I have to admit the big river scares me. I’ve ridden its currents from Montana to St. Louis and spent numerous weekends and long trips on its banks. I know it as well as anyone. But every time I’m ready to get on it for another ride, my imagination takes over. What if the river swallows me? What will happen if I get lost on its banks? Who will save me?
I’d already gotten over the greatest of my fears before the river trip this weekend. Just getting the canoe onto my regular-guy sedan paralyzed me. I dread the thought of the boat coming free of the car in traffic. I don’t want to get into a situation where I somehow break the boat. My boat is precious. It cost a great deal of money. I’d never had it on this car before.
I spent the previous evening practicing putting the boat on the car and cinching it down with ratchet straps. My rack doesn’t span the distance it should to capture the belly of the boat and insure that it won’t move from side to side as I drive 70 miles an hour down the Interstate. But after I ratcheted down the boat to the rack, I attached the front and the back to the frame of the car—no easy task since the car doesn’t have tow hooks and I had to hook the ratchet straps to the frame deep under the car.
Satisfied that I could undertake this task, I took the canoe off the car and stowed it again behind the house. With my mind made up that I would take attaching the boat to the car only slowly and with care, I settled into a good sleep that night and worry never bothered me again.
The next day was a busy one with school and family business. But when it was all complete and I’d taken a short nap, I again attached the boat to the car and head out on the interstate. Despite the fact that the boat was firmly attached to the car—firmly—I watched those ratchet straps that came up from under the bumper and hooked to the front of the canoe every minute of the drive. Of course, and just as with all my fears, I settled into a slight state of anxiety and let the miles fall behind.
I arrived at the boat ramp in Lexington, Missouri, at 6 p.m. As I waited for a river pal to come so we could shuttle his truck to Miami, I kicked gravel in the parking lot and walked down to watch the river flow. It was like seeing an old friend. The river muscled by in a silent way that great things should not have. Its great expanse and sinewy currents flowed down from the boat ramp and took my eye downstream, where the river wound around a sweeping bend and disappeared.
A ping of excitement and anticipation rose in my throat and my heart skipped. This would be the first time in a few years that I would travel the river’s surface. I couldn’t wait to start.
By the time my friend rolled into the riverfront park, I had resolved to face my fear head on. I wouldn’t be dealing with the river until the next day. I was going on it with friends. One thing at a time. That’s what usually gets me through any fearful situation I get into.
We stashed our boats out of sight behind a couple of cottonwoods at the far end of the park and drove to Miami. The sun had set and the evening grew dark before we were far along that road. Once in Miami, we parked my friend’s truck and headed back to Lexington.
Through a text message, we discovered that our other river friends would not arrive from Sugar Creek, Missouri, until well after dark. The idea of canoeing the river in the dark has always frightened me, and I felt for our friends. But they were intrepid types, ready for anything. If they had to paddle in the dark they would, and with confidence. They were better than me, stronger, and I admired them.
We arrived back at the boat ramp in Lexington and found that our friends had arrived without incident. We sat in a picnic shelter, the night growing cold around us, and talked. They told stories and laughed. Since I didn’t know any of them well, not even my shuttling pal, I remained silent for the most part. They asked about it, goaded me into conversation. I told a few stories of my own.
The next morning, we set our boats on the river and entered that divine space between land and water. Strung out across the river like a string of Christmas lights, we each went about the business of putting a long day behind us. Conversations rose and fell, depending on who we happened to be paddling next to. I spent a long time talking to a man in a little kayak, barely big enough it seemed for him and the mountain of gear he brought with him. He was a nice man who I got to know as well as one can paddling a great stream.
Once the man in the tiny kayak and I separated, I fell into conversation with a fellow canoeist, the man who had organized this crowd of anarchists for a weekend ramble down the river. We had much to talk about—family, job, life. We paddled together for most of the day, sometimes close enough to touch each other’s boats, sometimes at some distance.
The miles rolled by and with them my fears dissipated. There’s nothing like being on the big river to show me that these fears, these everyday worries and anxieties, come more from the life I’m living than from fear of the river itself. It’s almost as if the river absorbs the tensions of my work and family life. I get to think again, watching the rocks and trees, birds and insects float by. I get to be myself without the burden of myself.
We paddled that day some 37 miles and landed on a great sandbank on Hill’s Island, an expanse of cottonwood-bottomland where the vines and trees make the ground walkable beyond the first heavy growth at the edges of the forest. The surface of the sand was hard, though it broke free and powdered underfoot. We chose places where the sand was flat, as most of the surface of the sandbank was withered and wrinkled. Soon, we had our tents scattered out for a hundred yards in every direction.
Fire was the first order of business and the large amount of drift at the head of the island gave us all the fuel we needed. My friends broke out their beer and ate a meaty deer chili, prepared from cans of tomatoes and spices. One of my companions noted that I didn’t eat the chili and the subject of my vegetarianism became a long topic of conversation.
Not long after dark, I walked away from our little group, now grown to nine. The light from the fire and the lanterns threw long shadows across the sand. Above the Milky Way lofted its chiffon veils from horizon to horizon. The night was still and there was no wind. Again, the river sped by on its way to the sea, making its presence felt in the dark. It was profoundly lonely and stunningly beautiful.
Standing in the dark alone on that riverbank, I felt grand in a calm, humbled sort of way. The river had not turned out to be the beast my mind made it out to be. The fear of the river revealed itself as the frustrations and worries of home. I knew, in a very conscious way, that the river had relieved me of my shortcomings and made me aware, again, of myself.
The next day started roughly. We paddled off into a stiff headwind that made headway difficult. At one point, I paddled up near the bank and while digging my paddle deep and quickly. The bank inched by and the first two miles took over an hour. The previous day, we had traveled, with dawdling, an average of four miles an hour. This day, however, we were lucky to make it around the next bend.
We came ashore at one of our crew’s family cabin. We stood atop the bank, hands in the armholes of our life vests and chatted and smoked. I fidgeted. We had to make another twenty or more miles before ending the day and heading back home. I dreaded the idea that if we were only going to make two miles an hour we would arrive at our take out spot well into the night.
My fears, again, were unfounded. The murderous wind let up. We entered a series of bends that sheltered us from the wind that remained.
I fell into a reverie. Wind, sun, water, and trees hypnotized me. I paddled and in paddling got lost in thought. I am the captain of my own ship. I can decide whether the fears will cripple me and take me into an uncertain future. All those things at home—the work, the family relations, the exigencies of paying bills and worrying about the future—need not keep me from being present. I saw my folly and laughed. I didn’t have to fall into those traps again. I knew, of course, that I would. The everyday world tends to distract me from just living in this particular moment. When I do it right, the moment disappears, as there can be no moment without a past and future.
We arrived at the ramp in Miami new people. We had paddled together. Despite all our differences, and there were many, we had a common bond that transcended the politics, beliefs, and ideologies that every one of us tend to hold onto.
The river has a power. As channelized, revetted, dammed, and diked as it is, has a riverness that we have yet to remove from it. That riverness carried me through another rough time in my life. I am better for it.
The river will frighten me again. I will go through my normal agitations again. But someday, I know, I will be free from myself. It just takes time and river. Time and a river.