Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A journey down the Namekagon and St Croix Rivers

Somewhere between 15 and 20 years ago, in Wisconsin, I took a solo trip down the Namekagon and St. Croix Rivers in an inflatable canoe. I want to tell you about that journey, but memory is strange, shattered, retreating, and downright squirmy. So instead of just fabricating an account of my long past journey out of a few broken shards and lots of obscuring new clay, I will start by telling you what I have to work with to reconstruct this historical event. First of all I have some general, cold facts. These aren't exactly memories but more like things I can deduce or know must be true. That the trip was in June is almost certainly true, for instance, but I don't really remember that. The 15 to 20 years ago is a process of elimination; it was before the new millennium but not very early in my marriage. That the trip was for three days and two nights is also something that seems to add up and is not a result of specific recollections of each night and day. The more vital second element I have to work with in this reconstruction are actual beating heart memories. I have four of them. That's it. Four memories for the whole tale of my epic, late nineties journey down the Namekagon and St Croix Rivers.  These memories are not fluid, narrative things. They are more like four-dimensional pictures, more like something out of a dream than something out of life. These four-dimensional pictures capture discrete moments in time, but they are also described, informed and illuminated by things that happened before and after them. They are not part of a story but are whole in themselves. Yes I can weave them into a narrative, I can arrange them in historical order, but they all exist in their own right and no longer belong to time.

And so in this nod to a deeper truth I will present the story of my river journey in these four memories, in no particular order, like in Slaughterhouse Five, where our main character, Billy Pilgrim, jumps randomly about in time. I wonder now if perhaps that part of Slaughterhouse Five wasn't more about the nature of memory than of the nature of time, though, of course, they are so closely woven together they might be the same thing.


I was in my lounger-like inflatable canoe or kayak (the terms were interchangeable on my odd little ship) on the wide St. Croix River. The sky was a flat gray, and the water, surely ten times wider than the River I started out on the day before, was dark and strange, like ocean water, something deep and impenetrable. That day I had paddled more miles than I ever imagined I would, easily more than twenty, though my guess at that point was wild and scattered because I had lost count of bridges. I broke camp and began paddling early in the morning, and I went onto the land only as a last resort, to pee. Even that was done reluctantly. At all other times I remained on the water. I ate my lunch in my boat hooked up to overhanging trees. While I was terribly eager to make it as far downstream as possible that day, once it was clear I was getting very far downstream indeed I took breaks from paddling, not just for lunch and snacks, but to read. The kayak, when unsteered, tended to push off into the sidewalls of the teeming jungle of riverbank growth and hang up in a cloud of branches, leaves, and spiderwebs. At this moment I was lightly fending off the shore and reading.

I was reading Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. You will have heard of this book largely because of the glossy TV show. But only fantasy readers would have known of it then. Let's say if the book In the Name of the Wind is familiar to you now you would have known Game of Thrones then. For reasons I can't precisely trace, glowing reviews I would guess, I was so confident that Game of Thrones would be a great book that I brought little else to read. This was a mistake I would never make again. At the moment we're speaking of I had read far into the book and, sitting in my boat, was absorbed in it. I was also unhappy, unhappy on the river, with my predicament, and even in what I was doing at that moment. Somehow all the color of the world had drained out of it. Gray river, gray sky, looming night. I was thinking about how maybe, as darkness fell, I could just stay in my boat on the river. Between paragraphs I pictured how it might be to sleep in my cramped boat. I fended off the shore, I read, and the thought of sleeping in a small boat on a river scared me. I was waiting for that thought to scare me more than the thought of camping on shore. The thought of sleeping on the shore nearly terrified me. I fended off the shore again. I read the book miserably. Another person in the book died, some hope for the future of the narrative died, everyone and everything dies in Game of Thrones. I was just understanding that then, and with it came an epiphany; I hated Game of Thrones. This was a beautiful and powerful revelation. I did not have to read that book. It was an infection with a simple cure. I stopped reading it immediately. Color and happiness filled back into the world. The slate river and its primeval shore became a wild thing of wonder once again. I was terrified but thrilled to be on a river. I owned a river. I knew I would go ashore and camp there and I would live and it would all be okay.


All there is in this memory is a long slope leading up from the river. It was dirt and grass. There was a small roadside store and a payphone. I left all my array of gear and climbed the bank to the road and the store. The wall of the store was white. I felt strange to be off the river. I had managed to circumvent the pretzel logic of river trip shuttles (drop this off here, drive here, leave car, pack all this here, bike here, paddle down to car, etc. etc.) through the grace of my wife who had driven me to the start of this trip and was picking me up at the end. I had emergency coinage in my waterproof waistbelt. I put the dry coins in the payphone. I called my wife and arranged an early pick up.


I climbed into my tent. The tent was a burnt orange roomy dome tent that could sleep three. It had been many places with me. The woods were starting to get dark. I had eaten my dinner and have not even a faint guess of what it was. It was my first night of the trip, in the woods, on the edge of the river. Preparing my bedding in the tent I found a tick. I did not take this well. I flung it wildly away from me except, of course, I was in a dome tent. It bounced back. I tried to crush it. This was not easy, ticks are hard and flat by nature, but I eventually managed. I breathed a small breath of relief, but I quickly had a frightening, it turns out immensely accurate thought: where there is one tick, there may be more. I combed my person scrupulously. I found three ticks on me, then a fourth. I removed them and disposed of them, but saying so can never convey my sense of rising horror. At least an hour was spent combing minutely through every surface and thing in my tent (and finding a couple more) to establish a verified tick free environment. As I was doing this the sun outside was sinking. In the light of the dusk I looked at the walls of my tent. It showed, by shadow, that on the outside of my tent, hundreds and hundreds of ticks, an army of ticks, a thousand, slow, hungry ticks, were crawling up the side of the tent.

I did not sleep well.


My wife had driven me to the river before it was light out. Now with my inflatable kayak fully equipped and myself comfortably seated I was paddling a tiny river in the dawn. Fog curled from the water and hugged the low ground. This was bliss. The land was quiet and hopeful. There were strange areas of raw, torn up earth, beautiful red earth, that I couldn't figure out. Had logging and industry penetrated into these woods, or were there spring floods? The current was almost unnoticeable on the river, but sometimes when one first alights onto a canoe or kayak, before they get a little inured to the delights of it, paddling feels uncommonly powerful. One sticks a blade, an oar, into the perfect flat water and simply pulls it effortlessly forward to propel a whole boat into a graceful glide. And so it was for me then. I was flying through mist. Even in that moment I knew that no part of the whole of the rest of my trip could compare to this. The sun was low and scattered through young leaves and patches of fog. A deer regarded me from the shore, large and calm. It stood on red dirt. It was backed by emerald forest. It never moved in my mind again.

 If I could have stayed there forever, well, I did that too.


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