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Down by the Riverside


     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.

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