October 9, 2003—Trouble finding the put-in and take-out had us making sandwiches late in the day while pondering the shining small stream. We ate and watched it curve under a canopy of golden leaves on the most gorgeous of Indian summer days. We shoved off with our map in hand and immediately found our strokes scraping sand. We hoped it would deepen soon.
The meandering Vermillion is a river with a split personality. Behind us this same thin water had just plunged 100 gushing feet through Old Mill Park and the falls of Hastings, Minnesota, crashing over rocks as it rushed through a high and narrow gorge. It was hard to believe that this was the same water now lazily skimming the sandy bottom.
But this river had many surprises in store for us-For the first time we found ourselves on water with twists and turns and branching choices. Oddly, our usually reliable river map showed no branches, and no answers. Should we go right? Left? Again and again we would study the leaves floating on the river’s surface and try to sense which way the current flowed the strongest.
Our first branching choice took us to a large lake. The lake water thinned yet again and when I swung my leg out of the boat to walk the canoe I was sucked into a quicksand of black mud, trapped up to my thigh. Pulling with all my might, I tumbled back in the canoe.
Covered with mud I looked up just in time to see the largest bird I’ve ever seen, circling. It dwarfed the other huge predators that shared the sky. Just ahead downed tree stumps made a bony fence across our path and we picked our way through them in eerie silence. A huge fish splashed, breaking the quiet, and rattling us. Soon the fish grew so thick that when Ian and I dipped our paddles we were often startled to feel not water but the quick muscular throb of one of these river giants. No wonder the biggest bird in the world was circling overhead. We made it to the end of the lake only to find a mass of still leaves covering the stagnant surface of the water. There was no outlet. We had no choice but to go back to the faraway branch in the river where we had guessed “turn right.”
On the trip back the water shrank again and we had to walk, pulling the canoe by a strap, paddling against the current when the water was deep enough. Finally we returned to our mistake. But not twenty yards down the left hand branch, the stream was blocked by a huge tangle of fallen tree trunks.
We hauled the canoe over the knobby marsh beside the blocked stream and set off again. A hunter’s gun shots rang out nearby. When quiet returned we talked about how odd the lake had been-the sucking mud and startling fish, the huge circling birds and bony tree trunks. We could not help but call it a lake in Mirkwood, the frightening forest of Tolkein’s, The Fellowship of the Ring. (We had listened to part of this tale on the drive down.)
The Vermillion was beautiful but rigorous. Late fall and a summer of drought had made the water so shallow that we estimated that half of our paddle strokes touched sand. Beavers had been busy blockading the narrow turns. Signs of flooding told the story of the hundreds of riverbank trees now toppled into the river. We portaged one huge blockade, and hauled the canoe over another dam of logs. We walked when we had to, and often slipped under logs so tightly we had to lay down in the canoe to clear the passage. Once we threaded our way through a submerged log obstacle course so slowly that it was as if we were paddling on tip-toe.
On an open piece of water a bald eagle swooped down for a fish, suddenly pulling out of its dive and rising right in front of us, giant golden talons still exposed.
By now we were losing the river light to the sinking sun. This was not a river to be on in darkness. Nervously we looked for the take out bridge at every bend. We had paddled so long that we figured we were on the wrong river, not the one on our map. Were we lost on some slough that edged the river further south? Finally, with only minutes of light left, we turned sharply onto a wide and open section of river. A boat landing shined just ahead and we decided to end the trip early, hide the canoe, and head to our car by road.
A kind man gave us a lift to the bridge where we had left our car. After he roared off we realized that we had left the keys to Ian’s car in my car, way back at the put-in. Phil, another kind stranger, gave us a ride the many miles back to our car–He was a knight-in-shining-armor to me, welcoming us calmly though we were lugging paddles and covered with mud. Finally we picked up my car, drove to our hidden canoe and loaded it under an orange harvest moon. We drove south to Ian’s Trooper, key in hand, this time.
As we followed each other home I listened to Frodo fight off the Black Riders. Their trials made me think–some days things go wrong. Some days lots of things can go wrong..
Paddling with someone is a constant give-and-take and somehow we had (mostly) kept our good cheer through all the things that went awry. Later Ian and I made a pact: We want to stay open to everything that happens, ready for it all, not blaming ever, and never losing sight of the beauty. We need each other’s help to accomplish more than we ever could alone. Frodo and his company would agree, I think, don’t you?