[élan Nov. 2006]
This is in praise of rivers--winding rushing, narrow calm, blue, brown or dappled green, lively smooth--rivers. My first love was the Potomac. I'd often trek there with my best friend of the moment. Our first stop was the Sycamore Store, where penny candy was abundant. Then, properly supplied, we'd head on down to the place where the river was shallow and wide.
We'd stake out sunny boulders, call them islands, wade out, and set up there for the day to skip rocks, lounge in tiny rapids, net minnows, and if we were lucky, the occasional crawdad. We knew when the canal was frozen enough for skating in winter, where the best Tarzan vines were for swinging out over the water in summer. And we learned the hard way that snakes really do fall out of trees.
My husband Mark lived so close to the Potomac, before the parkway was built, the canal was just a short walk down the road through the woods. The house nearest the towpath, Captain Thompson's, always had a crate of skates at the ready in winter, for anyone wanting to join in the frequent ice hockey games.
On long summer days when Mark was left in charge of his little sister, Kristin, they'd go fishing. He'd help her bait the hook. She wouldn't hold a worm in her hand, but would allow him to place it on her head for safe keeping. Once she fell while carrying the jar full of worms and cut herself, so he did the responsible thing, drove her to the hospital, even though he was only 14.
My next love was the Cacapon River in West Virginia, where I was a waterfront counselor for five years. Camp Rim Rock has since put in a swimming pool, but we taught all the Red Cross courses on the dark brown Cacapon. We would sunbathe on wooden docks between lessons, and our arms became landing pads for dragonflies. We'd skinny-dip after dark. Leaches don't bother me, and those other things that bump up against your legs, we used to call them kissy-fish.
Lately I've been loving the Shenandoah, which means daughter of the stars or moon. We like to load our canoe into the pick-up truck, head west on Route 7 to Chilly Hollow Road, ramble and rumble, up, down and around, past Watermelon Campground to the public landing there. It is usually deserted on a weekday, but one glorious breezy morning in August, the boat ramp was crowded with kids in bathing suits. They were being corralled toward a passel of rafts, kayacs, and canoes already afloat and loosely tethered. Two lovely-looking counselors were in charge; a young man and a young woman.
The young man, knee-deep in the water, held a kayac steady while he reached out to a boy who stood stock still at the river's edge, grasping a paddle with both hands. "You're going to have to get your feet wet," the counselor said kindly, patiently.
We set our canoe in the muddy, climbed in and paddled upstream. I looked back a few times to see the counselor's progress, remembering all too well, a camper's trepidation.
Canoeing the Shenandoah that day was resplendent; so clear, we could see rock shelves, schools of minnows, even a cat-sized carp. There were so many great blue herons we lost count. A pair of red-tailed hawks dazzled as they soared through sunlight. Then, further on, ospreys swooped across the sky casting shadows. A doe, drinking at the water's edge, barely lifted her head as we floated by. All along the way, turtles followed the leader to bask on sun-drenched tree limbs.
Mark was just stubborn enough to insist that we paddle through half-grade rapids, but even he knew we couldn't traverse the next set, which roared up ahead, so we drifted ashore to eat lunch. After searching for artifacts, we climbed back in the boat to cruise downstream, paddling now and again to set ourselves on course, as the wind and water kept trying to turn us around.
A river can sustain treasures like blue gills, that will gauge the safety of our drinking water, and it can churn up treasures like the rocking chair we pulled out of the Waccamaw a few years back. Rivers nurture plant-life, wildlife and humankind. Some remain the great passageways they've always been, and many are much cleaner today, thanks to environmentalists.
T.S. Eliot's river was "a strong brown god--sullen, untamed, and intractable." The Shenandoah, on that day in August, was more like the Chippewa song: Before me peaceful, behind me peaceful, under me peaceful, all around me peaceful.