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Down by the Riverside


Yankee Jim Canyon, Yellowstone River, Montana

     You don't want to be following us when we're driving down a two-lane highway that goes alongside a whitewater river. Ed and I will be craning our necks to look at the rapids and plotting how we would paddle through each one. Then, when a bridge over the river appears, we will slam on the brakes and pull off to the shoulder. Walking out on the bridge, we'll look down at the bouncing water to continue our discussion of which rock to dodge and which downstream "V" to ride.
     You see, we're following in the tracks of a beat-up brown van we once saw with two equally-abused kayaks tied on top. The van sported a bumper sticker which said, "This vehicle stops at all river crossings." It was a parody of the decals you see on the rear door of busses and other service vehicles warning that—just to be safe—the driver will brake at every railroad crossing.
     So many fine miles we've spent driving alongside whitewater rivers or standing on bridges above them, looking down. The Nantahala River along Highway 19, for example, on our way to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) in Bryson City, North Carolina. The New River along Highway 20 near Hinton, West Virginia. Or, the Yellowstone River along Highway 89 in Montana through Yankee Jim Canyon. Now, at this stage in our lives, we'd have no business paddling Yankee Jim—we'd get trashed in the Class III-IV stacked rapids.
     But it's still fun to look.
     During one visit to North Carolina, we stood on a bridge to watch some Olympic kayakers weave back and forth through the training gates set up in a slalom over a rapids on the property of NOC. The helmeted and spray-skirted young men and women were like demi-gods to me. I used to pore over whitewater guidebooks like I studied Bible commentaries, hoping to find some secret knowledge, some key to success that would allow me to ferry my canoe through gnarly rapids with the same insouciant ease. Such skill, to me, was a taste of immortality.
     Our car stops at all river crossings.
     In some camp songs and gospel hymns, crossing a river is a metaphor for entering the afterlife. Going to heaven. Receiving eternal life. Whatever phrase you want to use. "The Jordan River is chilly and cold," one song goes, "chills the body, but not the soul." Michael, row the boat ashore. The image is that of crossing over to the other side, that unknown place after death.
     We have to use metaphors because no one really knows what happens when you die. In recent decades, advances in medical technology have allowed us to hear reports about tunnels and bright lights from people who've had near-death experiences, but for most of human history, poetry has had to suffice.
     When we first started hearing about COVID-19 deaths, when horrifying reports came from Italy that bodies were piling up because the morgues were full, I told myself, "You, too, could die anytime." But the reality of that truism didn't really sink in until last summer when my good friend, Barbara Lewis-Lakin, died at 67—not of COVID, but of cancer. Since then, I've been thinking a lot about death. The death of my loved ones. My death.
     Perhaps these obsessive thoughts are an attempt to inoculate myself against the bare fact that death comes. If I worry enough about it, maybe it won't happen.
     As a pastor, I'm no novice at death. I've sat in hospitals and nursing facilities and hospice units and family homes with people who are dying. One man, unmarried, middle-aged, who had hidden his cancer from his parents until it was too late for treatment, took his last breath at the very moment that I spoke the words from the 23rd Psalm, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death." Though I finished gamely with the rest of the verse, "I will fear no evil, for thou art with me," we all were spooked. His mother reached forward and gently closed the eyes in his yellowed face.
     I remember sitting with another man, Dan Brown, a stout, square-faced beer salesman who'd served on a Navy destroyer in World War II. Dan told me about a great sea battle in October 1944 that they called "The Battle of the Tin Cans" because a few U.S. destroyers held off five Japanese battleships. Dan had a large, elaborate anchor tattooed in blue on his right forearm. He told me proudly that nowadays young men with spiky hair wearing chains and studs would come up and admire his tattoos.
     Once when Dan was at home on leave from the Navy, a hostile neighbor was speaking belligerently and strutting around his front porch showing off his muscles. Dan said to him, "You want a piece of me?" The neighbor backed down. Dan was a fighter.

     Underneath his tough exterior, though, Dan was also a lover. He'd been married twice, first to Nora, then to Ruth, and at age 85, still had an eye for pretty women. One of the first things that people in the church told me about Dan was how faithfully he had cared for Ruth when she got dementia. Every day he went to the nursing home and ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner with her—for three years—until she died.
     In his last week of his life, Dan told me that he kept seeing Nora, Ruth, his parents, and his deceased sister Louise, standing in the corner of the room. "They're waiting for me," he said. I'd heard something similar from other parishioners—that their loved ones had come to help them make their passage into the next life.
     When my mother, Mary Smith, died in April of 2019, the last word I heard her speak was "Ma." She, too, was staring off into the distance at something or someone I could not see. I first assumed she was calling out for her mother, Rosalie Inwood. But she also could also have been speaking to Ma Peterson, a woman she'd met at a religious camp meeting and who'd been a significant spiritual mentor when she was young. It comforted me, anyway, to think that my mother was being welcomed into heaven by people she had loved.
     So, maybe it's safe to follow Ed and me after all. Though I'm in no hurry to cross over, I hope to be greeted by those who've gone before me. Likewise, I hope to be among those who welcome my loved ones when it's their time to go to the other side of the river.
     And you, when you need it most, may you hear someone calling to you, "Come on over. The water's fine."

"I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you… I will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also." John 14:18,3 (NRSV).
Playlist: "Moon River," Peter Mayer, Elements, 2001.

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Blown Down

     Ten years ago, on March 15, 2012, Ed and I heard a news report that a tornado had gone through Dexter, Michigan, twenty miles from where we lived in South Lyon. We knew many people in that area. But we didn't fully comprehend the extent of the damage until three months later on June 24 when we went canoeing on the Huron River through Dexter.   
     We saw large tree trunks snapped in half twenty feet up. We saw other trees blown down entirely, their upturned root wads lining the river with walls of dirt and twisted sticks.
     The slow-moving tornado had produced winds of 120-140 mph, touching down within sight of Hudson Mills Metropark (the place where we'd just launched), and moving parallel to Huron River Drive. One hundred homes had been damaged, in some places the roof joists strewn like straw.  
     Fortunately, no one had been killed.
     Money and donations had poured into Faith in Action, a local social service agency. Our friend, Nancy, the director of Faith in Action, had scrambled to set up a disaster relief fund with oversight by a local bank. She was putting in twelve-hour days to help coordinate relief efforts and to distribute funds and supplies.
     "What can I do to help?" I'd asked her over the phone. "I'm no good with a chain saw."
     "Not much right now," she said wearily. "I've got piles of used clothing I don't know what to do with. The trick is getting everyone and everything to the right place." Another call buzzed in at her end. "I've got to go," she said.
     "I'll pray for you," I'd said.
     Ed and I canoed through another corridor of root wads from overturned trees. What would it be like to be out on the river, unprotected, when such a storm came through? You'd be lucky to survive.
     We passed the wreckage in silence.
     A chain saw fired up in the distance. I felt vaguely guilty to be out playing when others were working so hard to clean up, even three months after the storm. It was like being tourists in a war zone. But this canoe trip wasn't only for pleasure. We were scouting the river before we took a young family on a guided trip they'd won at our church auction.
     I pushed my paddle hard into the current.
     When I hear news coverage about the war in Ukraine today, I feel some of the same helpless guilt I felt while canoeing after the Dexter tornado. There seems to be so little I can do. I can pray for the people of Ukraine, and give money for disaster relief. As so many others are doing. But how long can the Ukrainian army hold out against the Russian juggernaut?
     The war in Ukraine is not a natural disaster—this disaster has been caused by human beings. In particular, by a powerful, ego-driven leader who has been systemically silencing any who oppose him. What do we do when something terrible is happening and our efforts to make things better feel inconsequential?
     Our pastor said we should pray for Vladimir Putin, that his heart will be changed.
     I have prayed for Putin. I've prayed for God to strike him dead.
     I know—it's not a very Christian sentiment. But I'm not the first or only person to feel this way. I join my voice with the psalmist who prayed that God would "break the teeth of the wicked." (Psalm 3:7) In another part of the Bible, the prophet Jeremiah said to God in bewildered pain, "Why does the way of the wicked prosper?" Jeremiah wanted the wicked to be culled "like sheep for the slaughter." (Jeremiah 12:1,3)
     Take that, you scum.

     When I called our friend Nancy to check the facts for this blog, she and I talked about Ukraine and about the polarized political situation in the United States. Nancy said that we're being "lazy" when we pray for God to take down our enemies. "It's a quest for easy answers," she said. As always, she is so wise. I would add, though, that we also pray this way because we're frightened and exhausted. Of course we want help from a higher power if we believe that corrupt and self-serving leaders have thrown down the timbers of the house of democracy and sent them whirling in a violent storm.
     I guess I can pray that God will give me the strength to see the suffering of others and to do what is in my power to do. I saw on Facebook that some enterprising souls started buying nights at Ukrainian Airbnbs as a way of donating money directly to the Ukrainian people. Most religious denominations have disaster relief organizations already in place. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has already sent almost a million dollars worth of medical supplies. I can pray for these organizations and for the pilots who fly the planes bringing aid and for the brave relief workers on the ground. I can pray for those U.S. and world leaders who are creating strategies to oppose Putin without starting World War III.
     And here at home, when a storm of whatever size or cause comes through, I can hearken to the point-of-view espoused by Mary, the mother of Jesus, who praised God for having "brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly." (Luke 1:52). If this is God's plan, I, too, can oppose the proud and help the humble.
     As for Putin, I leave him in God's hands. Which is where he is anyway.
     Lord, have mercy.
     On us all.

Scripture: Luke 1:46-55 (NRSV)
Playlist: "Do Something," Matthew West, Into the Light, Sparrow Records, 2012. 

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     All of my life I've been an outsider. Growing up in parsonages as a preacher's kid and becoming a pastor myself, moving from town to town, I was always the new kid in the classroom or the new person in church. I skirted the perimeter of conversation circles, listening to people talking or laughing, looking in.

     My husband, Ed, who couldn't wait to leave the small town in which he grew up, thought I was crazy to envy people who'd lived their entire lives in the same place. "They belong," I told him. "They know their place in the stories of the community."
     I had no place.
     Is it any wonder, then, when I got old enough to go out on my own, that I took to the fields and the rivers? I spent my childhood picking black raspberries and chasing butterflies with a net made from a broom handle, a coat hanger, and a curtain sheer. Tiger swallowtail. The well-traveled monarch. I waded shallows where bluegills darted in the shadow of an overhanging oak. Once I spent an entire afternoon cleaning sticks and debris out of a small rapids on the Huron River near Commerce Elementary School, happy as the freshwater clams I saw in the stream.
     Is it any wonder that I would call a river my home?
     I remember a morning in May when our girls were in elementary school. It was the time in the school year when everyone was tired of the grind, so we declared a "Willobee Skip Day." Ed and I took the day off work, we pulled the girls out of school, and we all went canoeing. Blessed respite.
     I also remember a particular day of pure joy in September of 2013 when members of our family came to celebrate Ed's birthday with a canoe trip on the Huron River. A thunderstorm had just passed through, chasing everyone else off the river, and the current was flowing clear and fast. Turtles crawled out of the water to climb on logs. An eagle perched high in a dead sycamore. An osprey rocketed upriver.
     On such days, the river was not just home, but heaven.
     And yet, I also remember times when I didn't feel like an outsider. How sweet those moments in high school, for instance, when I sat in the school cafeteria with my girlfriend, Linda, and the rest of our gang, laughing at Larry who was squirting chocolate milk out of his nose.
     Or, last month, when a group of kind and well-read women sat around my dining room table laughing and talking, drinking red wine and discussing our latest book club title. Though they'd known each other for many years, living in the same community and raising their children together, they let me in to their circle.
     Or, last week, when I stood in a queue at the front of the church in order to receive a white wafer and a tiny cup of juice. Holy Communion. "Everyone is welcome at the Lord's table," the preacher said.
     Also heaven. Also home.
     "You're not so alone," my soul tells me.
     I claim as companions not only eagle and osprey and bluegill, but also these dear human faces: family, new friends, the cadre of fellow seekers, and invisibly, around all of these, the communion of the saints. Those who've gone before us to show us the way.
     Today, may you know yourself held within a community. And if you see someone on the outside, let them know they are not alone.
     We are each other's home.


Scripture: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses… let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…" Hebrews 12:1 (NRSV)
Playlist: "Your Love, O God, Is Broad Like Beach and Meadow," Anders Frostenson, 1968, translated by Fred Kaan, 1972.

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Flip Map

Part 1

     Back in our crazy days, when Ed and I were younger, we played at whitewater canoeing. With our sixteen-foot Mad River Explorer strapped to the roof of the minivan, we would drive 7½ hours to the nearest Class III-IV whitewater: Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania, where the strong and broad Youghiogheny River cut a spectacular gorge through pine-and-hemlock-covered sandstone cliffs.
     Ohiopyle was a boater's mecca. In the parking lot across from Ohiopyle Falls, we often saw kayakers stripping off their driving clothes and zipping up neoprene wetsuits. Brightly-colored kayaks and canoes shaped like bullets or bananas or bathtubs lined the road. There were six and eight-person rubber rafts, too, and solo inflatable kayaks affectionately known as "duckies." Towels flapped from roof racks. Paddles were strewn on the grass like pick-up sticks.

     Bronzed young men and women slung their kayaks over one shoulder as easily as I carried a book bag. The sinewy muscles in their calves worked as they crossed the road to the launch site, their sandals slapping against the pavement.
     We were all headed to the Loop, a great horseshoe bend in the river boasting seven  named rapids: Entrance, Cucumber, Piddly, Camel's Back, Eddy Turn, Dartmouth, and Railroad. Hardy paddlers could run the Loop in an hour and a half, climb a steep path out, walk a mile across the neck of the peninsula, hike back down to the put-in, and run it again.
     Well, that wasn't us. We were never more than intermediate whitewater canoeists, unlike the "squirt boaters," kayakers who surfed the waves or did enders in the holes. They would drive the bow of the kayak deep into the water until the force of the current popped them backwards like a cork out of a champagne bottle. Sometimes, they twirled their boats while flying through the air.
     We didn't get much whitewater practice. Ed and I lived in southeast Michigan, after all, where the nearest whitewater was Delhi Rapids on the Huron River outside of Ann Arbor, a piddling Class II, even in high water. We also had kids and jobs and middle-aged bones.
     We did our best to be smart, though. We wore helmets and life vests and stuffed our canoe full of air bags that would displace most of the water if we capsized. A tandem canoe full of water exerts a force of two-thousand pounds—you don't want to get caught between a canoe full of water and a rock.
     And, we took a two-day tandem whitewater canoeing class in 1984 from a barrel-chested instructor out of Washington, D.C., known as "Flip." We assumed he got the nickname because of his resemblance to the then-popular comedian, Flip Wilson. But he may have earned the sobriquet because he was strong enough to roll his open canoe, a recovery maneuver usually made only by kayakers or closed-deck canoeists. His bulging arms were thick as small trees.
     With Flip's help, we became fairly confident of making complex moves in fast water. He demonstrated various strokes—draw, pry, low brace, and high brace, the latter enabling us to stay upright even when water was pouring over the opposite gunwale. We learned how to thread tight passages, ferry around ledges, and take refuge in mid-stream eddies so that strong currents or irregular waves did not swamp our canoe.
     But, we were pushing it a bit to tackle the three Class IV rapids in the Loop by ourselves. Those rapids contained some large, unavoidable waves and some deep holes that required precise boat handling under pressure. However, the "pool-and-plunge" character of this stretch of the Yough reassured us: after every rapids was a pool of quieter water in which we could right our boat and gather our wits in case we flipped. Which we did. More than once.
     We were also aided by Ron Rathnow's "Flip Map of the Youghiogheny River," part of the Great American Rivers Flip Map series printed by Menasha Ridge Press, publishers of our well-worn Appalachian Whitewater: The Central Mountains. Each page of the palm-sized flip map detailed a different rapids, using dots, arrows, circles, and squiggly or diagonal lines to depict rocks, ledges, waves, hydraulics, and eddies. Bright red arrows showed your options: Hero Route, Sneak Route, or Portage Route.
     It was particularly important to note the hydraulics, also known as "holes," places in the river where a wave below a drop curls back on itself, creating a powerful and turbulent reversal of the current. A bad hole can capture and re-circulate capsized paddlers, tumbling them over and over, keeping them underwater. According to Appalachian Whitewater, Railroad Rapids has "a particularly juicy hydraulic known as Charlie's Washing Machine."

     Relying on Rathnow's graphics, and scouting from shore above the trickier rapids, we had a chance of avoiding disaster.

Part 2   

     I should have looked more carefully at Rathnow's diagram of Railroad Rapids when I ran the Loop solo on June 27, 1994. Fresh from a women-only whitewater canoeing class at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) in North Carolina, I'd graduated to my own solo canoe: a 13-foot Dagger Impulse constructed of red Royalex, a tough composite of vinyl, plastic and foam. I'd splurged to add gleaming ash trim. With a deep bow and four inches of rocker, the Impulse would pivot easily and ride up on the waves.  
     Kneeling astride the foam saddle, my thighs secured with straps attached to D-rings on the bottom of the canoe, I could lean out over my paddle and the canoe would lean with me, the more quickly to turn or the more solidly to brace. What a sweet boat.
     But paddling solo, I was responsible for every decision, every move. No Ed steering in the stern or lending strength in the bow. I was on my own.
     "It's all in the hips," my NOC instructor had said. "Sit up straight and turn your torso like a horse on a carousel pole. But keep your hips flexible. Loose hips save ships." 
     On that June day, I was paddling my new Impulse. Ed was paddling a beat-up old Blue Hole, the grandaddy of whitewater canoes, that he'd bought used from a friend for $250.
     The first rapids, Entrance, went fast. The water was up, brown and swirling, from last night's rain. I took the sneak route down the right. "Coward," Ed teased.
     I didn't want to play the waves or the holes. I just wanted to stay upright.
     The next big rapids was Cucumber, a tumultuous drop squeezed between large boulders. The guidebook said that swimming Cucumber must be like getting flushed down the toilet. The current above Cucumber kept pushing me right when I needed to go left to set up for the drop. Draw, draw. My arms felt limp, ineffectual. But somehow I made it to the left, and then bloop, I was riding the tongue, down the brown water, down into the standing waves that turned me sideways and squirted me into the eddy. "I did it," I whooped. And set to bailing the water out of the canoe.
     We took the next three rapids cleanly, except I broached on a rock in Dartmouth and had to lean downstream to let the current lift the boat free. "Steady, girl, steady," I told myself. Watching Ed pivot neatly into a micro-eddy below a rock in the middle of the stream, I became impatient with my own caution. I took off for Railroad Rapids without a word.
     Stupid, stupid, stupid. I couldn't remember which way the flip map had said to go. As I saw the railroad trestle high above the river, the roar from the water hit me and I was at the top of the drop. I couldn't see anything but a horizon line where the river fell away in front of me.
     Just as I planted my paddle deeply and pulled right, a man sitting on the shore yelled, "Go left, go left." But it was too late. The current swept me forward over the four-foot drop and a wave hit me. I was under water in an instant. And out of the canoe.  
     My head popped up and there was the red underside of the canoe beside me and my paddle in my hand and water churning all around me. Shit! I was in Charlie's Washing Machine, one of the nastiest holes in the river. I'd even aimed for it. All I could see was foaming white water.
     My shin scraped a rock. A kayaker pulled alongside me and I grabbed the tow loop on his boat, kicking toward the boulders by shore. I humped myself onto a rock like a sea lion, water streaming from under my helmet over my face and down my back. I stretched out, panting.
     Another kayaker was sitting in the eddy in a battered lime green squirt boat with duct tape on the bow. He raised one eyebrow, smiling.
     "That was an adventurous line you took," he said.
     I could see Ed downstream pulling my canoe toward the shore. I looked down at my dripping wetsuit. I'd made it! Every inch of me felt alive. I smiled back.

     "Yes, it was," I said.
     Sure, it's wise to avoid mishaps if we can. But the places where we've been trashed make the best stories. Our own personal flip maps, so to speak. I do know this: Turbulence doesn't last forever. And strangers are often kind.
     So, be a little crazy today. Dare something. Take the adventurous route. If nothing else, when it's all over, you'll have a glorious story to tell.

Scripture: "'Lord, if it's you,' Peter replied, 'tell me to come to you on the water.'

'Come,' Jesus said."  Matthew 14:28-29 (NIV)
Playlist: "Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)," Words and Music by Matt Crocker, Joel Houston & Salomon Ligthelm, Hillsong Music Publishing, 2012.

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     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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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.

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     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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Lost and Found

Our campsite on the Buffalo River

     We knew better. When you go on a canoe-camping trip on moving water, you're supposed to tightly secure all your storage bags and bins in your boat. That way, if you flip, your sleeping bags don't get wet. And you don't lose your food.
     When Ed and I had led a group of middle-schoolers on a weeklong trip years ago on the Manistee River in northern Michigan, we'd given the campers black garbage bags to place inside a heavy vinyl sack. We told them repeatedly: "Double-wrap your sleeping bags and clothes. Tie the bags shut." So, I had no sympathy for the girl who threw her gear loosely into her canoe, flipped while horsing around, and had to end the day wringing out her sleeping bag and hanging it over a limb to dry.
     But here we were, Ed and I and our two daughters, knee deep in the Buffalo River in Arkansas, picking pots and pans out of the water.  
     It happened so fast. Paddling with thirteen-year-old Barbara in the bow, and our dog, Rascal, in the middle, trying not to scratch the gel coat of our brand new Kevlar canoe on a gravel bar, Ed had swung his canoe wide into the deeper water by the bank and hit a submerged log just as Rascal lunged toward the tipping gunwale.
     Over they went.
     We'd been in a hurry to break camp that morning and had not laced the big white plastic food box shut. Nor had we lashed it to the center thwart. When the canoe capsized, the box fell out, the top flaps opened, and canned food and utensils careened downstream.
     Barbara grabbed the paddles and Ed captured the splashing dog. Laura and I tied our canoe to a tree, and we all began combing the water for our stuff.
     At that moment, the beauty of the clear turquoise water flowing fast over fine gravel was lost on us. Nor did we notice the striated splendor of the high cliffs above us.
     Ah, here's our big kettle. But where's the lid?
     I heard a shout and looked up. Downstream of us about two hundred feet, a man in a muscle shirt and cut-off jeans was standing in the middle of the river, calmly plucking items out of the water: a pot grabber, a measuring cup, a serving spoon, a can of tuna, plastic jars of mayonnaise, peanut butter, and jam.
     "Are these things yours?" he asked with a broad smile.  
     We all make mistakes.

     And sometimes the current is stronger than we thought. 
     May you have someone downstream when that happens. May a gruff and grinning someone help you gather your belongings and restore what you have lost. May you once again see the beauty above you and at your feet.

"I will restore to you the years which the swarming locusts have eaten." – Joel 2:25 (RSV)
Playlist: "Amazing Grace," Judy Collins, Whales and Nightingales, 1970.

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Early Warning

Spring peeper, photo by Beth Weiler,
Southeast Michigan Naturalists

     Guilt has a bad reputation. For good reason. Through the centuries, clergy of different faiths have used guilt to manipulate people into obedience. One recovering Catholic told me that her strongest motivators still are "guilt and chocolate."
     As a pastor, I avoid telling people they've done something wrong.
     Guilt triggers a sinking feeling in my gut that quickly morphs into self-shaming: "Why did you do that? You're a bad person."

     I don't want others to feel badly about themselves.  

     However, the older I get, and the more human stupidity I witness—my own and others'—particularly in the last two years—I have a new respect for guilt.
     I've begun to think about guilt as being like the canaries people used to take into mines to detect the presence of carbon monoxide. If the canary keeled over, miners knew to escape to fresh air.
     Or, guilt may be like "indicator species" in a watershed. In 1991, our family moved to a house in Southfield overlooking the Rouge River. We loved the variety of wildlife below us in the flood plain: deer, raccoons, owls, hawks. Once we even saw a coyote loping along the riverbank, tail out, head high, as if he owned the place.   
     One warm evening in May, we heard a sound like sleigh bells in the distance. Spring peepers! Sometimes I would stand quietly beside the vernal pond dotted with marsh marigold long enough to see tiny brown heads break the surface of the water.
     But after a few years, we didn't hear the peepers anymore.
     Because of their porous skin, amphibians like frogs and toads are very sensitive to toxic chemicals. River conservation groups like Friends of the Rouge conduct annual frog and toad surveys because a decline in the number of amphibians can be an early warning: something is wrong in the watershed.
     We found out later that a water treatment plant upstream of our house had used a massive amount of chlorine trying to eradicate e coli bacteria. That heedless act probably caused the end of the Spring peepers in our part of the watershed.
     Someone needed to convince plant operators to adopt a different method of e coli mitigation.
     Guilt can be good in our personal and corporate lives when it functions as an ethical early warning system. Guilt tells us when we've done something wrong. Guilt alerts us not to keep saying things we'll later regret. Guilt warns us when our behavior is hurting others.
     Conversely, a lack of guilt allows unethical behavior to continue. For example, a lack of guilt lets people spread misinformation that threatens public health. Lack of guilt lets leaders perpetrate lies that endanger democracy.
     Those who feel guilt may help us avoid disaster.
     I'm hoping for the day when riverside dwellers will once again hear the sound of sleigh bells along the Rouge River. In the meantime, whenever and wherever we need it, may we be given the gift of guilt.

"Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also." Psalm 31:9 (NRSV)
Playlist: "Pity Me, God, in My Distress," King David: A Symphonic Psalm in Three Parts by Arthur Honegger, 1924, English translation by Edward Agate.

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Tahquamenon River

     On June 30, 2011, I was crouched in the median of the parking lot at Tahquamenon Falls State Park talking on my cell phone to a funeral director. Ed and I had driven to the Upper Peninsula to begin a delayed vacation right after the committal service for a parishioner, and here was a call to plan another funeral. My fifth funeral in four weeks.
     Because we couldn't get cell service at our cabin, I'd spent an hour the night before at Whitefish Bay picnic area along M-123 talking to the family. Now this call from the funeral director. Ed and I were supposed to be taking an afternoon hike on the Great Pines Trail. He listened to the radio in the car while I talked in the median.
     Pocketing my phone, I blew out my breath in exasperation.
     "I cannot keep doing this job without my full vacations," I said to Ed. "I'm tired of the fact that one phone call can rob me of the recovery time I so badly need."
     Ed nodded. He hadn't wanted to shorten our vacation, either. He reached into the back seat for his hiking boots.  

     "Sondra Willobee?" a voice said. "Is that Sondra and Ed?"
     A car zipped into the space beside us. Our good friend, Nancy, jumped out of the passenger seat.
     "I didn't know you were up here, too," she said. "We drove up yesterday."
     Her husband, Jim, got out of the driver's side and shook Ed's hand. "What are the chances of running into you guys?" he said. I wondered if he and Ed, both engineers, would begin to calculate the probabilities. Instead Jim said, "Let's get a beer."
     Sitting in the wood-paneled Tahquamenon Falls Brew Pub, we made plans. For the rest of the day, we hiked with them, went out for whitefish at The Fish House, and watched the sun set over the Tahquamenon River from their campsite.
     The next day, we drove with Jim and Nancy to canoe the Big Two-Hearted River using the outfitter at the historic Rainbow Lodge.*
     The twisting, dark brown river flowed quickly over sand and gravel through high dune banks with blown-down pine trees. Sometimes we had to ferry the wind and the shifting currents, so we didn't get pushed broadside into bushes along the banks. Sometimes we had to portage over log jams or line the boats through narrow passages. It was a great trip.    
     After we returned the paddles and life vests, we drove to the state forest campground where the Two-Hearted River runs parallel to the beach and empties into Lake Superior. We walked across the suspension bridge out to the cobble beach between the river and Superior's shoreline. Colorful fist-sized rocks shone wetly where waves had rolled them over and over.
     The big lake shimmered in the distance, vast in contrast to the narrow river.
     "I still can't get over meeting you in the parking lot," I said to Nancy.
     Oh, I have preached more than one sermon about how God specializes in sending people to each other just when they need it. Sometimes the message is "You need to change your attitude," as when God sent the Gentile Cornelius to the apostle Peter, who couldn't get with the program that God had no favorites (Acts 10). Sometimes the message comes to people in the wilderness, as when God sent Moses to tell the newly-liberated Israelites that they could trust God to take care of them.
     I reached down and picked up an oblong rock from the cobble beach.
     It fit perfectly in my hand.     
Scripture:  "You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself." –Exodus 19:4 (NRSV)

Playlist: "On Eagles' Wings," by Michael Joncas, 1979.

*This was eleven months before the devastating Duck Lake Fire on May 26, 2012 burned 21,000 acres, charring forests along the river and destroying the lodge.

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