River Journey

April 29, 2012
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The river was calm and peaceful. Small motes of light filtered through the thick tree canopy to dapple the surface of the water with shifting patches of subtle hues of green light. I steer my kayak with subtle ripples as my paddle silently dips in and out of the water. Spotting a small shaded bank on the side, I strike out for it, scrambling out of the kayak and onto the bank as I easily haul the light boat a few feet out of the water. My bare feet sink blissfully into the soft, cool mud as I stand on the small black beach. I pull out an oatmeal-raisin granola bar to snack on as I wait for my family to catch up with me, being careful not to inadvertently spoil this pristine spot with a carelessly littered gaudy, artificial foil wrapper.

Bright and early on July 27, 2010, my family and I pulled up to a quaint shack overlooking the Pawpaw River in southwestern Michigan that contained “Ma and Pa’s Boat Rental”. After renting a tube, a canoe, and a kayak, from “Pa”, his assistant loaded up our three vessels onto a trailer that could have easily fit four times the amount of boats we had, and we piled into the van for the half an hour drive to the drop off point. Even though it only took half an hour to drive there, it took almost four hours to get back to the boat rental on the Pawpaw River because, unlike the road, the river wasn’t made by man to get the traveler to their destination as quickly as possible. Rivers, unlike roads, are organic works of nature, meandering and unpredictable. We drove up and down hills, the road one-lane-each-way, winding up the mountain that causes the river to flow downstream to the boat rental, where we would end our trek. On the way, we were treated to geologic and historic description of the area courtesy of the driver, who’d lived there his whole life. At one point, we passed a flatbed truck transporting windmill blades pulled over on the side of the road. My brother and I ogled the windmill blades, a rarity coming from Florida.

The drop off point was a few feet past a small concrete bridge over the Pawpaw River that we had just crossed. My parents, my brother, and I arranged ourselves into the kayak, canoe, and tube. We planned to switch partway through the trip so everyone could try all different crafts. Having the tube on one of our semiannual family boating trips was a new experience, but my dad thought it would be fun for one person to float along in it. If no one wanted to use it or someone wanted to rest from rowing, they could sit in the middle of the canoe and the canoe could tow the tube. Coming from Florida and having mostly gone boating in our local creek that sometimes contained alligators, the rest of my family was slightly nervous of going in the tube, so my dad started the trip in the tube being towed by the canoe, which was rowed by my mom and brother. I started out the trip in the kayak.

After getting used to steering the kayak, I just took off. It was an amazing experience. Gliding down the river in a craft so close to the water felt so effortless and natural. Being only half a foot above the surface, I could easily trail my fingers in the tranquil water. Soon, I pulled ahead of my family, but I wasn’t worried. There were no divergent paths and no way to get lost. The only way to go was downstream, and if I got stuck they’d catch up with me eventually. As on every trip down our local Turkey Creek I’ve ever made, there were fallen branches, sometimes entire tree trunks, waiting to ensnare the unwary boater, lurking half seen under the water. There hadn’t been much rain for a while, so the river was low and obstructions abundant. To me, especially making my own way in a kayak, negotiating these recurrent obstacles was part of the excitement of the trip. Without occasional interruptions, one can’t appreciate the serenity of effortless progress down the river. After several hang-ups on, I developed a method for getting free from a log submerged under a few inches of water by scooting forward to get the deepest middle part of the kayak past the log and using my paddle to lever off the log. Once, I waited for my family to catch up with me in the canoe to give me a little push to get me off, but most of the time I managed well on my own.

Avoiding obstructions in the path lent the trip a sense of adventure. I scrutinized the surface ahead for lighter patches and small ripples caused by submerged branches. I was an Indiana Jones type archaeologist traveling down the mighty Amazon a thousand miles from civilization. Perhaps even the person who had first stumbled upon this particular pocket of tranquil wilderness; intrepid colonial explorers discovering the wilds of the American continent, going where no man has gone before. In a kayak, the craft responds to the slightest dip of the paddle. There is no one else to coordinate with, no conversation to sully the stillness, the birds and the quiet ripple of the current. The river was calm and still, yet not glassy still. If I set the paddle across my knees and leaned back, I still drifted restfully downstream. Sometimes I enjoyed cutting swiftly through the stream. In, out, in out. Left, right, left, right. Down the center of the river I flew past the still trees and chattering crickets. But there are no rapids, no white-crested current pushing me relentlessly forward, so I was in control, gliding and flying and drifting as the mood overtook me.

Every so often I would see a picturesque bank and pull onto it. As I step out of the kayak, my feet sink in the soft mud by the water’s edge and I could glimpse the tiny insects and organisms living their short living out their short lives in the mud, the river abounding in life. Time has no meaning in the wilderness, but neither was this truly wilderness. In a second or a year, mid-afternoon had approached and the 8 miles between the drop off point and boat house had imperceptibly floated by. As we neared the end of our trip, we took turns in the tube and canoe and kayak. I spent the last few minutes of this amazing trip in the tube, gliding behind the canoe back to civilization.





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