#24 St. George River, Maine

Southeast of Rockford, Maine

August 30, 2006—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!

24-St. George River from bridge

24-St. George River from bridge

After studying guides we decided to take the St. George, a sweet small stream from Seven Tree Pond (all lakes are called Ponds in Maine), with a dashing, rocky ending. The great people of Maine Sport helped us plan the route and rent a canoe and supplies. We lashed it to our rental car and drove to the put in. Sweeping rolling hills. High clouds. Bright blue domed sky.

24-Helpful sailor

24-Helpful sailor

At the boat ramp we met a charming man who, while loading his sailfish asked us about our plan and happens to say… “Anyone mention the 25 foot dam? It’s not marked but you’ll probably hear it if the wind’s not up.” Needless to say, that got our attention. Turns out he was a member of a local canoeing club and they had recently paddled our planned route.

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.

24-Plan change at put in

24-Plan change at put in

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 farms—It was a spectacular stage show starring those Great Long White Puffy Clouds from the West.

Bucking the wind we found the grassy cut across the lake and ducked into St. George River. The water instantly turned silky, mirror like. We paddled a couple of lazy hours, past farms and the old fairgrounds, then turned the canoe and headed back to the landing. Before slipping out in to the lake Ian insisted on climbing one last rock while I held on against the wind. He made it up to me by unloading the canoe while I swam, back at the landing.

 

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…

24-From Haystack deck

24-From Haystack deck

#23 Rum River, Minnesota

 

23-Big wind blows big flag!

23-Big wind blows big flag!

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

23-Subway workers to the rescue.

23-Subway workers to the rescue.

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!

 

23-Rum river

23-Rum river

The Rum River is a prairie river and the site of several

23-Rum River in hot sun.

23-Rum River in hot sun.

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 disturbing—no old trees left anymore.

 

Sluggish and quiet, the river is now a paradise for birds. Big ones, little ones, darting and dashing, swooping and attacking—we 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.

23-Lunch with books.

23-Lunch with books.

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.)

23-Tiny openings

23-Tiny openings

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…

23-Debra walks a canoe

23-Debra walks a canoe

#22 St. Louis River, Minnesota

 

22-St. Louis River

22-St. Louis River

August 7, 2005—Once, when driving back from Ely, Minnesota, the road crossed over a narrow twisting river set close with pine. I want to go there! I thought as we flashed over the small bridge.

“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 gorgeous—so off we set to find out.

22-Need a ride to canoe!

22-Need a ride to canoe!

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

22-No ride. Ian bike's!

22-No ride. Ian bikes!

 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.

22-On water at last...

22-On water at last…

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 summer—I 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

22-In the distance...

22-In the distance…

 
22-Closer...

22-Closer…

 
22-Close!

22-Close!

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.

22-Riffled water, birds fish, we eat.

22-Riffled water, birds fish, we eat.

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.

#21 Whitewater, Minnesota

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.

21-The valley

21-The valley

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.

21-Camp

21-Camp

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).

21-Rock table

21-Rock table

 
21-Rock Table with Debra

21-Rock Table with Debra

   

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.)

 

21-Whitewater start

21-Whitewater start

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.

 

21-Yellow dots, blue sky

21-Yellow dots, blue sky

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.

 

 

21-Rocks and stumps

21-Rocks and stumps

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 water—Which 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.

 

21-Silted town's remains

21-Silted town’s remains

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

21-From such a tiny start...

21-From such a tiny start…

 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, Colorado

20-Driving down

20-Driving down

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

20-Hoover Dam

20-Hoover Dam

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 today—if 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 river—and 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.

20-Sheer cliff edges

20-Sheer cliff edges

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

20-Fifty mph gusts

20-Fifty mph gusts

 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 water—only 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!

20-Squirt gun ready

20-Squirt gun ready

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.

20-Water attack!

20-Water attack

 

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

20-The survivors

20-The survivors

 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, Wisconsin

 

19-Apple heavy

19-Apple heavy

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 stream—we would spend the day dragging our canoe and scooping up sand in the thin water.

19-Fall fields

19-Fall fields

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 map—The Chippewa—40 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

19-Durand bridge

19-Durand bridge

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

19-Chippewa River

19-Round Hill, Chippewa River

 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.

 

19-River widens

19-River widens

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

19-Mustang saved!

19-Mustang saved!

 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.

 

19-Roadside

19-Riverside

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.

19-Plum Creek church

19-Plum Creek church

 
19-Laura's Big Woods cabin

19-Laura’s Big Woods cabin

     
19-Apple laden

19-Apple laden

#18 Black River, Wisconsin

18-black River start

18-black River start

August 7, 2004—Every trip on the river brings interesting people with it, and this trip was no exception. A trail of clues brought us to the Black River Falls Interstate 94 Towing Service, who also ferries canonists through the Black River Canoe Rental (715-284-8136). When we pulled into the wide driveway of the Towing Service, the grassy lawn was littered with various wrecks from the Interstate. As we walked around, the proprietor told us the story of each disaster. It was like listening to a movie of continuous tragedies, only every one of these were real. The yard was

18-High water evidence

18-High water evidence

 busy this morning. A huge semi trailer had caught fire on the freeway in the night. The contents—five family’s belongings that were being moved across the country—were now smoldering. The doors were thrown open and a few of the families had flown in to survey the damage. It was quiet, smoky, and very sad.

We arranged the shuttle and the drop off and set off on the water under ideal conditions—summer, sun, no wind. The river was wide with gently sloping sandy beaches edging the curves. After a couple hours of paddling we stopped to rest. Daydreaming under a tree I suddenly noticed that one of the branches swaying above was not original to the tree! Here, again, was evidence of water once so high that a huge trunk was caught in the middle branches of the tree overhead. Amazed at what spring snow melt can do to a river, I snapped this picture to show you.

18-Like fingers...

18-Like fingers…

The river twisted and turned but stayed luxuriously wide. Around a huge sandy bank we found a section where dozens of trees had been stranded just above water level. Each was long ago striped of bark or leaves, and the silver trunks all pointed down river, reaching out like giant hands, or looking like jumping dolphins, poised midair. I took so many pictures that Ian poked fun at me. The giant tree trunks lasted only a few hundred yards,

18-Bluffs

18-Bluffs

 then disappeared. (The thing about a river is that it is always flowing—you can’t stop, and you can’t go back, so now I try to pay close attention and snap pictures as soon as we come upon it.) Next, a high limestone cliff loomed, and a father and daughter were fishing from a red canoe. “We’re having a blast,”

18-Sun, water, clouds

18-Sun, water, clouds

they called, and reported catching and releasing three big ones. 

 

The river opened even wider and puffy clouds sailed over. We startled two deer who had come to drink. Suddenly the sky started darkening. Thunder rumbled off to our right. We ducked into the curve of a beach as rain drops

 

18-A barked greeting

18-A barked greeting

drew quick circles in the flat water. The rain passed and the river grew so still that our canoe made the only ripples. The water mirrored the late afternoon sky and it felt like we were paddling through the clouds.

Dusk edged the river and we both stretched out in the canoe to rest. The day was darkening quickly and we did not want to take time to beach the canoe. Back to our paddling, night falling, we rounded a wide turn and there was the car—and a barking beagle who paddled out to greet us and bark us all the way to shore.

18-Black River, WI

18-Black River, WI

#17 Au Sable River, Michigan

July 29, 2004—I recently had the great pleasure of speaking to some of Michigan’s finest teachers at the Michigan Summer Reading Conference in Gaylord, MI. After

17-Penrod's rental kayak

17-Penrod’s rental kayak

finishing my duties one afternoon I jumped into my car and drove 25 miles south to Grayling, MI, where I had arranged to rent a single kayak for a paddle on the Au Sable River. I arrived at Penrod’s Canoe Trips just minutes after the last available boat departure. Jim, the proprietor (and pictured here) agreed to stay open a bit later so that I could set off at once on an eight mile paddle. I remain grateful for this extension to their long day—thank you! (Penrod’s: 989-348-2910)

17-Setting off

17-Setting off

I set off in late afternoon light. There was a stiff, clothesline snapping wind bending the tree tops lining the river but down on the river’s bed the water’s surface was barely ruffled. The sky arched clear and all that moving air and slanting warm sun made the day’s end feel electric. It was Thursday and the river was empty of fellow travelers. I could not have felt more lucky, more alive, or any more happy!

Later I read that the Au Sable River is considered one of Michigan’s most beloved streams. Like several of the rivers I have been privileged

17-Au Sable quiet

17-Au Sable quiet

to paddle, this one is protected by the Wild and Scenic River Act. It is also the river that served as the birthplace of Trout Unlimited, one of the great fishing and conservation organizations of our country.

17-silver trunks

17-silver trunks

This river is exquisite. I knew I was in a holy place as I paddled through the narrow banks, and I also knew how lucky I was to be so silently alone in such beauty. Tiny cabins dotted the early bends in the river, and a long rope swing hung from one tree branch overhanging a sharp turn. The stream was remarkably clear, the sandy bottom rarely covered with more than three or four feet of moving water, and a steady current helped pull me east.

17-Leaning pine

17-Leaning pine

Along the way I passed a huge collection of downed trees, the silver pile banking a camp site on a wide turn. A blue heron leap-frogged me down the river, and in the quiet I found myself whispering to the bird about the beauties I was seeing while it fished beside me. The river momentarily straightened and I found myself in awe of a giant pine leaning out over the river ahead. This tree was one of the progeny of the Old Trees, a lone standing remnant of the great pines that had covered the fields and banks of this river. In the 1800’s the vast virgin pine forests were clear cut. Their huge cut trunks once clogged this river, scrapping away its sandy bottom as the giant logs were floated down to ships waiting on Lake Huron. Like the trees, the river suffered. Great efforts have been made to restore this river’s splendor.

 

17-Roots cling

17-Roots cling

This huge tree before me held the bank with muscular roots that snaked above the earth before plunging underground. Despite its size it leaned out over the river with a sense of graceful majesty and patience that I found contagious. I could see the river from the tree’s view as it watched all the season’s pass on this bit of water, year after year, ice, snow, spring melt, summer flow. This tree reminded me all over again of the quiet breathing all the trees are doing for us. Every leafy moment they are exchanging our carbon dioxide for their oxygen. Steadfast, the tree quieted me even more deeply. Quietly I paddled again. The heron followed and left this message right beside my boat before sailing off down the river.

 

17-Feather drifts

17-Feather drifts

 

#16 French Broad River, North Carolina

16-Teen team

16-Teen team

July 12, 2004—For this river I was joined by the brave and good spirited teens, Grace, Christopher, Calla, and Zoe. The Natahala Outdoor Center (www.noc.com) hosts a river outfitting site near the French Broad River, a river that weaves through western North Carolina, including the city of Asheville, NC. A night of heavy rainfall had raised this Class II-III river a full 8 inches so they were not running

16-French Broad River

16-French Broad River

 

 individual “duckies,” (small individual inflatable kayaks). Instead, we reserved a five person raft for the five mile trip on this old and well known river.

The NOC is famous for its energetic and talented guides. Our guide, Ian, was certainly both but when he gave us the option of guiding our own raft down the raised river and we accepted. (When you sign up for a trip through the NOC you are taken through a short course on river safety and fitted for helmets and PFD’s, personal flotation devices.) We then boarded a big blue bus and were driven down a steep, winding road to the put-in beside the French

16-The jump!

16-The jump!

Broad. Giant silver inflatable rafts were blown up and set up at river’s edge. A light rain fell. All of us grabbed a paddle, climbed in, and pushed off into the current. I sat up in the back, ready to steer the first raft of my life!

We followed Ian and his raft full of fellow river riders closely. At each rapid Ian paused in the eddy and called out the line we were to trace. As bow paddler I tried my best to keep us there. I was greatly helped by Zoe who is a fine canoeist from Minnesota, and together we managed to stay off rocks. (The difference between a canoe and a raft? I found the raft to require more “reach” in order to steer the craft. And no cross draw stokes!) At a slow curve we pulled over to a high cliff and the younger members of the expedition jumped from the rocks into the river. At this point Zoe and I switched and she steered, guiding us through the rest of the rapids, including the final Class III drop pictured here!

         

 

   
16-Guides

16-Guides

#15 Loxahatchee River, Florida

July 4, 2004—Ian and I set off for the Loxahatchee River, located in Martin County, just south of Vero Beach, the small Florida beach town where I grew up. This beautiful little 8

15-Palm-lined path

15-Palm-lined path

mile-long river runs through the Jonathan Dickinson State Park, and is the only Florida river to earn the 1985 distinction as an original Wild and Scenic River. (Similar to the St. Croix’s protection, see River #6.) We had arranged to rent a canoe from CANOE OUTFITTERS (561-746-7053) who explained that the river was so low that only a brief two mile section was still navigatable. We were instructed to paddle up to the spillway, then turn around and paddle back against the current—a current so mild due to low water that we would hardly notice, he assured us.

15-Loxahatchee River

15-Loxahatchee River

The white sandy path to the put-in was palm lined and cicadas rose and played their wild songs in the tangled woods as we passed. A gigantic black cloud bank towered over us, Florida style, and a light rain fell just as we arrived at the dark bank of the river. The rain cooled the hot, steamy air and we set out amid giant drops that made the huge overhanging elephant leaves bob as we paddled by. After a short paddle to a bridge the tree canopy closed over the river and the tropics sealed us off from the busy world.

The river narrowed, twisted and turned. Palms arched and one had fallen perpendicular across the river. Giant ferns grew out from the bank, wild lily plants

15-Low water marks

15-Low water marks

spiked and bloomed, and every black, wet log looked like an alligator. Up ahead a vine silently strangled a towering cypress tree, making us talk in a whisper when we passed. That was not the only thing that kept us quiet. The outfitter had said that the water level was three feet below normal but it had not registered until we found ourselves paddling beside giant cypress trees with all their “knee” roots exposed and evidence of the usual water mark on the huge trunk of the trees visible just over our heads. (Note the dark lines in all the pictures.) Three feet below normal! It would take several hurricanes and many years of steady afternoon rains to bring the water level back. The alligators that draped the banks on my last paddle here, four years

15-Cypress knees

15-Cypress knees

 ago, had disappeared, probably looking for more plentiful food elsewhere. In addition, it was the great American July 4th holiday and we threaded our way around a couple of canoes beached on the bank, the paddlers drinking themselves silly, loud, happy, and leaving trash. It made me deeply sad to find the water evaporating and

15-Thin water

15-Thin water

the people careless. I felt like we were in a church that was disappearing, stone by stone, drop by drop.

Florida is in a long drought and combined with a population explosion, the whispered water scarcity was suddenly very visible. We paddled back to the outfitter, stopping several times to pull the canoe over sand barely covered with flowing water. The outfitter had been right. There was no current to fight on the return trip. We

15-Spillway

15-Spillway

 pulled our canoe over the spillway and paddled back with a bevy of older kayakers who told us about paddling the Everglades rivers. Would we find water there? I wondered.