River Stories

No woman ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and she's not the same woman.

 Revision of a quotation from Heraclitus
535 BC-475 BC



Swallows swallow me.  Slender sharp-winged, dark-winged birds. Gliding and diving across and over and around my kayak. Skimming the surface and veering upward, downward, “darting” the river. Their motion is unexpected, their patterns unpredictable, but not haphazard. Their flight is full of control, and full of beauty. Beauty-full.  

I cannot count the birds, there are so many of them, although it is a blip of humankind to want to quantify, to attach a number to the experience. I will guess there are a hundred, swooping this stretch of river. I wish I had eyes in the back of my head so I can fully experience this swallowing – 360 degree vision, full circle, all at once, all around, so many swallows, a flight of swallows. 

We humans are so limited by the placement of our eyes. Why is that? What trek of evolution put our eyes at the front of our heads so that we primarily see forward, a narrow path of vision - heighty-ho, onward and frontward? We have such little peripheral vision, not like the birds themselves, with their eyes situated on each side of their heads. What do they see that we don’t? Ultraviolet light, for one, perceiving the sun in ways we cannot, perhaps seeing other rays and waves that we cannot, magnetic forces and electrical fields. 

Humans, I suppose, like to peer straight ahead, into their future. This understanding of time as a continuum rather than a single dot, a single moment - I’ve wondered if that is the knowledge gained by Eve with the bite of the apple, and if that knowledge is both a blessing and curse. But I shouldn’t put any further curses on Eve; she’s had enough of that throughout history. I’ve often thought she should be praised rather than maligned for setting in motion consciousness, having the courage and curiosity to take that meaning-full first bite, that fruitful, fruit-full bite. To stay in the Garden would have meant to step in the river and have it always the same. River and woman unchanging.


So here I am paddling, a continuum of paddles, to quantify, a hundred paddles on a hundred different days, days populated with change - herons and osprey and carp and raccoons and deer and turtles and muskrats, days of flat-water and days of crashing water, wind-less conditions and wind-filled conditions, sun skies and cloud skies. Banks overflowing with water, river high, and drought-dried summers, rocks exposed, river rock gardens, river low. Loons and ducks and Canada Geese, the loons the solitary ones, the Jungian introverts of the bird-world, diving deep and long, surfacing down the lake, down the river, “looning” to locate their inner circle, their few dearest loved ones. Canada Geese, the extroverts of the river, flying overhead in huge honking party-gatherings, en masse settling on the beach to sunbathe or to float in water. 

I love the way birds keep track of each other, volley back and forth honks, sometimes just a hello, here we are, come join us if you wish, other times warnings, intruder off to the left, incoming unidentified paddling object, and then the call-to-battle cries, baby-snatcher, egg-snatcher, imminent home invasion, prepare for attack. It is the last communiqué in particular that I heed with haste, paddling quickly away from the shoreline nests, sometimes island nests, when the Canada Geese hidden in the brush become unhidden, plop into the water and head determinedly, menacingly, in my direction. Those birds are big, fast, their beaks potentially lethal.

In the midst of lake, I once counted a line of thirty-two ducks, literally in line, one after the other, out for an extended family afternoon paddle, some mature ducks, others adolescents, no longer babies, not yet adults. I had an overwhelming urge to join the back of that line, tag along, just one very big oversized duck, the awkward relative – we all have one in each family - the lug. I thought I just might be able to pull it off. A kayak’s outline with the kayaker sitting upright in the boat isn’t outlandishly different from the outline of a duck or goose, body shaped like a football, long neck, head, extended up like the upper body of the paddler. I softened my stroke, moved slowly, quietly. A kayak can do that, sneak up, unlike a swimmer who causes splash and rippling, or a motorboat with its motor sounds, or even a canoe riding high in the water. A flock of humans might have been fooled, what with their eyes in the front of their heads, their into-the-future vision, but the ducks saw my approach, and quietly dispersed into smaller groupings. My urge “to follow the duck leader” was somewhat satisfied; I had come quite close to joining the end of that line. Urges in themselves are inexplicable, swelling up from the deep of the unconscious without apparent reason. I’ve also seen a flock of seagulls sitting white and pretty on the water’s surface, and had the opposite urge – to race smack into their midst and scatter them. 


A hundred different paddles, a hundred different experiences. When written in succession, like those thirty-two ducks in a row, the changes in the river seem spectacular, such spectacles. More often they are subtle, a solitary and simple happening against the waterscape of the familiar. A feather floating past my cockpit, touching the surface at a single point of contact, the “featherets” caught in the breeze and serving as sails. The moving black shadow of a slew of nano-size water bugs, hover-crafting across the water. A bee, mammoth in comparison to the water bugs, wings water-sopped, trapped by the water’s surface tension, bee floating in the lake like a capsized sailor lost at sea. I’ve scooped up such a bee with my paddle blade, tipping it onto the solar-heated hull, knowing full well that when the wings dried out, the same bee might sting me, skirted as I am into my boat, in the middle of the river, with nowhere to go in a bee-sting hurry. I’ve wondered if other such bees have drowned, or when left to nature, the whims of wind and water, they have eventually floated ashore, beached on sand or pebble, exhausted, barely alive, but alive. 


Bees aren’t the only items I have scooped from the water with my paddle. Once, on the Grand River, just past the put-in point at Blair, the water moving briskly, a troll floated by me. One of those tiny, naked, sexless rubber dolls that were so popular many a-year ago, the ones with wild hair, usually pink or green, sticking straight up and styled like a candle flame. This troll had been in the water so long that it was bald. It now sits beside me as I type at my keyboard in my writing room. The bald troll looks happy to be here rather than in the river, grinning away, river dirt still clinging to the crevices of its pointy ears. I pick it up, turn it over, and read stamped at the bottom of one foot – Made in China – and on the other – 1992! 

How long did that little troll float in the Grand River? Did it become wedged in brush along the water, caught by a tree strainer, the trunk fallen over, branches traffic-jamming anything, everything, passing by? The troll finally breaking free, maybe after a season, maybe after years? Was it caught in an ice-jam, arms outstretched, that silly grin looking up through the ice? Did a child set it afloat, wave goodbye as it set out on journey? Or had she dropped it accidentally, cried to see it go, moved to retrieve it, stopped by the firm grip of her mother’s hand? Or had the troll been flung, like a rock, soared through the air before it landed in the river (can something “land” in water)?


Another time, near one of those islands where I often paddle, where the Canada Geese lie in wait to jump out from nests to chase away kayaks, I saw a goose egg on the bottom in shallow water. Not shallow enough to reach down and pick it up, but shallow enough that I could extend my paddle to touch it. The egg was bigger than I would have thought, bigger than the eggs in my fridge (from free-run hens, I might add), and I now understand how a large bump on the head can be called a goose egg. Viewed from the vantage point of my kayak, the goose egg caught my fancy, and I imagined it was a magic egg, a fairytale egg, a golden egg, a Mother Goose egg, and I wanted to retrieve it, another one of those explicable river urges. What would I have done with a goose egg? Sit it beside the troll at my keyboard? I think not. 

I spent a good half hour in my kayak trying to scoop up that egg, much more elusive than the troll. The egg was rubbery, slippery, never made it to the surface; just when I thought I had it, the egg would roll off the “spoon” of the paddle, and sink to the bottom once again. It must have been in the water for a long while, the shell not hard, but soft and giving, like a hardboiled egg peeled. I finally gave up, left the egg to its watery grave, wondering if it had been rolled out of the nest, off the banks and into the water by its mother, the egg a defect and not ever going to hatch. Or whether the egg had blown out of the nest by high winds, and by freak of nature or bad luck, came to rest at the bottom of the lake, the developing gosling doomed. 


Just a paddle or so ago, once again on the Grand River in the water-stretch from Blair to Galt – from whence came the troll – my husband and I spotted a blue heron. The bird is common along the Grand River, but it still stirs awe, makes you feel smart and special when you spot it along the shore or among deadwood, the heron so large and so skilled at camouflage, so quiet and patient in its hunting. This blue heron stood knee deep in the river, so much like a statue, like one of those human mannequins in store windows that don’t move an iota, or only move slightly, that you don’t even know they are human, or if you do know, that you doubt what you know. As we paddled by, paddled closer, still the heron did not move. My husband took a video, and later, when we looked at the clip at home, the camera shaky and the film grainy, we still learning the fine art of paddling and shooting footage at the same time, the heron looked like an ancient dinosaur, a brontosaurus, long thin neck extended upward. You can understand how legends of Loch Ness monsters and Ogopogo monsters get embedded into our collective consciousness – for we have the proof, the photograph of the Grand River Nessie. 

Something else struck me as wonderful, and startling, and unexpected about the symphony of chirping, a river of bird sounds, flowed from the speakers into my computer room. I hadn’t noticed the sounds while I paddled, had been oblivious to the chirping, and here it was, thick and full. How could I have not noticed? Were the sounds always this way on the river, existing in my midst, but not perceived by me, like ultraviolet light? I resolved, resolve, to be more attentive, more observant. 

I have put my boat into the river, put my body into my boat. I have stepped into the river, and it has changed me. Each time. Heraclitus, you are right. It is not the same river, and I am not the same woman. 


Photo Credit: The first and last photos were taken by Ian Willms and are used with permission. The location is the Grand River, Cambridge, at Galt.

© Marianne Paul 2011