April 27


There's a river drought. Already. Barely a month into spring. What's a paddler to do? Pray for rain. 

I drive the road along the river, steal a sideways glance while crossing the bridge. It is a narrow bridge, the top frame shaped like seagull wings, and bowed like rounded waves, washed white. My eyes should be on the road ahead, but I can't resist, check the water depth, note the rocks, exposed, smoothed by the water flow. The rocks are the size of baseballs, tinted shades of brown, spreading outward from where the shore should be. If I were an artist, I might paint the scene, a narrow channel of water tumbling over stone, but I'm not a painter, I'm a paddler, and the rocks, no matter how pretty, mean the river is too low for paddling, particularly at this point, unless I want to portage across private property, and then maneuver a busy highway, my boat slung over my shoulder, blocking my view of traffic. And if I did make it across that highway, my life and my boat intact, then I'd have to carry my boat another hundred meters or so through a wooded area to the water's edge. And once in the river, after paddling a short distance, I'd have to beach the boat at the weir, portage around it, before settling back into my boat.

This bridge I'm driving over now, I've paddled under many times. Seen it from water-view, looking up, instead of taking a furtive glance sideways from a car, or leaning over the edge and peering down as a pedestrian. There's an excitement about bridges from the vantage point of kayak, a glee when the bridge rises upriver in the distance, a kid-like enthusiasm that rises too, bridge!  

On one level, a bridge is a marker of distance travelled. When I paddle this route, it  heralds the end of journey. Just under the bridge, through the narrowing of the channel, where the current picks up speed - stay to the left, avoid the riffles, watch for the boulder, water flowing over it like a ribbon, ride the current, and where the river tumbles into a giant pool, cross over, and to the right, the dock and beach, my take-out point...

But there's more to a bridge than distance travelled, the quantitative measurement. Passing underneath a bridge is a secretive act, cars rumbling overhead, drivers and passengers, with their busy lives, and concerns, and places to go, "I'm late, I'm late," to quote a Wonderland Rabbit. Do they know I am here? Paddling underneath? That they are crossing a river, with its ecosystem, its secret life, fish and frogs and fauna? Or that just beneath them, under the bridge, there is a thickening of time? Its passage moves more slowly here, the two speeds sitting atop each other like layers of air currents. If those in their cars aren't aware of my existence, off to work or dropping the kids at soccer or rushing to an appointment, or not rushing at all, quite happy and content but nonetheless going somewhere at a much faster clip than me - If they don't know I am here, in my kayak, then I, too, am part of the secret. 

It is delightful, being part of secret. Conspiratorial, as if I am in conspiracy with the river, that we know things others don't, the river a living breathing entity. And there are so many secrets of river. The things you can't see, that live in the deep, that surface at times, reveal themselves, and then submerge, hidden again.The carp, appearing out of the fog of the river-bottom, face whiskered and body scaly, swimming by my boat momentarily and disappearing, a phantom, a fish-ghost. The trout, high-jumping out of nowhere, a flash, a splash, then nothing, water flat and undisturbed. The turtle, nose-tip breaking the surface, dark like a water-soaked stub of a branch, until I think that is all it is, a branch. And then the branch thinks otherwise, makes a quick departure, sinks straight down like a submarine's periscope. Each time, each sighting, whatever the form, I'm left to marvel that I was there, in that precise moment of river. If I had been a few minutes upriver, a few minutes downriver, if I had turned my head this way or that way, I would have missed it.

From the vantage point of busy intersections, big box stores, smaller homegrown stores, schools and businesses, suburban streets, the river itself is a secret. You wouldn't know it is there, winding its way through the city, minding its own river-business, doing things that rivers do. The river is narrow as far as rivers go, hardly grand if grandness were solely quantitative, a measurement of width and depth and cubic flow, the philosophy of bigger, the better, the philosophy of the grandiose.  

At places, the river flows through ravines and valleys. Along the cliffs, there is a network of trails where my puppy and I would walk, and somehow manage to keep our feet and paws safely beneath us. In the summer months, the trees and brush act as a buffer, thick and full and high along the riverbanks. They keep the river a secret, but also serve as a sound and visual barrier to protect the river from the city. In the midst of river quiet, I am amazed when I remember city life - the hustle and bustle -  is a field, or roadway, or street block away. Usually it is the unexpected that reminds me of my proximity to the urban, the sounds of cars whizzing along a bend of road that cuts close to river. Sometimes the reminder is the glimpse of everyday domesticity where the trees give way, houses and backyards touching riverbank, swing sets and barbecues. But for long stretches, the river is a bubble of isolation, wilderness.  

Here's an unusual thought: a bridge is a form of intimacy, even though it is a structure of concrete, steel, and wood. The recognition of bridge, of its place along the river, denotes a relationship, and intimacy comes from a relationship forged. First time down the river, the bridge is an unexpected surprise. Many times down the river, and you anticipate the bridge, know it is there, watch for its rising, around this or that bend. You know the landmarks, water-marks, along the way, the constants, the things you can count on, trip in, trip out, the order in which they appear, become intimate with them. The placing of the rocks and boulders, some below the surface when the water is high, breaking through when it is low. The riffles, shallow water rushing over a bed of stones and gravel. The rotted tree, fallen from the water-softened bank, trunk spanning shore and water, branches stretching below the water like tentacles. The island splitting the river in half, two channels flowing around it, choices to make, which way to go, right or left, only one channel a clear passage for paddling; and there, around a curve in the river, the bridge. There's recognition, a welcoming reserved for special friends, special bonds.

Near this bridge, there are other river secrets. Freshwater mussels, for one, a small tribe of clams that belong here, in this river, indigenous to it. These tiny local clams, called wavy-rayed lampmussels, are endangered. In the previous century, plentiful and cheap for the picking, the mussels were harvested to make buttons. It is an ironic that the invention of plastics has saved this little-bit of the environment, buttons now mass produced from man-made materials. Harvesting of the river still occurs, though, a nearby Nestles factory skimming off the water and bottling it. Then there is the Jefferson salamander, discovered in the stretch of land and river called Hidden Valley, not far from this bridge. The Jefferson salamander, like the wavy-rayed lamp mussel, is endangered. In Canada, it exists only in Ontario, in colonies of a few hundred. The salamanders require undisturbed forested areas, burrowing in the blanket of leaves and soil, attaching their eggs to underwater vegetation. Hidden Valley is another one of those suburban monikers that denote what was, the valley no longer hidden, with development and all that brings, roads and infrastructure, houses and cars and people, and inevitably, the mass destruction of the Jefferson salamander.

A prayer for rain. I'm not one much for prayer, but this drought, so early in spring, might change me, make me reconsider. 

I grew up in a family where prayer was a bartering, and I figured then, and still do, that God is beyond the bartering. When bartering didn't work, prayer slipped into begging. The begging didn't work either, didn't cure sicknesses, or solve problems, but I can understand it - begging, imploring. Please God, we need rain. I include in my prayer the little aquatic ones. 


© Marianne Paul 2011