|Islands in the Stream|
by Biff Mitchell
Just a little lesson I learned on the Nashwaak one year. It was a hot, sunny day and I was in my fifteen foot Coleman with my girlfriend, Lorie (later to be my ex-wife, and still later to be a good friend) and an old friend of mine, Bill, and his girlfriend, Donna, were in their sixteen foot Chestnut.
The water was high and there was an occasional breeze to cool the beating sun. The sky was deep blue and filled with big fat white clouds, the kind that catch the sunlight to erect silver castles that fill your thoughts with jumping off spiralling towers into fluffy white pillows. The water lapped soothingly against our gunnels and mixed with the sound of lazy paddles dipping into the water, more for the sheer enjoyment of introducing wood to water than to propel us anywhere - the river was leading us, and we were in no hurry.
I'm not sure of the name of the area where it happened - you'd be the expert on that, Nanook - but we came to series of alder-ringed islands and the river spliced through them a series of channels. Lorie and I took the far right channel; Bill and Donna took the far left channel; the river laughed: "HA!" and went straight through the center.
It was a long channel, that channel to the right. It seemed to flow on for eternity, and Lorie began to have doubts about the safety of Bill and Donna. This was their first time on the Nashwaak and Lorie's first time on any river in a canoe.
She began to voice her doubts: "Tom,(this was long before I was named after Gary Larson's dog) are you sure they're OK? I mean, we haven't seen them in ages."
"They're fine," I replied. "The river flows downstream. It's the only place they can go. We'll meet them at the end of the channel."
And a few minutes later: "I'm getting worried. Maybe we should go back to the branch they took and see if we can find them. They've never been on this river before."
I looked back and figured, oh, maybe three bends in the channel and an couple of miles of paddling against the current. "No. They're fine. We'll meet them at the end of the channel." "But what if there branch goes into a dead end. What if ..." "They're fine."
More minutes passed quietly with the dripping of water drops from our paddles. A cool breeze tickled the hairs on my forearms. I lifted a cool brew, fresh out of ice, to my lips and savoured the cold, bubbling liquid. I noticed that Lorie's shoulders were high, tense. She was beginning to paddle faster.
"But this is only your second time on this river. Have you ever been down the branch they took?"
"No. But it can only flow one way."
"If it doesn't come to a dead end ... what if it comes to a dead end? What if it flows away from the river and takes them ..."
"It all flows downstream. We'll meet them at the end of the channel."
Well, more minutes passed and the quiet was becoming heavily laden with the intensity of unspoken words funneling down Lorie's arms into the wood of her paddle and speaking their mind in a steady, quick splashing of water.
"I'm getting really worried, Tom. We should have seen them by now. Can you at least call out their names?"
"And scare the wildlife?"
"We haven't seen any wildlife. We haven't seen anything."
"Hm, yeah, wonder where all the beavers are today?"
"OK. HEY, ASSWHOL...."
"Just joking. BILL! DONNA! Are you guys still alive!"
My voice was was gobbled up by the alders and the stands of evergreens. Not even an echo. Up till now, I hadn't been phased. Now, I too was beginning to get just the slightest edge of doubt, and at that time, Lorie and I had this very empathetic feeling. She caught on to my change in mood in a flash.
"BILL! DONNA!" she yelled. Nothing. And, of course, the river, always the most empathetic of entities, brought a the biggest of the fluffy white clouds right across the path of the sun ... and shadows crept across the ripples in the water and floated eerily through the alders. A less than comforting cool breeze raised goosebumps on my forearms. And worst of all, my brew had gone flat.
But there was no turning back. We paddled faster, working against the natural rhythm of allowing ourselves to be carried by the quick, high current ... forcing our intent to be downstream before the river's time.
"Bill! Donna!" Lorie's voice was beginning to crackle with lesions of panic.
"Tom! Where are they?"
"There's only one place they can end up, Lorie ... downstream." But my own doubt lanced through the fabric of my words and cut the seams of my credibility. "Isn't there anything we can do?"
"Just go forward ... to where the channels merge back into the main body of the river." That seemed to carry enough common sense, enough at least to settle Lorie's doubts ... and my own. We paddled strongly and steadily, raising a high, smooth wake, and our concern merged into a muscular rythm as we cut speedily through the water. It seemed that we breathed the same deep breaths, filling our lungs with the same air and expelling it through our arms and into the paddles and into the water and into our intent to be downstream where we would know one way or the other the fate of our friends.
"I think I'll stick to white water rafting," said Lorie. "At least nobody gets lost on the Penobscot." That kind of broke the mood, but I let it flow off my paddle and into the water.
The rhythm was temporarily broken ... time to open a fresh brew, for thirst and energy. Even Lorie seemed grateful for this bit of wisdom. We rested and floated, and sipped.
"It is beautiful out here," said Lorie. The big cloud had passed and the sun was back, the shadows gone, and mercy be, a beaver slipped into the water to our right with a splash of its tail.
"Wildlife," I said.
"Was that a beaver?" asked Lorie.
"Yeah. Big one." We looked for a couple of minutes to see if we could spot it swimming, but it was long gone. But that was OK, the tension seemed to have lifted into the air and broken into millions of molecules to be dispersed by the breeze like a disintegrating fog forgotten in the sunlight.
"Ready for some shit kickin' paddling?" I asked. "OK. Bill! Donna!"
And from the river ahead ...
"LORIE!" A woman's voice. It was Donna, waving madly from from a bend in the river, where the channels merge.
"Lorie! Tom! Where have you two been? We've been worried sick!"
Lorie and I exchanged a quick glance, a glance rippling and bubbling with a deep understanding ... the river flows downstream. And that's where you meet.
I'll never forget my first whitewater trip. That was when all hell broke loose on the Nashwaak...
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