For my 50th birthday my neighbor, Ian, and I pooled our money and purchased a 17 foot Old Town Canoe. We brought the canoe home on the night of the Lunar Eclipse, May 15, 2003 and so we named her “Luna.” Then I made a wild commitment: In honor of my 50 birthdays I have decided to navigate 50 streams or rivers—I am not sure how long this will take but I will be reporting on our adventures in River Journal. If you know of a river that is great for canoeing, please write and tell me about it. (firstname.lastname@example.org).
On May 4, 2014, I flew from Minneapolis to Hartford, Connecticut, for a week of school author visits in Newington. The teachers selected a hotel for me that turned out to be steps from the Farmington River. On my arrival day I swooned from the bridge so I immediately looked up the nearest outfitter to see if I could get ON this lovely stretch of water. Turned out, an outfitter was only a short drive up river.
At the Collinsville Canoe & Kayak shop (gorgeous place: my idea of happy shopping), I introduced myself to MaryEllen. Once again, I was saved by a book as Mary Beth had read On the Day You Were Born to her children! I described the 50 Rivers Project and she set to work calling all her friends and colleagues, looking for someone who might want to take a Wednesday paddle with me. By Tuesday afternoon she had hooked me up with Sue SWIFT Warner, the outfitter’s co-owner, (with her husband). (Note: this would be SWIFT as in SWIFT BOATS—I was astonished!) She would loan me a boat and a shuttle, if we could manage it from 10 to 1pm, but I would be paddling solo. Deal is set.
I admit to being somewhat nervous to paddle alone, but wanting to do it just to be back on the river after so much time off-water. I asked Sue: Would you do this alone? “Yes!” she answered, and so I borrowed some of her courage and experience on this stretch of river.
At 10 am on Wednesday, May 7th, 2014, Sue pulled into the riverside parking lot with a RED solo SWIFT boat tied to her car! We introduced ourselves and I felt like I was meeting an old friend. I wished we were paddling together…
The river was running very high from the deluges of spring. Even the picnic benches were submerged. But five days of no rain had slowed the current and as we set the astonishingly light boat riverside, I was confident I could do it alone. Sue and I parted, but not before giving her an emergency phone number, just in case. We agreed to meet near one o’clock at the first bridge, or the second bridge if I was going swiftly.
Every boat is different and my little Bell Solo back in MN (Yellowstone, 14 ft) is a tough-playground-sort-of-boat: made of plastic Royalex, she bounces off rocks. This Swift Solo boat was light, delicate, gorgeous, sleek, 15 ft, and within three paddle strokes I felt myself on the back of a bright red water snake: silky and responsive, glorious!
A Canada Goose immediately escorted me, honking loudly and continuously. Eventually he peeled off. I watched a forsythia bush explode into yellow on the riverbank while a leaping tree branch loomed to the left. It is a later-early spring here, and I paddled past a golf course just unbuttoning from the long winter.
My life on the road as an author is very stressful: travel, directions, tight school schedules, very high expectations for a much-anticipated day that has been funded at great effort by Parents Organizations—And Monday and Tuesday were extraordinarily fine visits with hundreds and hundreds of children dressed as Vocabulary Words for the activity accompanying Miss Alaineus, A Vocabulary Disaster. At the end of these AMAZING and INSPIRING days I am exhausted and to be paddling on a river mid-week of four such visits was to step between two different planets.
A sampling of vocabulary costumes for: Disguise, Weather, Cross, Mighty, Distracted, Palm Tree, Meadow, Labor
Suddenly I was alone and quiet enough to hear the birds singing with brightness to match the forsythia. I started laughing out loud at the sudden remembering of a girl’s costume in the parade yesterday: For the word COLLABORATION, she had softly drawn a little trail of ants, working together. There I was laughing, all alone, in the middle of the singing river. This is what Water Happiness does to me—it bubbles up. How in the world do I build more of these peaceful (Oh, PEACEFUL! Another Vocabulary Parade costume word) stretches into my life! How do I weed out the distractions (Oh, DISTRACTIONS, the teacher’s word costume)?
The sound of water falling pulled me over to the side of the river where I found a Tolkien vision of a spot. This is where, in the 1800’s, a stone and wooden aqueduct spanned the Farmington River. I looked back at the SWIFT boat, pulled ashore and could not help but snap a picture…If it is possible to fall in love with a fiberglass object, I was over the edge!
Paddling views: A rope swing, bridge ahead, spring tree blossoms, the Writer’s Dream Riverside Cottage…
Lunch was a landless occasion, eaten holding onto a twig in front of these three buttoned-up tiny cabins. (No beaches, only mud edges due to a full river.) Lunch included the last bite of the magnificent carrot cake from the baker/Kindergarten teacher in yesterday’s school! Unbelievably delicious.
I knew my time was running out and I was close to the first bridge. Before I knew it a voice was calling from the shore, “DEBRA,” and there was Sue, waving. I swung the boat over, but the usual take-out steps were several feet underwater. All around the flooded riverbank the mud was jet black and slick as ice! We nearly tumbled over ourselves, nearly lost the canoe in the slippery pull onto land, both of us holding onto trees to keep upright. But we made it, of course, muddy, of course.
The light-as-a-feather canoe was on top of the car in a blink and we were driving back down the road of distraction and traffic and complications and expectations…
The river tamps down all that density and lets me hear the songbirds sing—and myself laughing about a young girl drawing ants-in-collaboration, while paddling alone on a river. Tiny adventure makes a big space in my life. I am so grateful for all the people who helped give me the courage to do this: a life’s collaboration.
September 8, 2012—Joseph Goldes began his lesson on how to pack for a Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) paddling trip with a map and pack purchase stop at Midwest Mountaineering, a fabulous outdoor adventure store in Minneapolis. Joseph (whom I have known since he was only hours old) has led numerous trips into the BWCA through Camp Wijiwagen, including a 41 day trip through the Arctic (with no resupplying!). The knowledge he has accumulated is astonishing. Ian, Joseph and I planned for a five day trip with four nights of camping in the lake wilderness area bordering Canada. We divided and packaged food for each of the meals needed, and I managed to sneak in a large peanut M&Ms bag before the pack was closed.
Rain poured on our drive from Minneapolis to Ely, MN, so a last minute phone call to Camp Vanvac gave us a first night in a snug cabin with an early start the next day. We picked up Lynn, our driver, at Camp Wiji, (also a guide into the BWCA), and she deposited us at Nells Lake, taking our car back to the camp. Here I was ordered to get my feet wet, as in water filling up my boots, soaking my socks… Just a reminder: I am a Florida native. Cold, wet feet are to be avoided at all costs….but there was no turning back. Wet feet it was. Really wet.
Joseph has plotted a course through a series of lakes and portages that would bring us back to Camp Wiji and our car. A check of the map shows that our first day will include one long portage to Mudro Lake: 180 rods. (Portages are measured in canoe lengths called “rods.” Imagine 180 canoes, end to end, hiking along a rock strewn path with one canoe balanced on your shoulders and a pack on your back!)
Under a clear blue morning, we loaded our canoes and set off. Our paddles cut the silken sky-filled water while every tree stood dark green, pressing shoulder to shoulder on lake’s edge, hiding the portage paths. We traveled in two canoes: Ian and I in our 17 foot Old Town and Joseph paddling my little red Bell Yellowstone solo canoe. We carried three packs, two tents, four paddles, two Jet Boil stoves, and an essential waterproof map. (We used Fisher Map/F-9)
The next five days and four nights were a paradise of lakes, skies, campfires, beaver dams, and two rivers: The Range River, a BWCA classic, and a short jump up the Dead River. On that very first portage I stepped into what I thought was a muddy puddle—and instantly plunged thigh-deep into dense muck called “muskeg,” a sludge so thick I could barely move my foot. Slowly, ever so slowly, I worked my way out. My feet were now very, very wet, but at least, once out, not stuck in mud. Everything looked better after that!
Throughout the days Joseph taught us skill after skill as I made notes in my yellow waterproof journal. We learned how to set up tents against wind, make a kitchen and leave no trace, how to guard our food pack against bears, how to make a spoon out of a piece of kindling, how to “lift and set” a canoe over a towering beaver dam, how to rig a tarp in the wind, three knots not to forget (I have), how to cook M&Ms in a dumpling, what injuries to anticipate and how to prepare, how to settle your canoe at night, how to purify water, how to survive a map meltdown (when Ian and I got hopelessly lost), how to wind-over (tell stories), how to use a biffy, how to spit toothpaste to lessen impact, how to wash dishes with downed fir branches, how to build a fire in rain…and how to have continuous wet feet and enjoy it.
We saw one mosquito, four amazing sunsets, and came home with a deepened love for water on Planet Earth —and a daily urge to head back to the shining waters. Thank you, Joseph.
Oct 5, 6, 7, 2010—After the exhaustion of the Minnesota State Fair Alphabet Forest project—twelve days, twelve hours at day,the huge clean up, and storage trips—I was ready for a break. My good friend, author and illustrator Lauren Stringer, rented me her small cabin in the heart of Grand Marais, MN, perched on the edge of Lake Superior, just south of Canada.
I lived near the town library, and across the street from the BEST coffee makers at Java Coffee. Grand Marais is the eastern entrance and supply town to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. (BWCA) I packed my car with projects that were dusty from inattention, my little red solo canoe, food to cook, and books enough to span three months though I had only six days!
I paddled nearly every one of those days…firstly in the Grand Marais harbor, watching the sun set over town while a dozen tourists snap my picture with-light-house-in-background. One day I paddled the Brule River in the late afternoon, a lazy stream off the Gunflint Trail (and different than the Wisconsin Brule River) in an early fall wind. It was like swimming in a golden bath when the light fell on the dry grass lining the water. I was alone, and deeply quiet. Later, when tying my boat up at the muddy canoe landing I heard a voice. Then another. Then another…The fire patrol arrived, one by one, soot smeared, like a vision from Voyager Time!
One afternoon found me floating Elbow Lake in the afternoon light. It was so still, so clear, I lay down in the canoe and just let go…suspended between the sky and water, finally finding my way to the world’s stillness. From the dock, in dusky light, I watched the lake’s clear reflective doorway slowly close into impenetrable darkness.
January 23, 2008—All fall I had been working on an article for Hallmark magazine about my 50 Years/50 Rivers project. I had been through several edits, the manuscript was ready for print and by January it was time to meet the magazine photo team at a river.
There is, of course, no free flowing canoeing water in Minnesota in January so I planned a trip to a small stream just north of Orlando, Florida: Rock Springs Creek. King’s Landing, a small outfitter on the creek, helped arrange two canoes for a day’s paddle. Rock Springs Creek meets up with the Wakiva River in a simple 8-mile stretch with an easy take out, the online photos looked amazing, we would be close to a major airport, and there were accommodations and restaurants in the nearby town of Mt. Dora. Perfect.
Ian and I met our team of photographers over dinner in Mt. Dora. They were delightful, funny, and up for the trip. One of the crew had some paddling experience. One did not. We went over maps and agreed to meet at King’s Landing at 7am to catch the early morning light on the river.
The next morning the warmer creek was spectacular in the surprisingly cold air. Steam rose off the water and lifted into the bright blue, clear-as-a-bell morning sky in great bands. It was incredible. I was thrilled and relieved—It would be a spectacular river for the photo shoot.
But after a quick meeting we decided to postpone the trip, as temperatures were to be warmer the next day. We all split up and had an unexpected day off, some walking the sandy trails of the nearby springs, others poking in the famous antique shops of Mt. Dora, meeting for dinner together later. More laughter. Another plan to join up in the morning, creekside.
The temps had reached 39 degrees by 7am with a promise of blue skies so we packed up the canoe with dry bags filled with a photogenic lunch and shoved off into the primal tropical water. With the cold the alligators had retreated inland, the birds were quiet, and even the turtles were buried in the brush. It was silent and gorgeous as we paddled, the only sound coming from the following photographer as he fired the auto shutter, continuously switching from camera to camera from the silver case in the bottom of their canoe.
The river was wondrous, a small trail snaking through lily pads, in one moment spacious and wide-open overhead, and then twisting into narrow passages arched with palms and lined with thick underbrush. The water was calm and easy, and paddling was only occasionally challenging as submerged stumps required quick draw and pull strokes. A couple of low branches had us leaning and twisting into the canoes. Ian and I called the river’s surprises to the canoe following us.
About half way into the trip we spotted our first animal of the day: a turtle sunning on a fat log, right where the creek narrowed to a mere three feet. A turtle! Ian and I bobbled by the stumps, pointing silently, thumbs up!
There are moments that rise up, later, to be signifiers, moments that become the place to point to when all things changed, hereafter. Now, two years later, it seems that this is moment when my corner of the world reached its tipping point and everything tumbled about.
Our trailing canoe hit the submerged logs and within an instant, I glimpsed over my shoulder, their canoe tipping. Both men tumbled into the creek along with ten thousand dollars worth of camera equipment. Things happen fast in a cold river. They caught the canoe, we caught the floating paddles, and they were diving for all the bits and pieces that had been packed in foam in the sleek silver camera case. Several lenses, two camera bodies, and an array of filters were sinking into the white sand at the bottom of the clear creek—there was no danger to anyone as the stream was not deep here, but it was cold, and the financial implicaions of what had happened was instantaneous.
They recovered every piece that had a place in the silver foam lined box. The banks of the creek were so dense with underbrush that we had to paddle upstream, back to the camping spot 100 yards up river. We dragged the wet equipment and the once anticipated lunch back to the picnic table. Dry clothes were found. The camera pieces were laid out on the towels, like bones. A light flickered on one camera, then died. Everything was ruined. We ate in silence. We got warm. We packed up. We still had four miles ahead of us. At a small clearing ahead the protected iPhone (in its own dry box) was used to call Kansas City and deliver the news to the office. A plan was struck to rent another camera in Orlando and try to finish the shoot the next day so at least all would not be lost.
The paddle back was weak-spirited. The river, just as gorgeous as it was before the spill, was not cheering our crew. I felt terrible, somehow responsible. At the take out we had one miracle: the water did not affect the camera’s storage card and the pictures, up to the lone turtle, were all available. Dinner that night was a sober affair. We agreed to meet the next day with the rented camera to shoot pictures of us paddling into the landing—with the photographer’s feet on land.
And so ended the Great Photo Shoot, but the story had a few more chapters. Six weeks later Hallmark magazine folded and I was paid a “kill fee,” what they call a story that ends due to extenuating circumstances. The photo crew kept their places but all the other people I had worked with lost their jobs. I never saw a single picture. Eight weeks after this spill my publisher of 20 years, Harcourt, based in San Diego, CA, was sold to HMH and my editor, Allyn Johnston, was fired along with most of the people I had worked with those two decades.
You can see how THAT moment of the great spill on Rock Springs Creek came to stand for the upturning of the world as we knew it…The Great Recession had begun and everything had tumbled into the water.
Rock Springs Creek, May 3, 2010, written January, 2011
The 50 Years/50 Rivers project had to be shelved as I scrambled to put my book creating career back together. My editor moved to Simon and Schuster with many of her authors and illustrators joining her. Within weeks Allyn created Beach Lane Books, with another splendid, abet fired, Harcourt editor, Andrea Welsh. In a small upstairs office, in La Jolla, California, with a couple of tables and a phone, Allyn and Andrea started over. They were amazing! Every day was a challenge where even the once most simple task now required learning a new process. Contracts were shifted. New staffs in New York City were met. Slowly, ever so slowly, a new publishing effort was built.
In 2010 Beach Lane Books’ author and illustrators, Liz Garton and Marla Frazee won a Caldecott Honor medal for All the World. I published A Fabulous Fair Alphabet and introduced the astonishingly well-received Alphabet Forest (vocabulary game for families) at the Minnesota State Fair as the fairs first children’s Author-in-Residence.
As we righted ourselves through two years of intense hard work, I thought:
Time to go back to Rock Springs Creek. Work took me back to Florida. Afterwards I met my cousin, John, and his wife, Patricia, at the edge of Rock Springs Creek, at the same Kings Landing.
It was warm. It was blue-sky-beautiful. We set off on the now familiar creek, me having learned to manage a solo canoe since the earlier paddle. We saw herds of turtl es basking in the sun, splashing into water as we paddled by. We saw young alligators warming on logs. We ate a simple lunch at the same campground table where I told them the entire tale of the Great Spill. It is a good story now. I stopped my canoe at the narrow place of the spill, got out, and photographed thearrangement of log and hidden stumps. I was astonished to find that the stumps were orderly, not stumps at all, but the remains of bridge pilings. This trip they were farther under water and caused not a ripple.
What surprised me was this: The stumps were man-made. Somehow this changed things just a bit: True, we had not watched carefully, true, we had been distracted by the lone animal spotting, and true, people had built the shoals we tipped on. The Wall Street parallels made me wince.
We finished the paddle without event. Since the Hallmark trip the restaurant at the take out for the canoes had built a new bar, and a set of bathrooms with lovely tile decorations. I couldn’t resist apicture! We all hugged goodbye and I drove toward the airport…and suddenly realized I had left my camera in the new tiled bathroom—I nearly cried…Not another camera disaster! A swift return found the camera tucked safely behind the bar. So thanks to the kindness of strangers the return to Rock Springs Creek was a perfect (camera) day.
It has taken these two years to finally feel like I could write up this river disaster and all that happened since the spill. Many people have taken this metaphoric spill in the same span of time. Nothing is the same, and I am working harder than ever to keep the boat afloat and paddle the river, watching for hidden stumps. I wish you all the same: a sturdy boat, good traveling partners, a dry lunch, and a story worth telling, however rueful.
August 31, 2008—After searching the maps and river guide books for a new river within a days drive of Minneapolis we settled on the Hay River, planning to put in just south of Prairie Farm, in north central Wisconsin. We could camp within an hour of the river on a friend’s farm so we headed off, tents and canoe and food and paddles all thrown into the car at the last minute. I was awakened early in my tent with a visit by Poppy, our host’s lab.
The drive through Wisconsin farm country was like driving through a film, hardly any other cars on the road, all the fields mowed into giant bales of hay or left standing as millions of rustling corn soldiers for as far as you could see. The hour drive turned into nearly two hours with stops for gas and ice and bad map estimates.
We finally found the put-in to the Hay River just south of tiny Prairie Farm, up river from the Norwegian Bridge. Fisherman agreed to watch our canoe while we managed the car shuttle to the end of our day’s paddle. This proved to be more difficult than planned as the new guide book we were using was not well marked and the twisting path of Hwy F, V, VV, and 64 was like a labyrinth, and then throw in two closed roads. We were saved by Paul, tractor driver, who literally pulled up beside us to ask if we were looking for something local. He gave perfect directions, and we left one car at river trip end and drove the second car back to our canoe.
Hay River is a prairie river—low banked with fields and farms adjoining— punctuated by brief interludes of gorgeous sandstone cliffs. The Chippewa and the Sioux Dakota Indians fought their last battle on the river’s banks in 1861. Once again weeds caught in branches above us marked the astonishing high water mark of spring floods but now it was the last day of August and we found low water requiring many push and pulls over rocks and sand. Downed trees had us hauling the canoe over trunk dams andthrough branches and since Ian forgot his water shoes back at our campsite, I did all the hauling and pulling while he kept his feet dry!
The river twisted and turned and winded this way and that. In a normal afternoon we have paddled between six and thirteen miles (depending on current and water levels) but the Hay proved so time consuming that we found ourselves only four and a half miles into our ten mile plan and the sun quickly sinking behind the tree bank line.
Sometimes the best laid plans…We hoped out at the next bridge, (knowing the next two bridges were closed for construction I had to hike to a farm house to figure out what road we were on and which direction should we walk. No one was home but old mail in the box gave us the road number!). We hid the canoe under the bridge and stuck out our thumbs in the hopes that a local would run us back to the Norwegian Bridge. After some time we were lucky, our driver was kindly, popped the trunk for our gear, and we began the long shuttle of picking up cars and canoe. It was a beautiful river, abet short, and another river lesson: When things go awry just smile and enjoy whatever IS happening instead of what whining about what ISN’T. It was a glorious day despite “The Plan.”
April 27, 2008—Due to a fortuitous meeting in Florida months ago, and an ensuing unlikely wild plan, I found myself invited to join a three canoe Kerr family rendezvous on the Brandywine River, thanks to Randy, organizer extraordinaire.
After speaking at Nottingham Elementary, Oxford, PA, winner of my national drawing for a free Author Visit (and my hat is off to the remarkable staff and students of this stellar school),
I met Randy, his family, and his trailer full of three canoes, at Hank’s Place, on Route 1, in Chadd’s Ford. The morning was cold, slate gray, and bone chilling. Hank’s famous hash was in great demand and we waited for places in the Sunday gloom. Once fed we started the long shuffle of canoes and cars and I had the pleasure of waiting while poking around the closed-for-the-winter Brandywine Picnic Park.
There is nothing quite so strange as a closed down amusement park and this place, in it’s Sunday morning gloomy quiet, seemed to spill with stories. While prowling around I met the animal keeper and the heavy sky, protruding fake animals, and bleating real animals made for a slip into a twilight zone.
Car shuttling complete we nosed the canoes down the steps and onto the lovely Brandywine. (In the 1770’s British Red Coats were seen bathing and washing those bright coats along this very stretch of river but today only the local Police Department was running a water rescue workshop in the chilly water.) Dogwood blooms floated amid the budding green trees and bits of rock walls, old stone barns, and trim houses stood as quiet evidence of the Revolutionary days.
Bluebell season kept Randy, stern person in my boat, all excited, and we paddled from patch to patch to exclaim along the first hour. The Young People’s boat in our flotilla was awash in cousin-talk, singing, and out loud laughing under the steel sky. It was chilly but their spirits were not and their banter kept the river lively with pirate songs and loud accusations as to exactly who had stunk up the canoe once again.
The other boat was paddled by Andre and Karen—a native who, at first meeting, showed me a basket of mushrooms that were so fresh from the nearby mushroom farm that they seemed to radiate pure whiteness. Andre, who looks perfectly normal, actually builds mutant creatures in his spare time. See “Cat Fish” if you think I’m kidding.
The canoe guide book promised two carries over small dams and the first one sounded before we saw it. We hauled the canoes over and around while Andre and Karen shot the rapid channel to river right. A bit of bridge graffiti asked the proverbial question many of us are forced to face: Prom?
A giant bald eagle settled on a tree ahead of us and we quieted our boats enough to paddle right under its imperious watch. Our youngest paddler, after all the silence, made me burst out laughing by saying: “I silently said the Pledge of Allegiance as we paddled by him.”
Several bridges spanned the still water, the last being a red covered bridge that made the only bright slash on this gray colored day…Except for one other and yet I know I do not have the skill to describe such magic…
As the day wound down we found swallows swarming above, big clouds of black split tails darting this way and that in the dusk. A flock of startling iridescent blue swallows broke off and flew around and around our boat, flitting inches from the water, flicking their brilliant wings and calling, “Spring!” “Come!” “See!”
Nov 30 & Dec 1, 2007—School visits in Louisiana led me to a small cabin on Bayou Long, the tail end of Belle River’s water flow in Stephensville, just outside Morgan City, 90 miles west of New Orleans. The sweet-voiced cabin owner, Anthony, had said in the dead of night when I arrived, “Don’t worry about the alligators, it’s way too cold tonight…” And he was right as I only saw a skeleton during my stay. (www.cajunhouseboats.com)
After a great school visit to Berwick Elementary (followed by a tremendous school-wide Vocabulary Parade), I set out in the cabin’s small canoe, pleased that I figured out how to solo paddle the wide bottomed impossible little boat. (How? After much spinning I finally straightened her out with a deep stroke from the stern angling nearly under the boat, ending with a quick steering pry on each paddle.)
The morning mist had just lifted when I set off north, hugging the bank of the camp cabins lining one side of the bayou (the other side is wild), then out to an island ringed in cypress trees. With no wind and glassy water I slid along as quiet as any water snake—which were on my mind as I’d been warned to be careful stepping or turning anything over.
The cypress trees have a near magical presence. Very slow growing they stand in shallow water, rising up out of great skirts of trunks, often twisted ever so slightly so as to seem to be turning. They are surrounded by “cypress knees,” the up-turning roots of the great tree, knobby topped, standing two to four feet high, ringing the big trunks. Watermark lines on their trunks recorded the low water of the current southeastern drought.
Like Minnesota’s long-gone Big Woods of hardwoods, this watery country once held the greatest cypress forest in North America. In my little cabin a poster proclaims: FB Williams Cypress Co. Ltd, The Largest Cypress Mill in the World, Patterson, LA, 1902-1934. Thirty-twoyears. It took about the same amount of time to harvest the great hardwood forests of the upper Midwest, much of which also ended up shipping out of New Orleans to the rest of the world.
Whenever I am in the presence of something that grows very slowly, like the giant redwoods, or carpet lichen, there is a kind of patience that seeps into my eyes, then down into my heart. A momentary borrowed quiet sets in. This is what happened here on the bayou.
Everything about this paddle was liquid—the glassy water and its reflecting flashes up the trunks of the great trees, the high fluid lines of a hundred ducks, black, drawing lines across the sky, followed by the changing floating “V” of the white pelicans, flashing white, then wing-tipped black. The cypress trees are hung thick with Spanish moss so edges are softened and even the smallest breeze is evident, eddying like water around draped limbs high above.
Even on December 1st it’s still fall here on the bayou and the leaves are browns, dark burnt golds, pale orange, many floating in the mirrored water. A white heron lets me paddle only so close before raising giant wings. It is so quiet I hear duck wings pounding air as they draw over.
The next morning I tired to repeat the same paddle. A gusty wind came up and the little flat bottomed canoe could barely fight back. Hunters flooded the islands, orange vested, roaring around in silver boats. Successive gun shots rang deep in swampy woods. Not to be mistaken for a canoeing deer I tied an extra orange lifejacket to my waist and set off for home.
This is why they say you can never step in the same river twice. Every river is always different, moment to moment, day to day. Fortunately, I still carried yesterday’s stillness, deeper than gunshots. Then suddenly all the hunters roared off, as if someone had blown a whistle. The wind died. A huge eagle caught sight of something flashing in the water and the quiet hunters took over. I paddled home.
October 25, 2007—The Minnesota Library Convention took me to Mankato, MN, south of the Twin Cities by about an hour. Despite being late in the year I had hopes we could find a river and some good weather so at the last minute I tied the canoe on the car, added Paddling Minnesota Rivers to my suitcase and drove off. A look at the map revealed a surprisingly thick web of small rivers flowing into the grand Minnesota River, which meanders to the grandest of them all, the Mississippi. After reading all the descriptions (and looking for a river with the least amount of “rapids” hatchmarks), the charmingly named “Blue Earth” won the vote.
The Blue Earth flows northeast and is crossed by the Rapidan Dam, built in 1918. The official canoe put-in could not be found (we later heard that it was closed) so we began poking our cars along back roads that paralleled the river, all in the hopes of finding an available place to launch a canoe. (I was a bit relieved not to put in at the dam’s base as it was churning thunderously and the day was cold. If there was ever a day to NOT turn over, this was it.)
We followed a meandering road that eventually turned to a driveway, where, to our astonishment, we found a house with a ramp right down to the river. A man struggled at the base of the ramp and looked up as if he was expecting us. He needed help moving a floating dock that had lodged itself in the way of his boat launching and he was now late for a meeting. Ian helped lift and lever the impossibly heavy dock out of the way just enough to get his boat trailered in. He was grateful and we were delighted to find ourselves at a safe place for the second car, with riverside paved put-in, to boot.
The water was high and fast due to a recent dam release followed by late rain and the constant riffles and rocks kept us on alert. Lunch was spent atop a warm flat rock just beneath this waterfall where the most graceful curve of sand channeled the spring out to the river.
Burnt gold dotted the riverbanks of bare branched trees, the last remaining maple leaves holding tight. The day was exquisite in every way, all the more so as we knew it would not be long until even these last golden dots will be lost to white.
We crossed the confluence of the LeSeur River and the river slowed and broadened. We saw no one on the water except for the very man who had loaned us his boat ramp. The river flowed so quickly that twelve miles flew by in less than three hours, long lunch at the waterfall included. Gold draped the final section and suddenly the bridge and factories of little Mankato loomed over us. A young man fresh from third grade met us at the park with a zillion questions. We hid the canoe and set off in Ian’s car to collect my car, left back at the boat ramp.
We decided to drive over the dam and visit the famous Dam Store, a house more than 100 years old, that was moved to its present site when the reservoir was flooded. The interior is like something out of a 1950’s movie set and the pie is just as other-worldly. If you find yourself just south of Mankato, don’t miss it.
Oct 4, 2007—The summer of 2007 brought a very busy studio filled with deadlines, a little bad luck and a lot of very bad weather in Minnesota with intense flooding in the south, drought in the north. Our rivers are loose for only half the year and all those things must be in alignment or before you know it, the green carpet of summer is suddenly dotted with orange tinged leaves.
And that’s exactly what happened. On October 2nd I walked to my car and found crisp leaves spinning down around me, astonished that I had foolishly nearly missed the rivers. Call it misplaced priorities or too many obligations, call it whatever, but no matter how late you wake up to it, no matter how hard you push against the earth’s spin, you can’t stop the water from turning to ice.
Impending ice is not negotiable so we left early on the 3rd of October for John Snyder’s Iowa farm. I had read of a river south of Decorah, south of the lovely Iowa River—the Yellow—tiny and farm lined, eventually twisting into the Mississippi. Arriving at John’s farm late we found his kitchen counter piled high with magnificent green-topped beets and vegetables grilling on the fire. The next morning we toured John’s new barn studio renovations (he is a brilliant painter) and filled our ice chest. A map check pointed us south, curving on dirt roads to a tiny dot along the Yellow River.
Iowa is tinged with straight-out-of-the-crayon-box-orange in early October, and like a kindergartener’s coloring book, it was scribbled everywhere between the deep greens. Pumpkins lined mowed lawns: three minis for one dollar. Trees stood half green, half orange. Morning light turned brittle corn stalks orange. Roadside tomatoes sat fat and juicy with the color. We missed turns, found turns, bought pumpkins, and wound our way to an outfitter in a named town that was really no more than a string of houses along the river.
Unfortunately, not a person was around. No people meant no shuttle service. Fortunately, a man pulled up, introduced himself as father to the outfitter, and volunteered to run one car down to the take-out, and bring us back to our canoe. He turned out to be a delight, and a collector of Indian artifacts, (some found just across the river, he pointed) and promised a tour of his collection at day’s end.
Sitting down in a valley, the Yellow River twists between farms but is lined by a greenway for much of the river. A Paddling River Pirate saw us off! Evidence of the severe flooding of August was everywhere: trees undercut on the banks, debris high in the branches, and submerged trunks clawing up from the surface. Water rushed fast for late fall, still. Ian was seriously concerned and insisted on zipped lifejackets (PDFs), speaking sharply. He was right.
River-left we spotted a lunch spot complete with steps but the swift current carried us beyond it before we could stop. Paddling back we got a taste of how a gentle stream can be a tough competitor. Ian had packed an orange spread-of-a lunch but dessert’s Honeycrisp apples drew a swarm of bees. We escaped to an island for a rest amid rushing water and no bees. It was one of those Perfect Places and I sometimes imagine myself there, still.
The river turned through several limestone bluffs and then flattened out to cornfield edging. An eagle, startled to find us at a turn, surprised us with a flight across our path. The sheer size of a nearby eagle is always astonishing yet by the time it joined another to soar the far ridge it was only a tiny dot in the sky. Day’s end brought us to the take-out and here’s where I made a Very Big Mistake, ignoring Ian’s good advice and overshooting an easy take-out for one I thought I understood to be ahead. We ended up dashing to the bank in the muck amid a herd of horses on both river banks. My misunderstanding had very nearly taken us to the next section of the river where the guide warned of no take-out for miles and serious rapids, to boot. We had to carry our gear and the canoe up a steep bridge slope and moments were tense between us. Canoeing is a partnership. It is not called “The Divorce Boat” for nothing, and I pushed the limit this day, not listening more closely. We were last-minute-lucky and I learned another river lesson.
We had a peek at the Indian artifact collection on the way back and saw stones shaped for pounding, arrow points, and food grinding.
The drive back to John’s farm was equally orange, with dried corn fields stretching as far as you can see and an orange sign explaining why a train lay silently parked across the only dirt road we knew to get us home. Dinner at a restaurant in Decorah dropped us into a young crowd of Barak Obama organizers, all checking electronic devices and buzzing like the river bees after his local speech. Next morning the drive back to Minneapolis gave us tractors to buy, or pumpkins, and I couldn’t resist one more of the latter.
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 road—Remember? 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, volunteering—all 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 short—a 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.