Musing in a Kayak

written by Veronica Ross

The following article and photographs originally appeared in Grand Magazine, May/June 2009, and are reprinted here with permission. 

It’s January and we’re at a writers’ retreat at Keswick on Lake Simcoe and the bay is frozen over, the surface dotted with fishermen’s shacks. It’s hard to believe that the summer before author Marianne Paul kayaked in the same lake. She was elated then, gliding through the water. Now, on this cold day, her eyes sparkle and her round cheeks dimple as she talks about how being connected to water inspires her writing and how much she loves kayaking the Grand River.

In 1983 she moved to Kitchener with her husband, Bob, who managed the Cameron Heights pool, and her young daughter, Samantha.

“I felt landlocked when I came to Kitchener.”

No wonder. The Grand River was there, but not much in evidence in the middle of the city. It took a while to discover the river.

“I was shocked when I started kayaking it. There was a beautiful river. You’re almost in the wilderness. You don’t realize it’s flowing through our city. We started
walking the trails with our dog Farley. I felt respect for the river but I got to love it when I started kayaking and saw the wildlife, the herons and the trees, the carp in the river, and the geese. I even paddled it on Christmas Day.”

The Christmas Day paddle was published in a blog. “I was quite impressed with with that, communing with the river in challenging conditions of ice and snow,” says Chuck Erion of Wordsworth Books who read the blog. It was a wonderful blog.”

“The Grand River has changed my feeling for this area. The river can be huge, it can be fast…” Paul says.

She grew up in Brockville, on the banks of the Saint Lawrence. Both parents were story-tellers, her father talking about his youth on a farm near Brandon, Manitoba, and her mother discussing her earlier dancing, as well as family stories and myths. Her mother’s family told stories about the witch of Plum Hollow, who would form the basis of her first novel, The Shunning, later rewritten as Twice in a Blue Moon. “I thought I was telling a family story - we were told the witch was a great great grandmother - and then my mother said, `What would happen if she wasn’t your grandmother?’”

Paul liked to read and write short stories, but she also loved the river.

“Rich people boated and had cottages there, but the river was accessible to me from ages eight to twelve, I’d ride my bicycle two to three miles to St. Lawrence Park. and spend the day there. Sometimes my father dropped me off on his way to work at the Arthur Philips Cable company. My cousins came. We swam, took our lunches…Then, at seventeen, I became a lifeguard. The river became my job.”

After her marriage at 20 to her high school sweetheart, Bob Paul, she moved to Deep River on the Ottawa River. “I constantly lived on big moving water. I had difficulties with Deep River, it’s tiny, but the setting was wonderful. The river is huge and deep but calm.”

While in Deep River, Paul wrote children’s stories and published them in the local paper.

She also took a creative writing course from Jack Hodgins at the university in Ottawa. Samantha was a baby and Paul was still breastfeeding her, but she took the bus to Ottawa. Her husband took Samantha to work with him.

“Sometimes I got home at 2:00 a.m.” Hodgins was an inspiration, “the perfect image of a writer - wore sweaters tied around his neck. He really liked the first story I wrote. It was the first time I learned there was a craft involved.”

Paul became a successful author in Kitchener, writing stories stories, poetry, magazine articles and three novels, and working with Project Read, publishing Literacy is a Family Affair and Let’s Play Literacy. She received local awards: the K-W Arts Award for Literature in 1994, the Mystery on the Move Playwriting Contest in 1997, several Wraconteur and Record Short Story contest awards, as well as national awards. She also started the Dove Tale Collective, a group of Kitchener writers who get together twice monthly; the collective has published two anthologies.

The concept of water is prominent in her writing. Her first novel, The Shunning, was published in 1994 by Moonstone Press. A newer, revised eiditon of the book, Twice in a Blue Moon, came out in 2007 (Bookland Press). Elizabeth Barnes, the “Witch of Plum Hollow,” and the “ancestor” Paul’s mother told her about, lives near Lake Eloida in rural Ontario. She is a water dowser and clairvoyant in the 1800s. “My water book,“ is how Paul describes this novel.

Tending Memory (Bookland Press 2007) tells the story of gypsy-like Michaela’s journey to reach the ocean.

Dead Girl Diaries (Bookland Press 2009), her newest novel, is set partially in Deep River.

The Grand River is specifically invoked in poems: “each day on the river is different well the day is different that stands to reason/but I also mean the water is different even though I kayaked the same stretch/of river many times before.” (unpublished.)

And “an apparition/sails across the sky/a great white heron/off-course and far from home.” (from Stones Turned, a Dove Tale anthology.)

Her writing is accomplished, luminous, textured, and filled with startling images.

Susan Parsons, Trade Buyer for Non-Text Material at the bookstore at the University of Waterloo, selected Tending Memory for a UW Book Club selection.

“We had her come and Rogers TV came and did a feature on her. We had a display of her books.

“I remember reading her first book, The Shunning, when I was with Smith Books at the Westmount Plaza. I loved that book and called and left a message. We kept in touch over the years. Marianne’s writing reflects who she is. I see her as a spiritual person. She also has a light-heartedness about her. She likes to laugh. She has a huge open heart. She’s a wonderful person and a wonderful writer.”

At her book- and art-filled home in Kitchener, which she shares with husband, Bob, also a writer and the author of Sancastle Memories (Gardenia Press), and cats Buddha and Icy, Paul shows me the five kayaks in the garage. “Three are my own, one is Bob’s and one is a family one. I’m going to trade one in and get a new one." She can carry the light Kevlar boat on her shoulder. It was a used boat. “It used to be purple but now it’s yellow.”

Has she named her boats?

“No, but I know them by body feeling and how I sit.”

She got the idea to kayak from a new friend at a writers’ retreat in Minnesota, who kayaked Lake Superior and also did sea kayaking.

“You didn’t see kayaks when I was growing up. But now I had a role model. This gave me the inkling I could do it. Maybe this was a doorway for me. I took a course at the Y.”

She wanted to kayak a river.

“…the idea took hold,” she writes in her essay “Crossing the River,” published in The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2008
 (Travelers’ Tales, an imprint of Solac House, Inc. Palo, Alto.). “Found a permanent place within my within my brain, but just as much within my body. I physically felt the urge to go down such a river, as if the idea to kayak was somehow directly related to my bones anf flesh and muscle, part of the river-rush of blood streaming through the chambers of my heart, the oxygen streaming through the capillaries of my blood. It was most odd.”

She kayaked the Grand for the first time six or seven years ago. “I was ecstatic, pumped,” she says in her yellow study. Bob has a study across the hall; they are both, Paul says, introverts, who retreat to their own rooms to write.

Her first trip down the Grand by herself, from the bridge on Victoria Street to Freeport Hospital, was the day her mother, who’d had a stroke in western Canada, was flying home by air ambulance.

She wasn’t afraid to be on the water by herself.

“If my mother was gutsy enough to do that, I was gutsy enough to kayak by myself. I laughed at the joy of what I was doing - and at the joy about what she was doing.”

Her mother died shortly after returning to Ontario. Paul wrote many poems about her mother. “I wrote through the grief.”

Bob Paul, Director of Facilities, Management and Development, in the Community Services Department for the City of Cambridge, enjoys kayaking, too (but not daughter Samantha, a dancer and owner of Sam's Steps Dance Centre, whose legs, Paul says, are stronger than her arms).

The Pauls have kayaked not only the Grand, but also Laurel Creek, Shade Mills, Guelph Lake, Connestogo Lake and Rockwood.

“Kayaking is a source of inspiration…there’s a point in time. You have to move out in the world. Kayaking complements my writing. I can ponder. Kayaking brings me close to observation of details, of the river, of things I am in awe of. It’s an introverted activity. You can be by yourself. Writers need to be alone.”

What does she think about when she’s on the water? Stories?

“It depends on the weather. The river is different each time. If it’s windy you have to concentrate. I flipped once. I get really focused and I concentrate. I love paddling against the wind. If it’s calm, a beautiful day, I get caught up in the scenery, the details. The small boat can spin easily. In Laurel Creek, for instance, there are bulrushes. I can see turtles and birds.

“It (paddling) is almost an ecstasy. There’s a point where hymns pop up from my subconscious, like music of the spheres. Then I’ve reached this place of exhilaration. When this happens I’ve reached this point of happiness.

“Exhilaration affects writing. Imagery comes up, inner happiness. Life doesn’t get much better than this. I have to go home and write it.”

Inner happiness brings magic and there is magic in the writing.

From the last pages of Dead Girl Diaries, the story of a young journalist, killed at a young age, who describes what happens after death while recalling her life:

Ben and Maxine sat on the front steps of their small war-four house in Deep River. Summer blossomed all around them. So much life. The garden edging the front of the house and the driveway tumbled with wild growth, bluebells and morning glories and hollyhocks and daisies and daylilies and columbines and ferns and roses and phlox and zinnias and bachelor buttons and flowering pea plants, all spilling into each other and over the walkways and lawn. Butterflies flitted about the garden and bees sank deeply into the petals…

The novel ends this way:

I have hope.

Always hope.

© Marianne Paul 2011