icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Down by the Riverside


     Why do Ed and I prefer to canoe on rivers? Big lakes do have their glory, as when the golden path of the setting sun reaches to the horizon. And small lakes have their intimate charm, as when green firs rim a quiet, secluded shore. But give us a river any day.
     Water flowing under the hull quickens our pulse. Water frothing over rocks makes us sit up straight and pay attention to our route. And, we're a little lazy--we like to let the current do some of the work. But the biggest reason we love rivers is that you never know what you're going to see around the next bend.
     Maybe it will be a great blue heron stalking a fish in the shallows, beak glinting like a silver dagger. Or maybe it will be an otter sliding down the bank with gleeful abandon like a four-year-old in a slippery snowsuit who's just discovered how fast he can go.
     Once, while canoeing on the Ocklawaha River in central Florida, Ed and I made a game of counting alligators. The rule we set was that you actually had to see the alligator, not just the ripples left by its departing tail. We canoed without speaking, barely moving our paddles, hoping to see them before they saw us.
     We were only a little afraid. That far upriver, the ecosystem contained only enough prey to support young alligators. Two or three-feet-long from teeth to tail. The big six-footers were much farther downstream. But when we climbed up a small bluff to eat our mid-afternoon snack, we were amazed to see a rope swing hanging from a tree out over the river. I wouldn't want to swim with even baby alligators.
     That sentiment was confirmed late in the trip when we backed the canoe into a small tributary, and I was eye-level with an adolescent gator a few feet away on the bank. For several seconds, the alligator didn't move. It fixed its gaze on me, malevolent, unwavering, its reptilian eye with the vertical slit unblinking as it ever-so-slowly lowered itself into the water. In that moment I understood what ancient biblical writers must have meant by "the evil eye."
     On a different vacation, Ed and I got up before dawn to canoe the Oxbow Bend on the Snake River in Grand Tetons National Park in Wyoming. We hoped to see otters, having met some wildlife researchers the day before who were using redlight cameras to study the nighttime habits of these playful mammals. We also hoped to see moose, even though moose can be dangerous to humans. "You don't want to get between a cow moose and her calf," a ranger told us.
     Well, we got part of our wish. Just as light from the rising sun was slanting across the valley, we rounded a bend and saw dark forms lying in a meadow bordered by a U-shaped meander in the river. Two big-eared heads rose above the tall grass, one large, one small. Moose! Mama and Baby. We stopped paddling completely and just floated. I held my breath. Without flickering an eyelash, they watched us pass.
     When we were safely downriver, I let out my breath.
     "Whoa-o-h-h-h," I said.
     Some of my most powerful experiences—and my most important relationships—carry a slight frisson of fear. I'm not in charge. I'm not in control. I don't know exactly what's going to happen next. Perhaps that's part of what the Bible means when it says that we should "fear" God. I used to chafe under that idea, but now understand it to mean that we should have a healthy dose of respect.
     It's good, sometimes, to remember that I'm not the only animal on the planet. It's good, sometimes, to be a careful guest in someone else's home.


"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Proverbs 9:10 (KJV)
Playlist: "How Great Thou Art," British hymn translated from Swedish and Russian by Stuart K. Hine, 1953.

Post a comment

Aialik Bay

     So, I promised you a story. Aialik Bay.
     I wanted to go. And I didn't want to go.
     We'd made reservations for a kayak tour of this remote, pristine bay in the Kenai Fjords National Park with Kayak Adventures Worldwide out of Seward, Alaska. This late August excursion was to be one of the highlights of our three-week Alaska vacation in 2019. The outfitter's website promised we might see harbor seals, puffins, and other wildlife. Maybe the glacier would calve right before our eyes. I'd been anticipating the trip for months.
     And yet.
     I was a much better canoeist than kayaker.

     I was afraid of deep, cold water.
     Michigan's Lake Superior gives me the heebie-jeebies, and this was the North Pacific Ocean. I flipped in a kayak once while paddling around Grand Island in Lake Superior. I rolled over and came up for air three times before I remembered to tear off the spray skirt and perform a wet-exit. "I thought I was going to have to do a 'dead-man rescue' on you," one of my paddling companions had said. I didn't trust myself in a kayak.
     When our Alaskan kayak guide, Glo, asked each us during the pre-trip shakedown what goal we had for the trip, I did not tell the group what I'd written in my journal the night before:

     · Hope to survive.

     · Hope not to capsize.

     · Hope not to fall behind.

     · Hope to have strength for the whole trip.

     · Hope the wind doesn't come up.

     · Hope not to pee my pants.

I said, instead, that I hoped to see a sea otter close up. We boarded the water taxi that would take us to Aialik Bay. As the taxi pulled away from the dock, up popped the head of an otter, six feet off the bow. "It's only 8:05 a.m.," I said to Glo. "What are you going to do for the rest of the trip?"
     Well. The water taxi took us alongside steep, forested basalt cliffs and snow-studded peaks. In Spire Cove, we squeezed between islands with weirdly wonderful graywacke rock formations. We saw harbor seals on a ledge, stellar sea lions on a rock, and a bird that one of the other guests identified as the rare kittletz murrelet. The captain of the taxi pointed out sea stars on the rocks right at the shoreline. Then he slowed to circle a horned puffin floating on the waves.

     After two-and-a-half hours, the water taxi deposited us on a sheltered beach south of Slate Island in Aialik Bay.  Glo removed the tarps from the sea kayaks stored there, and we dragged them down the steep beach, the flat oval stones sliding sideways under our feet.
     Fortunately, the water in the bay was very calm. I don't know what I would have done had there been waves. The kayak moved smoothly and easily through the water. Glo showed me how to space my hands on the shaft of the paddle to ease the strain on my shoulders. What a relief.
     We paddled toward Aialik Glacier for almost an hour. The glacier seemed so close to us, but appearances were deceiving. Glo told us that the face of the glacier was a mile wide and twenty stories high. And what we were seeing was just the terminus of the glacier—a great wall, a colonnade of vertical bluish shafts and shards topped with spikes. Several times we heard a sound like thunder and part of the glacier fell into the water, creating waves that finally reached our kayaks in gentle swells.
     Glo had us raft up half a mile from the face of the glacier, far enough away that the waves would not capsize us if a big portion of the glacier came down.     

     We kept our kayaks in formation for forty-five minutes, eating turkey sandwiches and watching the glacier calve repeatedly. Sometimes a harbor seal swam by. We were surrounded by large and small chunks of gray and blue ice, what Glo called "berg-y bits." She told us not to collide with any piece that was bigger than our cockpit. "That could do you some damage," she said.
     I picked a small piece of ice out of the water and bit it. It tasted clean and pure.
     As I gazed at what one writer called the "impossibly huge" face of the glacier, I imagined rivers of snowmelt flowing somewhere beneath what I could see. I remembered learning in physics class that even in the most solid-seeming structures, something is always moving. Every piece of matter is made up of atoms, electrons circling the neurons and protons in the nucleus like planets orbiting the sun.

     Something is always moving.
     Fear and anxiety do vibrate within us. Let them go. Let them ride like pieces of gravel down the cold, unseen river into the sea. Put your paddle in the icy water and keep going. Maybe you'll see a puffin. Or a seal. For certain there will be deep water. And above you, even more enormous than the face of the glacier, will be the wide arc of the aquamarine sky. 

"Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine." Isaiah 43:1 (RSV)

Playlist: "How Firm a Foundation," early American hymn, 1787.

Post a comment


     If you ask us, Ed and I would be happy to tell you that we prefer to paddle our canoe on rivers. But we've had some spectacular experiences on lakes. That time on Rollins Pond in the Adirondacks, for instance, when we saw a shooting star fall halfway across the sky. Or, on Kintla Lake in Glacier National Park, when we looked down into seventy feet of water so clear we could see our shadows on the bottom.

     Or, during a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Alaska I haven't told you about yet, when we kayaked on Aialik Bay through shards of ice that hissed against our hulls as we headed toward the steep wall of a tidewater glacier twenty stories high.
     However, on this particular day in 2018 beside Freeland Lake in Killarney Provincial Park, Ontario, I wasn't feeling spectacular. Though mid-September, it was hot, and we were resting before our 430-meter portage into Killarney Lake. We'd hauled our canoe and paddles and camping gear out of the way so others using the portage trail could get around us. We'd already paddled across Freeland Lake and George Lake. We had much of Killarney Lake yet to go before we reached our campsite.
     The trail was surprisingly busy for such a remote place. I imagined the other paddlers were going deep into the interior, maybe all the way to Threenarrows Lake, accessible only by a 3000-meter carry that explorer Kevin Callan called "the portage to hell." We wouldn't be doing that. We weren't as young as we used to be.
     Two twenty-somethings blew past us, not even stopping to wipe their faces. I rubbed my skinny arms and rolled my shoulders to loosen the thin sheath of muscles across my chest.

     Then two couples our own age pulled up. They did not even grunt when they leaned over to gather up their gear. They hefted their packs with practiced ease. Humpf. They reminded me of some of the paddlers in our club at home who were always first down the river on any outing, the ones who grumbled about the guy who was always falling behind to poke around a muskrat lodge or peer into the pools for bass. The front-runners stroked vigorously, their paddles thrusting up and down like pistons. The fastest had their boats loaded onto their roof racks while the rest of us were still easing up to shore.
     I unknotted my bandana and dipped it into the water to cool my neck.
     At least we're still out here, I thought, still making our way across the water and through the woods.  I remembered a line from the prose poem, "Desiderata," I'd read a long time ago. "If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself."

     I know now what I didn't know then, in that miserable moment beside the portage trail. That when we finally got to our campsite and set up our tent on the promontory across the water from the white quartzite bluffs of the La Cloche Range, we would sit on our folding chairs in perfect contentment. That we would listen to the lap of small waves against the boulders below us and watch the setting sun spangle the turquoise water with gold.
     Later that night, under stars, I would fall asleep in my tent remembering that "La Cloche" is French for "bell." Native Americans used to strike the rocks in the range as a warning and the rocks would echo with a bell-like tone. In the perfect quiet of that night, I would hear the mountain ring its sweet earthly music into the sky.

     May you treat yourself kindly today. May you "go placidly amid the noise and haste." May your simple self be enough.

Scripture: "The last will be first, and the first will be last." Matthew 20:16 (NRSV)

Playlist: "Onward, Canoe," Douglas Wood, EarthSongs, 1989.

Post a comment