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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.

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