenging physically and mentally. Luxuries were minimal, leisure was nonexistent and the days were long. Even setting up camp with sore muscles at the end of each evening brought its own challenges. “The mosquitos were awful. We discovered that if you pressed up against the tent, they could even bite you through the tent’s fabric,” Elijah explains.
Mike says, “As with my other two sons (Will and Joey) on their canoe trips down the Rappahannock and James rivers, respectively, the goal was to build character, instill an appreciation for the outdoors, make memories and build a deeper faith in the Lord.”
It’s clear Elijah absorbed from his experience what his parents had hoped. “We just kind of had to trust God to keep us out of harm’s way. It was all about overcoming challenges, and then being able to look back on it and feel a sense of accomplishment,” he says.
In addition to Elijah, Mike and Becky have four children: Will, 20; Joey, 16; Anna, 14; and Claudia, 8. Mike is serving his 17th year as the administrator of Culpeper Christian School (preschool through 8th grade). All of the children graduated from the school, and Becky once worked as one of the school’s music teachers. “It’s been a sort of family ministry,” Mike explains.
The family’s deeply held respect for the values of their Christian faith is quickly evident, but what is also clear is the family’s choice to raise their children in a manner that goes against much of today’s culture. “We aren’t heavily into social media or television, and we teach our children the value of hard work early on. We do as much as we can together as a family,” he says.
When it came time to choose a rite of passage for his three sons, Mike knew it had to be adventurous. “In modern-day America, there really is no rite of passage for boys. We just kind of hand them a driver’s license and send them off to college, hoping they’re ready to become men,” Mike explains.
A thirst for adventure runs in Mike’s blood. His 92-year-old father, Rap Owings, would regale Mike and his brother with tales of derring-do and risky feats. Whether it was canoeing expeditions, fending off forest fires, serving as a Marine or boxing in the ring, Mike’s father was a captivating storyteller.
“My dad did a lot of exciting things and he loved to tell us about them. He grew up in Falls Church and his roots go back to some of the earliest German-Swiss settlers in the Shenandoah Valley. Not only did he introduce me to canoeing, but he also sparked my imagination, as a child, to want to do adventurous things,” says Mike, who is the 393rd person in the world to hike the highest points in the 48 contiguous states.
Mike’s father also inculcated within him a love of the great outdoors — something Mike and Becky have tried to instill in all of their children. Joey was especially fascinated with the wonders of the wild after his 400-mile trip down the James River in 2017 and 2018 (two 200-mile trips taken during two summers). He wrote about his father-son canoe trip in an award-winning entry for a Virginia Outdoor Writers Association writing contest.
In his essay, he summarized the life lesson he gleaned from the wayward waterways. “Sometimes creation provides us with an opportunity to relax and marvel at its beauty. Other times, just as in life, we are challenged with obstacles that we think we will never overcome. We are afraid that we may fail, that we may not have the strength to overcome these obstacles, but, then, standing on the summit of a mountain we thought we could never climb, or at the end of a series of rapids we thought we could never paddle, we feel a sense of empowerment, a feeling that makes us wonder, ‘Whom shall I fear?’ ”
Will, Becky and Mike’s oldest son, was only 13 when he traveled 150 miles down the Robinson, Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers from Madison County’s Banco community to the Chesapeake Bay during the course of seven days. Will was thrilled to spot 81 bald eagles during the memorable trek. “Will and I had a lot of good conversations during that trip,” Mike says. “We made some great memories.”
To prepare for their adventures, the Owings boys all read Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose’s account of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Each son also kept a journal. “They wrote down their observations during the trip, much like Meriwether Lewis did,” Mike points out.
Three different rivers with three different sons — and one weather-worn canoe, marked with memories of the making of men. Mike once aspired to be a writer, like his literary heroes Hemingway, Faulkner and London, and says he’d like to one day put his reflections from the three trips into a book. He’s already got a working title ready to go: Three Sons, Three Rivers, Thirty-Three Days, and One Canoe: Lessons for a Lifetime of Adventure.