Sunday Morning ~ Stones In The River
Mtsinje wopanda miyala sasunga madzi. ~ A river without stones does not keep water.
~ Chewa proverb
August 9, 2020
I’m home, humbled, grateful, chastened, sunburnt, and awed. Turns out, you need some skill in a canoe to maneuver around stones and rocks, especial when that canoe is weighed down with gear for five nights of camping. I didn’t consider weight. I thought the boat would take care of all that. Also, there is a fair amount of skill and experience required for “reading” the river. Yes, the river will tell you where stones are if know how to read it. Let’s just say it was a steep learning curve and there is plenty of green paint on stones marking our path.
I know the basics of paddling. I can move the canoe forward, slow it down and generally get it to go in the direction I want. My experience in a canoe consists of leisurely paddles down a calm river to pick cranberries, youthful outings with boyfriends on some protected pond somewhere, and full moon excursions with girlfriends on a calm night. My expectations were a tad off. I didn’t fully grasp the consequences of low water levels. I thought that meant we had a lower chance of drowning, not that we’d be maneuvering between two big rocks three feet apart in swift water. There was plenty of excitement, and honestly, I loved every minute of it with the absolute understanding that it was not my skill that got us through it. It was Nancy’s. She was way more stressed than I was. I’m hoping the good meals were payback. She said in the car on the way home yesterday that if she’d known how hard it was going to be she wouldn’t have gone. I asked her if she were glad she did, and she said, “Oh yes! I loved it. But I don’t think I would have done it had I known.” Well there. I guess the same could be said of marriage and parenthood.
We picked the busiest week on the river in the driest year in a century. Oh, and throw in a hurricane on Tuesday night, then searing hot days with baking sun while taking an antibiotic that makes you prone to burning. (I advise anyone taking doxycycline to heed that warning. If you’d like I can send you a photo of the second degree burns on the sides of my fingers.) This is not to say the trip was not fun. It far exceeded my fun prediction. It was thrilling and exquisitely beautiful. The inevitable discomforts are part of the experience, they were just different discomforts than I envisioned. I was much more worried about being wet and capsizing. There was also an element of tension and pressure as the campsites are first come first serve and most of the other paddlers were half our age and a lot faster.
Last Sunday, Norm, the outfitter where we rented our canoe said there were many fewer big groups this year because of the pandemic, but lots more smaller groups. Families were doing this trip as opposed to bigger camp groups. It made for a lot of congestion in certain spots, like Churchill Dam which is about a third of the way into the wilderness waterway and the starting point for many, including us. They open the dam from Churchill Lake from eight until noon every morning, giving the first four miles of rapids more water. The ranger there will transport your gear to the other side of the rapids for a ten dollar fee so you can do the rapids in an empty canoe. Almost everyone uses that service, though we saw a couple go through with all their stuff looking like the boat was empty and they were having a ball. They’d done that before and totally knew what they were doing, both looking like they’d trained for the olympics. I was not about to compare myself, though I was envious of their skill. Our friends and companions, Karen and Dave went through the rapids, but they have been doing this for decades and Karen was an outward bound instructor and again, I was not about to compete. Nancy and I had the ranger transport us as well as our gear. We hadn’t paddled together yet and as she put it, who needs more stress? Norm had said to us the night before, “There’s no shame in taking the portage.” and Nancy gave me a looked that said, “See?” It was his canoe we were taking and I guess he cared about it. He regaled us with horror stories about canoes breaking in half. I was like, “Okay, okay, I get it.” Then when I watched a few of the boats go through I thought, thank God we didn’t do that. Maybe I’ll do it another time, but this was not the week to be a show off. I was just starting to feel myself again after treating the Lyme disease and was willing to admit I didn’t have it in me. So we took the ride from the ranger, found Karen and Dave soaking wet and telling us we made the right decision, then loaded up our canoes, and set off at Bissonette Bridge where the rapids are not actually finished yet. We had another couple miles of them, and though not as challenging as the first ones, it was definitely a hairy way to start off learning how we are together in a canoe. We hit a few rocks but didn’t capsize! I thought that was good! I got used to Nancy barking orders at me, was actually grateful for it, though could tell, she didn’t think this was funny, or maybe even fun. I heard her mutter, “I wish we’d started out on a lake.” I did not comment as I was the one who talked her into this and felt responsible. She’d done this trip before with her partner when there was a lot more water and fewer exposed rocks. They’d also had a guide and a lot of experience paddling together. I was falling way short. Better to be quiet and do as I was told. Once we got through that, which we did without capsizing (a big hooray in my book), we then had to contemplate the number of people vying for campsites as a storm threatened to dump three to five inches of rain with twenty to thirty mile per hour winds.
The ranger in a motor-powered canoe was going up and down the river checking on people telling them which campsites were open. I thought that was very considerate of him. We had to paddle way past were we’d planned to stop that night to get to the first free spot. (More grumbling from the back of the canoe.) I love storms and was looking forward to lots more water in the river but was not liking the possibility of a tree falling on the tent. It’s funny, we all had different anxieties. “What if lightening hits the metal tent pole?” “The trees would fall on us first!” “I hate packing wet tents.” “What if we can’t move for a whole day?” The olympic couple showed up at our site shortly after us as they’d been thinking of staying there too. We decided it was big enough for all of us so shared their company that night. They seemed to me like good people to be with in a hurricane. And he had a fishing pole, which, at the time, I found very reassuring. The wind was kicking up as we set up our tents and put the tarp over the ridge pole so we could eat in a dry space. I tied my tent to surrounding trees and asked them kindly not to fall on me. Nancy built a fire and I cooked lobster risotto. Dave shared the beer he brought. We sat on the high bank and watched the clouds gather, listened to the loons calling, and I relished the moment with absolute contentment and gratitude. There is nothing that comes close to the feeling of having found a safe harbor and a secure spot for the night.
I woke several times during the night when the wind gusts were coming at us like a train. They shook the tent but the heavy rain never came. It rained lightly and sporadically, but in the end we only got about a half inch according to the ranger. By daybreak when I went to sit on the river to paint, the clouds were breaking up, the wind dying down, and small specks of blue sky were peeking through. No layover for us! We did take our time in the morning breaking camp, cooking a big breakfast, and letting the tents dry out. It was after nine when we started out for the day, thinking there were so many campsites at Round Pond we’d have no trouble finding a spot. We were wrong. So we had another day to paddle more than an hour and a half longer than we wanted to find an empty spot. And that spot was in the middle of a set of rapids which, I really would have preferred to do in the morning. But as afternoon wore on and we got more tired and hot I would have done anything to get to a campsite. I was very happy to come around a bend and see Dave and Karen on shore waving their arms with thumbs up in front of an empty site. Hallelujah. We unloaded, set up camp, took a gorgeous swim in the eerily warm river, ate a beautiful supper, and sat watching for moose as the sun was setting. Heaven. We did not see a moose but we did see a group of ten college students coming through the rapids toward us. They pulled in and asked to share our site as every one they’d stopped at was full, something we already knew. Ugh. This was hard. It was a small site and was already full with our three tents. There wasn’t room for five more tents, though we could have fit them in an emergency. There was another site less than two miles away and we politely told them it really wouldn’t work to have them with us. We were old, it was a pandemic, it was a small site, etc. They reluctantly got back in their canoes, put on headlamps and kept going. I worried about them, wondering if we should have just sucked it up and squeezed them in. I said a prayer for them as I was falling asleep, envisioning them in a bigger campsite to themselves just a short paddle away. The next morning as we set off, back into the rapids with low water and lots of maneuvering I felt worse and worse that we sent them away. I can not imagine doing those rapids when I was tired and it was getting dark. When we passed the next site we saw them, five canoes stacked up on shore, a few of them sitting on the river bank. I yelled, “I’m glad you are ok!” but could imagine them hoping we’d capsize in front of them.
After the initial rapids that day, the paddling was much less rigorous. The sun, which was not in our faces but must have reflected off the water, was harsh. My lips burned like never before. I had a hat, long sleeves, gloves, and sunblock but must have missed my lips. Holy cow. Mental note not to get shipwrecked.
I lost count of the times during the week I said, “This is so beautiful.” We watched lots of eagles and osprey circling above us, kingfishers darting around, and families of ducks and mergansers. We always had our eyes out for moose and the last day we saw a young one, standing in the shallow water all alone. I assumed the cow was nearby, but she chose not to reveal herself. In our campsite one evening we were entertained by a group of nighthawks that swooped around and through our site like the blue angels. Bats were flying between them. I could have stayed there forever.
At Allagash Falls we had to portage about a quarter mile on a nice trail which took three trips for gear and one for the canoe. That took over an hour and gave our entire bodies a workout. After that the water level in the river really dropped. For short distances we had to get out and walk the canoe over some very shallow spots, then get back in and feel that sweet balance as the current took us. I would look ahead and see nothing but stones and think we are never going to get through there. We’ll have to walk the entire way! But as we got closer, a channel became more evident and the way through became clear and we would float through with Nancy’s skill and my enthusiasm. It seemed a fitting metaphor for life. Even before I found today’s proverb I understood the stones play a purpose and it’s all connected.
It was a great week.
Thank you river. Thank you stones. Thank you friends.
Love to all,