the wind is blowing, the white foam is flying...”
That's from my favorite song in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (Legolas' Song of the Sea, in which he contracts a bad case of Sea Longing and waxes eloquent about sailing west to the land of his people). That's what paddling is about. What sailing is about. What walking along the shore is about. That feeling in that song, that ache for the feel of the waves and the cry of the gulls..
“west, west away! The round sun is falling,
grey ship, grey ship, do you hear them calling?”
Friday night, at work, I heard Credence Clearwater Revival's “Proud Mary” on the radio...
“Left a good job in the city,
Working for The Man every night and day,
And I never lost one minute of sleeping,
Worrying 'bout the way things might have been....
rollin', rollin', rollin' on the river...”
I had a rare two days, on a weekend, off in a row. I had planned to do a Longship Company voyage. Longship Sae Hrafn isn't quite docked on a fjord; it sits in a marina, on a creek, off the Patuxent River, off the Chesapeake Bay. It's a long row to the sea. Still, it's big enough water to assuage a bit of the Sea Longing.
I'd decided I didn't have enough funds to make the longship trip, much as I wanted to, and lacking funds to fill the Mighty Van Fearaf's dual fuel tanks, I opted for closer waters. I prefer big water, the open reaches of the Bay, Assateague Island, even chasing the longship around in my kayak is preferable to dodging rocks in a local creek. Saturday night, I had shown a kid the wonders of Pinchot Lake (and she had shown me a few critters I'd never paid attention to before). Sunday I wrote, I fed dogs, I helped a friend with a story. Late afternoon I freed myself and answered the call of the sea. Or, at least, the mighty river flowing to it.The Susquehanna River was designed for canoes and kayaks (or they were designed for it). It's shallow, rocky, unavigable by larger craft. Last century, a canal ran from Wrightsville to the top of the Bay at Havre deGrace. This century dams turn parts of the river into recreational lakes full of jet-skis, small sailboats, fishermen, and those floating party platforms called pontoon boats.
I called a few friends, but the spare boat, Finrod, remained lashed to the top of the van when I drove down to the river.
Just as well.
“Rolling, rolling, rolling on the river.”
I drove down to Long Level, popped into Shank's Mare, looking for a dry box that would actually fit my new camera. No dry boxes big enough, so I ended up with a deck bag. Between that and the food storage box (kind of a high tech ziplock) the camera should be safe, unless I wrecked or sank the 'yak.
I shoved out into warm water, a silver haze to the north, a WSW wind blowing off the western shore, but not very hard. Not hard enough to raise enough waves to warrant wearing a spray skirt. Not hard enough to put the rudder down (Makenuk's Fin has a flat bottom and weathercocks, broadside into the wind). I had nearly shoved the boat off the stony beach when I turned around and got the sprayskirt out of the van and stuffed it behind Makenuk's seat. I thought about the compass that I had left in the gear box, but didn't bother going back for it. I had already left an iconic bit of gear behind, at home; the Maori hook a kayaker buddy had given me. "Good luck for kayakers" or "protection while traveling over water" they will tell you. The Maoris are the native people of New Zealand (a favorite place for me, which, in film at least, has been Middle Earth, Narnia, and the setting for Whale Rider), part of the group of tribes called Polynesians, some of the world's best sailors and oceanic explorers. The hook (a small carving made of greenstone) symbolizes their connection with the sea. Mine has been to the bottom of the sea with me (on dives) and on many kayaking expeditions. It would have quite a story to tell.
I think the river's about a mile across here, in the depths of Lake Clarke. On both sides are wooded hills, creeks trickling down over rocky beds. The far side has a stretch of treed islands and a long sandbar called Conejehola Flats. There you can spot waterfowl, eagles come to eat their fish, gulls hang out in the shallows, boaters pull up and wade, dogs and all. In the winter, it becomes a snow goose resort, the far shore white with thousands of birds.
“Rollin', rollin', rollin' on the river.....”
I paddled across over boat wakes, fresh rough ones as the boats passed, and the smoother echoes of wakes falling back into the rhythm of the river. Two boats hove into view, coming north; after pausing and waving them by in front of me, I saw the lead boat was a Coast Guard boat towing the second on a long line. Out of gas, or engine failure. “Hey!” I shouted cheerfully, waving my paddle, “get a paddle!”
“They don't make one big enough!”
I laughed. Kayaks never run out of gas. Unless I do. And I have a nice collection of granola bars in my gear.
“But I never saw the good side of the city,
Until I hitched a ride on a river boat queen. Rollin', rollin....”
I paddled across, rudder up, making slight corrections as Makenuk's Fin seemed to have a mind of its own about the current and slight hint of moving air. Gulls floated in the shallows near the islands, I pulled out a camera and shot gulls floating, gulls taking off, gulls in flight, blur gulls, gulls-who-flew-out-of-the-shot gulls, gulls not in focus at all because the camera had gone into Stupid Mode...
“If you come down to the river,
Bet you gonna find some people who live.”
A boat floated in the shallows. I knew it was shallow, that I had found the flats, because my paddle made a sudden and disconcerting noise as it hit bottom. I pulled up, got out and sank into the cool water. Which involved lying flat in two feet of water, trying not to let the boat drift off, because I'd forgotten the anchor. The boat dog swam in my direction; a cheerful black lab shape panting through the water until her owners called her back.
North the haze seemed to have gotten darker. I had checked the newspaper weather report, sunny, hot, humid, sticky, sunny, Augustish. No mention of afternoon showers or thunderstorms, not even a shadow of them.
The shadow in the north was darkening. Something rumbled there. My river sense is not as honed as the people who fish it, duck hunt it, or have summer cabins on the islands. The people who live on their pontoon boats in summer, who decorate their piece of riverfront property with tacky tiki torches and fake Polynesian huts. And lighthouses and mermaids and pelicans (the one bird that doesn't come to the river).
To paraphrase Spiderman; my river sense is tingling...
The sky had definitely grown a darker shade of silver, and I was hearing rumblings that weren't at all like the fireworks that had startled us on the lake the night before.
I glanced at the boat nearby, full of boys and dog and fishing poles. They weren't revving their engine and fleeing. I glanced north.
Rumble rumble rumble.
I turned and fled. I passed the fishing boat with the dog and called out something like, “hey, you hear that thunder?” I don't know if I was seeking a second opinion, or warning them that they should get off the river before all hell broke loose. I had been caught out a couple of times in storms; once, paddling through the Rock Garden in driving rain (thankfully no lightning, yet), and once, with a handful of other paddlers, cowered under a high bank and overhanging trees as a brief storm passed through Wrightsville. Once, on Chincoteague Bay, I watched as a huge thunderhead sailed up from Arkansas or Kansas or some other western place that spawns storms that require heroines to find Tin Men and ruby slippers to get back home. There was no place to go there; only salt marsh in all directions. Flat, muddy, wet salt marsh. Fortunately, a bit earlier, I had passed something that looked, disconcertingly like Polynesian huts in the middle of Chincoteague Bay. (What IS it with the thatched huts?). Peering through the modern spyglass of binoculars had revealed the duck blind to end all duck blinds; telephone pole sized pilings sunk into the bay floor, and a veritable palace built on top of it. I fled back to the Duck Blind of the Polynesian King, pulled my boat into the boat parking garage under it, climbed the ladder and watched through the custom plexiglass window as the storm swashed across the bay.
There are duck blinds on the Susquehanna, though not so elaborate. There just weren't any between me and either shore. I eyed the north, I eyed the distant blit that was Shank's Mare's parking lot (where Fearaf waited) on the far side of the world.
Hard. I slammed down the rudder and paddled, one eye checking the ever darkening north. I watched boats with engines speed by, headed upriver to marinas, or to more sheltered spots. I began to wish kayaks came with a backup engine, like the tall ships I know. I really began to wish I'd brought the compass. If the visibility went to zero, and I was struggling across a wind and rain lashed river, the only way to know what direction you are going is that compass. Going the wrong way might take you upriver, or back to the islands, or over the dam to the south. On big water you could end up five miles offshore. And the sprayskirt, I should have put that on before I started across the river; caught in a gale, the cockpit would soon be awash without the skirt, and a boat with only a few inches of water in it is ridiculously unstable.
Rumble, rumble rumble.
I inched my way across an endless river. One hand went numb, then the other. I thought about pausing to shake it out. I paddled. Then paused, shook the offending hand, paddled on.
Shank's Mare got larger, I could see the parking lot, the van, Finrod on top, a bright yellow lighthouse beacon. I heaved up onto a stony beach between rocks. A guy was folding an inflatable raft right where I needed to beach. I paused, suppressed any antisocial thoughts. He packed up his boat and I pulled in. I heaved the 'yak, heavy with gear for an extended paddle, over the stones and up the bank onto the grass.
RUMBLE RUMBLE RUMBLE. Flash. Zotz!
I fled into the van, just as a guy on a jet ski pulled up. He bailed out, left the 'ski floating in a foot of water, tossed out a mushroom anchor on a string. Fled to the van nearby where a female significant other was waiting.
All hell broke loose. Wind roared down the river, bringing with it a wall of dark silver rain. Of air and water so intertwined you couldn't tell where one finished and the other began. The wild water horses tossed their manes, ran rampant and crashed on the stony beach. Makenuk's Fin sat safe on the grassy bank by the van. The little yellow jet ski tossed in the breaking waves. Beyond the 'ski, I could see a half dozen small boats still on the water, riding it out.
I'd had my longship trip short circuited, and the earlier one had been blown out by a storm. The Schooner Sultana voyage in May had been blown out. This was not my year for sunny voyages.
Grrrrrr. I was stuck in a stifling hot van with the windows closed and steaming up. What else was there to do but put the camera on the tripod and take some shots through the rain-splotted window, wiping the fog off with a towel. I watched the boats maneuvering for a safe position, the jet ski bobbing in the waves, the whitecaps on the river, the storm turning the air to a pewter maelstrom.
Somewhere in the middle of it, Jet-ski Guy ran out and tried to heave his boat farther up the beach.
I don't much like jet skis. I think they're a noisy, fossil fuel sucking affront to Nature and the Peace and Quiet I want when I paddle out here. They stir up silt and choke living things and all guys seem to do is scream around in mindless circles.
And I really really hate lightning. My mom's mom used to get all eight kids out of bed and make them sit up in the living room, during storms, just in case the house blew away or caught fire or something. I'm not much happier about large amounts of wild electricity anywhere near me.
“If you come down to the river,
Bet you gonna find some people who live.
You don't have to worry 'cause you have no money,
People on the river are happy to give.”
We're all sailors here, even if it's only the river, and our boats don't have sails. I ran out and grabbed hold of something and heaved. Slowly we inched it up the beach onto ground covered by less water. Then we fled to our respective vans.
It blew over. Flashing lights of Lake Clarke River Rescue went down the road behind us, then more flashing lights. They converged a few hundred yards downriver. I helped Jet-ski Guy heave his boat back into the water (“Be careful, don't hurt yourself.”), neither of us found the mushroom anchor; the anchor line had broken. He headed for his marina upriver. I shoved Makenuk's Fin back in the water, and ran into a guy fishing out of an Old Town recreational kayak; a short, tanklike kayak with a cockpit large enough to comfortably fish out of, and large enough to swallow half the sea. He'd holed up under a bridge downriver. The flashing lights, he said, were for a small boat that had capsized with six people aboard. Apparently they had flotation, PFDs and floating seat cushions, so hopefully they were ok. The boat had to be rescued with a barge with a crane.
I thought about what I'd have done if I'd had someone in the spare boat. Rainey could have powered Finrod across the river nearly as fast as my boat. Any other adults I would have invited would have been struggling. I had a tow line, which would speed them up, and me down. I could get in Finrod's other seat and two of us could paddle while we towed Makenuk's Fin. Or we could have left the Fin tied on one of the islands. Or we might have cowered under the trees on the islands. Caught in the middle of the river with a newbie in the spare boat would have been hairy. A compass in the spare boat would be good.
I paddled down a serene river, the storm vanishing into the deep blue south, occasional flashes of lightning still visible. A rainbow faded in, like a ghostly vision, then faded out. The sun turned the water to gold. I found the bridge Fish Guy had sheltered under, and the creek that flowed under it. I paddled up a clear, cold rocky creek till I ran out of water. I took pictures of the riffles where the navigable creek ended; the water made music, steam rose above the dark wooded hills like a tropical rainforest, leftover rain dripped off the trees, a big silver carp with golden fins flashed away from my paddle.
I turned and paddled upstream in the growing twilight. Pulled out near a couple sitting on the rocks by the river, watching the sunset paint the water different colors. We talked about kayaking;
“I can't swim.”
“Wear a PFD. Rent a sit-on at Shank's Mare, it's really great. Stay near shore." Know what direction the wind is blowing. Know where you can seek sanctuary. Read the weather reports, but be prepared.
Look for eagles, for three kinds of gulls, even if you can't catch them in focus. For green herons, night herons, blue herons, great egrets. For kingfishers making their ratchetbird call. For swallows swooping after bugs. For mayflies and dragonflies emerging from their childhood underwater. For cormorants with their beaks tiltes skyward. For the ever-changing light.
And don't forget your compass.
“Big wheel keep on turning,
Proud Mary keep on burning,
Rolling, rolling, rolling on the river.”