|#25 Upper Iowa River|
October 5, 2006
The Upper Iowa River marks the halfway point in my 50th Birthday / 50 Rivers Project. This is a vow I just “made up,” but now, three and a half years later, I realize I could not have invented a project that could offer a more transformative effect on my life! I have loved every inch of water, every mosquito, every wet sandwich, every lost roadRemember? I knew nothing about canoeing when I started! But along our glorious waterways I have found my way back to living a life more in touch with the natural world. Living in a big city, being self-employed, raising a family, volunteeringall these pressures made it easier to neglect the growing, wild desire to be outside more. Watching my mother slowly fade unexpectedly made me see that time is shorta lesson learned over and over by we humans, I know, but it took this personal event to make to make me change, to learn, and to grow.
The Upper Iowa was a red-orange glowing birthday candle of a river. We followed freeways south from Minneapolis to smaller and smaller roadways, past the rolling farms of northeast Iowa, and down to the river bed just outside the tiny, tiny town of Bluffton. A cold night made for a steaming river but by midmorning the sun lit up the mirrored river and fall rippled in the water all around us. I brought along a new experiment—a watercolor paint box! I am trying to teach myself this most challenging of mediums, but won’t show you anything as I’m terrible at it. So here’s to 2007, to more time on the water, and more changing, learning, and growing.
|#24 St. George River|
August 30, 2006
Southeast of Rockford, Maine
If anyone has ever dropped a child (and an only child, at that), off at college, you know what I mean when I say that my tearful self arrived in Portland, Maine, after five intense college move-in days. Add some terrible weather, three canceled flights, an array of hours on the tarmac, and a too-late arrival, and you have one very sad potential paddler. Like dominos, my flight cancellations caused a cancellation of our planned trip on the Penobscot River and we were forced to regroup to a very modest Plan B. Let’s keep the words short and the pictures big!
Given my shaky state, we decided to take his other suggestion of going across the lake and paddling upstream on the St. George, also eliminating our sketchy shuttle plan.
This new Plan C took us across a brief connecting stretch of river toward Round Pond. We startled a turtle on a rock that looked just like the turtle, then slipped past lily pads glistening in noonday sun. We’d been told to look far left for a huge granite rock for lunch and that’s where we ate and watched clouds sail over the tidy distant farmsIt was a spectacular stage show starring those Great Long White Puffy Clouds from the West.
Post Script…After the river I headed north to Haystack Mountain School of Craft on tiny Deer Isle. There I watched tides, fog, sun, ships, and a growing peace float in and out of view. I studied book arts and journal making with my dear friend, Paulus Berensohn, and his amazing co-teacher, Joy Sidler. If you ever want to take one or two weeks to study something with your hands, visit Haystack’s website. Sign up early as classes fill quickly...
|Some We Don't Count...|
|HOH RIVER: We are on water more than the River Project counting reflects...Work took us to the Olympic peninsula in late September, 2005, and we booked a guided trip on the Hoh River but were warned that it might be too low to navigate. The Hoh is a glacier fed river and as the air cools the meltwater tapers off, and the river dries. Sure enough, it was too low to paddle by the time we arrived so we hiked instead. It was breathtakingly gorgeous, and we saw trees so big your heart filled up just to lean back and try to see their tops.
MINNEHAHA CREEK: This summer, 2006, we gathered up a fleet of boats and returned to Minnehaha Creek, here in Minneapolis. (See River #3) I tried out my new red solo Bell canoe on the twisting creek, and was thrilled to find I could manage it. But a solo canoe leaves NO time for photos and it wasn’t until I was home that I realized I had not taken a single picture.
MISSISSIPPI RIVER: The Mississippi River is usually filled with loaded barges, all throwing huge wakes as they chug through our neighborhood. The Fourth of July holiday gave us a chance to throw the canoes in the river while the tugboat captains were on vacationDavid, Sheryl, and Joseph joined us for a short late afternoon paddle through the only gorge on the great Mississippi River. Other afternoons we have headed to the nearby lakes just to get wet…So you see, not all water is Counted Water!
|#23 Rum River|
June 16, 2006
On a summer Friday Ian and I finally had the time to go in search of the Rum River, north of Minneapolis, and winding through tiny Cambridge, Minnesota, before emptying into the Mississippi. A huge storm system swept south of us, making the air so windy the giantPerkins flag stood straight out. But a 94 degree predictedtemperature made us hope some wind would follow us into the riverbed. Luckily, a breeze did stir up the trees because the mosquitoes at the put-in were so intense they could have lifted us up and carried us off for slow eating later. We accomplished our shuttle from the take out, where we left our car, to the put in, with the help of these two guys, on break from the local Subway sandwich shop. Many thanks!
The Rum River is a prairie river and the site of several battles between the Chippewa and the Sioux. The river begins at Mille Lacs, great wild rice territory, and the rich marshland was often contested between the two tribes. Later, loggers used the stream to carry all the great pines down to the mills at Minneapolis. New growth forest line the banks, always disturbingno old trees left anymore.
Sluggish and quiet, the river is now a paradise for birds. Big ones, little ones, darting and dashing, swooping and attackingwe saw them all. A huge bald eagle led us for awhile, and later a mysterious gigantic pair of wings swept over the canoe, larger than the eagle, leaving us to think that maybe an owl was unable to sleep through the heat and had taken to the river? We turned a bend in the river in the nick of time to avert a hawk’s swoop for a lagging duckling, the hawk startled by us as much as we were by it, the mother duck yelling at all of us. Birds wove songs across the river all day, back and forth, kingfisher and starling, and of course, the giant blue heron silently gliding and hiding, gliding and hiding, always just up ahead.
We stopped for lunch and drug out The Great Book of Archeology book we’ve been poring over of late. The ancient cities of Mesopotamia have caught our imaginations: Persepolis, Ur, and Babylon, all now crumbled stones in the desert, most abandoned due to enemy attack, or that other great quiet destroyer: rivers that dried up or turned elsewhere. (And this new book has led to my finding a new translation of the oldest written story, the text pieced together from clay tablet fragments found in the libraries of these great stone cities: Gilgamesh.)
Back on the river we passed several tiny openings in the riverbank grass, each offering a window into Minnesota’s famous wetlands. Once the river thinned out and we had to walk the canoe across a shallow sandbar, grateful to be in the water instead of on it. Waning afternoon light followed us the last of the fifteen mile paddle and we tied the canoe on the car as huge dark clouds accumulated to the west. On the drive home rain fell so hard the road flooded, traffic stopped, and thunder thundered. I thought about those ancient fallen cities, dry as bones, sand blowing, while the rain poured all over us. It rained like this, once, on those cities, too…
|#22 St. Louis River|
August 7, 2005
“There” turned out to be the St. Louis River, a wild coniferous lined stream that has its headwaters in Seven Beaver Lake in northern Minnesota. The river was named for Louis IX, (king of France when the area was explored), and this 160 mile ribbon of water flows slowly, then suddenly swiftly in the last ten miles, into Lake Superior. I read that impoundments and pollution plague the lower section but the upper reaches are said to be gorgeousso off we set to find out.
Our traveling day turned sweltering by 11am. Sun pounded down and the still summer air did not even stir the roadside dandelion puffs ready to set sail. The map showed that the take-out was off a small road that ended at a lake. Experience has shown that this might make finding a ride to our stashed canoe difficult. As a back up measure we had stowed Ian’s bike in the car if this proved true. Well, you guessed it. Despite our paddles and our sign, the first car whizzed by us. After half an hour’s wait (and only three cars later), we considered driving back to the city. After an hour in the heat Ian decided to drive me up to our canoe hidden at the put in, come back, hop his bike, and peddle the seven miles of sweltering road to join me.
And that’s how I found myself studying The Mystery of the Bayeux Tapestry in the shade while Ian did the work! But even he agreed that the river proved to be worth the sweat. The water was late-summer low, tannic brown, and running clear and lazy. The views reminded us both of the tree-lined lakes of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area just north of us, except this was a river version.
Both of us were weary from a hard working summerI was nearing the end of a new book, A Birthday Cake Is No Ordinary Cake, and my eyes were tired from cutting and gluing hundreds of tiny dashes out of paper. Ian had been busy sanding and finishing wood for his show in San Francisco and maybe it was because of all this inside, focused work that the river seemed particularly
beautiful. Once we rounded a bend and there, in the distance, sat the most perfect tiny, grass green, luminous mound-of-an-island I have ever seen. I took a dozen pictures of it as it grew larger upon our approach. The still water offered a perfectly green reflection of the perfect island, like something from a perfect dream.
A riffled falling spot brought a little white water, a circling bald eagle, and a picnic spot. The quiet, the food, the rest, and the glowing island flowed around us like a blessing, a summer blessing, punctuated by the eagle, who accompanied us for hours, all the way into the dusk.
July 3, 2005
Edging the Minnesota side of the Mississippi on Hwy 61, we turned east, between Wabasha and Winona, onto the gravel roadway of Ct Rd 74. The shining Whitewater River Valley rested before us, stretching every color of green from soft hillside to hillside while a lazy dark stream, seemingly the most misnamed in all the world, meandered down the middle of all this greenness.
The Whitewater River is one of those bi-polar rivers that nods sweetly through three seasons but rages through a swollen spring run-off. We found our way to the tiny town of Elba where kindly strangers directed us just over the bridge to the Wilderness Campground where we might find shuttle help.
There we met Gary, owner, designer, and builder of this most-lovely of tiny compounds. Once part of his family’s farm, Gary has tended several hundred feet of river’s edge into a primitive campground for a handful of tents. A spacious teepee crowns a bend in the river (4/26/08: teepee is no longer available).
Gary, once a cement contractor, has a couple of discrete piles of small boulders and slabs of concrete sprinkled amid the property. This turned out to be the raw material for his creations. His wonderful massive stone tables are the centerpiece of each riverside campsite. (To reserve, call: (507) 932-7013.)
We entered the little stream on a riffled turn at the edge of the campground. The majesty and rigor of the 20th river was perfectly balanced by the opposite sweetness of this bit of rushing water. The stream never opened wider than fifty feet, twisting and turning through soft banks. Acres of tiny summer flowers edged our river, rimming the day in a happiness of yellow. Birds constantly darted back and forth across the bow of our canoe, adding a music so intense that Ian said our trip seemed scored for film.
Due to the narrowness of the stream, any fallen tree could obstruct the entire waterway and the years had left many turns sprinkled with logs and stumps. The lazy current let us pick our way through with careful strokes and a few pulls over shallow sand. Often our green canoe made a long shadow over the unusual limestone ledges that rested just inches under the water.
We spent our lunch puzzling over a complicated thirty-foot stretch of rock strewn, stump pierced, log obstructed rushing water. We finally figured out that there was no way through this curve of water without turning over so we resigned ourselves to getting wet. We battened down all the dry bags and chose the course of least resistance, knowing that the last knob of dead wood was going to catch us in the low waterWhich it did! But in the bobbling second that we tipped to the gunnels, Ian made a quick push in his seat. I nearly tumbled out but, instead, caught myself and we slid off the stump, righted ourselves, and came out of the water puzzle dry and laughing. The take-out came too soon for this golden gift of a bird-songed day.
We had read of the 1880’s town of Beaver, once nestled in this valley but slowly covered over with silt due to poor farming practices. After the extensive logging up stream, annual floods filled the valley and the town finally gave up and disappeared. We went searching for the evidence, as a “silted town” caught Ian’s imagination. We drove up several gravel roads, ending up nowhere. Back on the main road we saw a sign to the Beaver Cemetery, pointing up a hillside to drier land. We hiked the quiet trail and found the headstones of people who had tried to make this valley their home alongside the recent memorials to people who had stayed and built a life. One woman, in the 1890’s, had lost four children, one every two years for eight years. Their stones stood there, all in a row. How does one go on after that? I wonder about her often.
|#20 Colorado River|
May 30, 2005
On Memorial Day weekend Ian and I flew to Las Vegas for our 20th river trip, joining twenty-one fellow paddlers, all colleagues and friends from the Design Department of my book publisher, Harcourt Inc. (The trip was organized by Barry, long time designer in Harcourt’s San Diego office.) We all rendezvoused just east of Las Vegas, at Boulder City where we signed for our permits (secured in October of 2004) and climbed into the outfitter’s van and bus for the short trip down to the base of the Hoover Dam. The sight of so much concrete towering above remains awe-inspiring. The outfitter sent the flotilla of kayaks and one canoe (ours) off with the words: Hope the dam holds todayif it doesn’t, we’ll pick you up in Mexico…
Within a few minutes we turned out of the great dam’s protection and entered the current of the riverand met, head on, a wind so strong that white caps stood up on the water’s surface. Later we learned it was a rare day of 35 mph headwind, with gusts to 50. Our broad, light canoe was blown into the middle of the river repeatedly. Cliffs surrounded all sides. The water temperature was an even 50 degrees.
At the close of maybe the second mile, Ian and I pulled into a tiny rock crevice, protected from the wind. The kayakers were far ahead of us, being boats better suited for the conditions, though they all struggled, too. We held onto cracking branches, huddled back into the rock. My tiny tears evaporated in the dry wind. I didn’t think I could make it ten more miles, I told Ian. We sat there a long time. There were no possible early take-outs. No beaches to pull up on. The only rest we had planned was a hot springs beach about a third of the way into the trip. We rocked up and down and watched the wind blast the water just beyond our rock, neither of us saying a single word.
Finally, I realized there was nothing else to do but go forward. We devised a plan to stay within six feet of the left cliff bank. We learned how to ease the bow of the canoe out, apply fast, hard cross-draw strokes, and quickly turn around the projecting rocks before the wind could blow us out into the river’s center. Necessity forced us to get very good at this maneuver. Slowly, ever so slowly, we paddled downstream. Many times we were blown back past rocks we had just struggled past. At last we found our group pulled ashore at the hot springs beach. We were all exhausted. Two of our members found it too difficult to continue and were switched to double kayaks with young, strong muscles aboard.
Several of us hiked up to the hot springs, across the crunching gravel, through the rose red rocks, up the shaky iron ladder, following a slowly widening hot stream of water. I soaked in the pooled waters with my colleagues while Ian hiked up to find where the water was only a seeping wetness coming up out of gravel. On the way back down I washed my face in the falling hot wateronly to be told by the waiting Boy Scout leader that the water contained a lethal amoeba and should not be applied to the nose, eyes, ears, or mouth. It was almost funny, given how this trip was going…Nonetheless, I quickly washed my face with my water bottle’s clean liquid.
The hikers came back to the beach to find our leader dressed in camouflage gear, ambushing a pack of well-armed fellow designers with high powered water guns! After multiple ambushes and wild soakings, all turned to pack up. We left the protected beach and turned into the headwind, everyone offering good-natured grumblings and wane messages of support. Two-thirds of the paddle remained before us.
To make a long and agonizing story shorter, Ian and I hugged the cliff for the next nine miles. Instead of dying down with the afternoon, the wind increased. At one point we reached a narrows where great cliffs leaned above us. The water swirled in crazy vortexes, and that added to our troubles. By now, I was paddling on automatic. The only way out was through it. In the narrows I thought I might be going crazy when I found myself repeating: I must get the ring to Mordor, I must get the ring to Mordor…We stopped to rest sometimes, hanging onto brittle branches, never more than a ledge to scramble up. Once Ian found a giant big horn sheep, horns curled around his head, surveying him below.
We did make it to the end, though I just barely made it, collapsing on the sandy beach across the river from the take-out on the wide turn, my muscles quivering in legs, arms. While Ian hiked the roadway to the outfitter’s bus, I cried.
I cried for being so tired, I cried for having made it, I cried for my beloved stepfather, buried just three weeks before. I cried and cried and cried, until I ran out of tears. A young team of paddlers came and took our canoe across the open water of the last 100 yards.
Later, on the bus, I asked people what had helped them get through this. One said, “reducing the size of the goal--making the next turn's goal closer and closer.” Another said that at first she thought child birth was harder than this, and she’d done that, so she repeated that…but then she found herself saying: “this is harder than childbirth, this is harder than childbirth!” Ian said something that helped me. Amid a sudden gust that had me furiously paddling so as not to lose ground he called out: Paddle steady when the wind is gusting. Paddle hard when it lets up. That proved to be good advice, and has helped me these months after learning to live with loss and a deep sense of grief. I miss my parents very much. If life is a river, then some days are just going to be all headwind. Here’s what I say: When it gets hard, look for protection. Paddle smart. Don’t give up. Make the smallest accomplishment something to celebrate. Steady. Small. Eventually. The world was gorgeous around us and I have not forgotten a moment of that.
|#19 Chippewa River|
October 2, 2004
Fall was rich in apples and hay when we set out, desperate to squeeze in one more canoe trip before the chill arrived. We headed east to the Kinnickinnick River, a small river just over the Wisconsin border. I had read how concerned citizens and Trout Unlimited had been working to restore the creek with both cleanup efforts and developing storm run plans with riverside business. But a quick survey of water levels from the bridge showed that we were too late in the year for this streamwe would spend the day dragging our canoe and scooping up sand in the thin water.
Onward! Checking the map we could see that the next river going east was really a creek. Doubtful, we followed the back roads to a likely put in…Too late. The water was too skinny there, too. Out came the mapThe Chippewa40 minutes further east, a bit south. Guaranteed to have water as it is a working river, having carried logs from the great pine forests all the way to the Mississippi in the late 1800’s. Back roads took us through the magnificent rolling hills and farms of southwestern Wisconsin where feed corn stood crisp and ready.
We pulled into Durand, WI, where a guide book mentioned that we might find a shuttle at a local pub. Apparently no one in the bar had read our guide book but the proprietor volunteered to drive Ian to our calculated take out. We unloaded the canoe at the boat landing and I waited nearly an hour for his return. Getting late, I thought. Ian returned and we discovered we’d forgotten his hat. It was too sunny to attempt the twelve mile trip with no hat so I hiked to the hunting store and bought a cap. Getting late, I thought.
It was nearly 1 pm when we nosed the canoe under the town bridge. The sun was shining silver on the water and the river banks were lined with trees waving one last deep green before transforming to gold. Round Hill appeared river right and after that civilization disappeared. We paddled quietly. Great sandbars served as landing beaches for sea gulls. A hawk fished the afternoon away. Lunch came and we climbed a high bank to a bench in front of a cabin shuttered for the winter. Down below beaches stretched on the opposite shore and the late afternoon sun showed flocks of birds rising and falling to the south.
A check of our map showed that we were only a third of the way to the take-out where our car was waiting. We marked an earlier take out and decided that if we didn’t make the early take out before 4pm, we better consider walking out at Ella or we’d be paddling in the dark. After lunch we paddled beside rock outcrops where trees gripped the stone, a sight that still amazes me. 4:30 pm came just as we were coming up on our sandy emergency take out. What should we do? Seven more miles to our car and it was sure to be dark by the time we arrived…We pulled ashore and pondered the map. It HAD been too late to start. We hid our canoe in the bushes and hiked to the road with our paddles.
The back road to the boat landing proved to be so quiet that only one car passed us in 20 minutes and it was going the wrong way. Getting late, I thought. In desperation we asked a woman carrying groceries from her car at a nearby house if she knew a way we might get back to our car. With great kindness she offered to drive us and this is how we arrived at the end of the Chippewa River: by Marion’s purple mustang instead of our green canoe.
But the adventure wasn’t over. Another surprised waited. On the drive to our car we passed the church at Plum Creek and I nearly jumped out of my seat! Laura Ingles Wilder country! Without planning we had stumbled into her neighborhood. I had always wanted to find one of her homes and the map showed that our way would take us right by the Big Woods cabin, near Lake Pepin. With the last of the day’s light I took this picture to show you that sometimes starting too late turns out to be exactly right.