April 18

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It is a full month after my first paddle of the season. A year of weather has passed in that time - snow, wind, and then the Second Coming of spring. Daffodils bloom on my front yard, and the weather and timing are perfect for a paddle. To go paddling isn't a rational decision, but an intuition, a re-situating of my body and mind, like the needle of a compass pointing direction. It is the first time in a month that I've felt the urge to get out on the water. My excitement quietly grows, physically, in my chest, as if my lungs are filling, and in my belly, too, a fluttering. I load the boats, and feel the strain in my back. There is an awkwardness to my actions, a winter of inactivity and then the forgetting -  how do I lift my boat to my shoulder, hoist it to the car roof, slide it up on the roof racks? And which shoulder to rest it on, right or left? 

There is a method to the task that allows for maximum ease, I've learned it over time, summer in, summer out, will relearn it again. I'm not that strong, and not that young anymore, and not very tall, a few inches over five feet. I've had to learn to compensate, trial by error, find my own ways of transporting my boat differently from my husband, who can hold the kayak extended flat above his head, easily place it on top of the car. I bend my knees, reach over, slip my hands into the cockpit, attempt to roll the boat upward, and then body memory kicks in. There's an easier way. I put the boat down, flip it over, move to the stern, walk the kayak upward, hand over hand, until it stands totem-pole tall. I slip my arm through the cockpit, ease the boat to my shoulder, my right shoulder, wear it like a piece of clothing, or perhaps as an extension of myself, an extension of my arm, straight out from my body. To give you a picture, like a knight on horseback would hold a javelin while jousting. 

I rest the kayak on the trunk of the car, lift and slide it up over the back window to the car roof.  My body is happy with the success of the task, the boat ready for tie-down. My inner being is happy, too. Independence is an integral part of kayaking, and people who kayak are often loners, prefer to sit in a boat solo, rather than in pairs and trios like their canoe cousins, or in happy picnic mobs like their motorboat counterparts, or in cities-afloat, like the ocean cruisers. I use the word loner in the gentlest of ways, a woman who is content with herself, at peace with solitude, who paddles her own canoe, to quote my brother. A woman who can put her own boat up on the roof of the car when the situation calls for it, but also sees the sweet joy in the shared task, two people sharing the weight, one at each end, loading the boat together, tying it down together, checking the knots, a gentle tug on the boat to make sure all is secure. 

On those days when I'm tired after a solo paddle, and I look down at my boat, and then eye the distance straight up to the roof of the car, I'm not adverse to asking for help, not only from my husband, but when he's not around, from strangers, who have never refused, particularly men, whose Sir Galahad natures kick in, pleased in an old-fashion way to render assistance, even the younger men, with their smart phones and fishing poles, trout and texts. My old baseball cap pulled over my hair and eyes, baggy faded paddling clothes, funny neoprene kayak skirt dangling around my knees, and on my feet, odd-looking, five-toe water booties that I love to wear while paddling, but make me look like a genetic mistake, the water monster within showing itself. I'm not suffering under any disillusionment, know the readiness to help isn't spurred by a manly desire to impress me, a trolling for something other than a bit of kayak action. It's more akin to helping an old lady cross the road; I inspire the inner Boy Scout in them. After all, I'm fifty-seven, although in some of the older men, maybe the recently retired, the soon-to-be-retired, I see a desire flash of a different sort, an admiration, a wish flickering in their eyes that their own life-partners would don such a get-up, and buy a kayak to put on top of their car, and get out on the water with them, that they'd get out on the water themselves. And not that long ago, when I first started kayaking, and installed a kayak carrier in the shape of two letter Js protruding from the top of our car (objects that both amused and embarrassed my non-kayaking daughter) men would track me down, and ask me about my racks, and how they worked, and where they could get them, and what would it cost... 

In a kindly way, I'll call myself seasoned. I'm learning to be comfortable with it, with the seasons, although it's not always easy. But I suppose not much is easy, that things take time, in itself an irony when talking about aging. My husband is my usual paddling partner, and when we first started kayaking, he'd check the bungees and ropes, making sure the boat was tightly secure; he's a canoeist and outdoorsman, learning the craft as a child, whereas I am a neophyte, never went camping as a child, the desire for lakes and streams coming to me mid-life. At first, he'd undo and retie my work, out of necessity, and now he doesn't anymore, doesn't second guess, trusts my knots, because I am seasoned. Today, I'm meeting him after his workday at a place in the river close to his office. There's a spring chill gathering, even with the sun, so I pack a sweater for him. I load both of our kayaks on top of the car, and tie them down, and feel a satisfaction with doing the task. 

A neighbour from up the street walks his golden retrievers. He grins at me, in recognition, no need for hello or small talk. I grin back. I'm a sure sign of spring to him, boats atop the car, just as they were last season, and the season before. And in some kind of reciprocity, he's a sure sign of "rightness" to me - all is right in our neighbourhood. He is out walking his dogs, rounding the crescent, as he has done many times. The recurrences are something not to be taken for granted, but basked in, for all things change, sometimes incrementally. Another man on our street routinely walked a pair of German Shepherds and in recent days, I've noticed only one dog. And further afield, years away, when I had a fierce little dog of my own, and would regularly walk him, led by his nose around familiar territory, I'd stop to admire a backyard adjacent to the schoolyard, at times chatting with the owner, although I never knew him by name. Our common ground was his pond, almost a lake in the midst of his small patch of city backyard. Orange flash of koi, darting through water plants, koi that grew fatter, and water lilies and irises that grew thicker, and in his garden the lush blooming of flowers, a plot for vegetables, grapes growing over a trellis and vines on stakes - but primarily, clearly, his main love, that water pond, with cascading water falls, and a water pump lifting the water to the top of the rocks. So many rocks, and water plants, and flowers edging the pond, beautifully placed, nurtured with care, and if I might say so, without sounding too sentimental, love. 

Then my dog died, from old age, after sixteen years. But even so, in the middle of the night, unexpectedly, I had to make that life and death decision, the dog suffering a seizure, confused, bleeding internally, trembling from the loss of blood, looking at me in that way that says, you're my human, my master, my alpha, put it right for me, make me feel better - in almost a perplexed and apologetic way, as if he had done something puzzling and wrong by getting old, and bleeding internally, and finding himself in this state of dying. So I petted him, and whispered that he was a good dog, that everything was okay, is okay, and the veterinarian slipped the needle into his body, and he stopped living, just like that, quickly and without fanfare. I kept whispering, petting him, and the vet told me I could stop now, the dog was dead. I wanted to say, I know the dog is dead, but what is the line between life and death? And how does the dog know he is dead? Maybe his consciousness lingers here, still perplexed, needing soothing. But I said none of these things, signed the cremation papers, chose an urn, and went home in the dark. No longer with a dog to walk, I stopped taking that route, the one where I would stop to linger and chat by the pond. A year or two passed and one evening, I happened by that same backyard. It was in disrepair, the pond empty, rocks strewn, garden overgrown with thistles and other weeds, and the grass long. No owner in sight, the curtains drawn.

There are an abundance of butterflies and moths this day, flitting among the flowering keys of the maple tree, alighting in the bunches. It seems too early for butterflies and moths, mid-April, but there they are, and who can argue with proof. The river is lower than I've seen it in ten years of paddling, even lower than the dog-days-of-summer. The river should be fast and high, still furious with melting snow runoff, but there was little snowfall this winter, and so little snow to run off. The shore extends out into places where the river should be, and the bottom is exposed and muddy. A dock, usually almost flush with the water surface, towers a foot or two above it. We were going to take an hour route from the small village of Blair, where those bald eagles winter, to a city park further downstream, but we decide against it. We have no urge to become stuck on rocks mid route, something we usually only need to consider later in the season. Instead we paddle around in a spot where the river is wider and deeper, my husband and I going in different directions, not something unusual - on the river or in our married life - and the way we like it. I paddle upstream, and he goes downstream. 

On return journey, back to starting point, the wind picks up, and I paddle against it. I love paddling against the wind, while my husband loves paddling with it, feeling the wind carry him along. You can make faster speed that way, he tells me, and echoes in part an Irish blessing, May the wind always be at your back. But I love the feel of wind pushing against my face and chest, and for some reason, find it easier to paddle into a headwind, as long as I continue to paddle hard, don't stop to dally. It is not dallying weather, this gathering wind. Waves begin to form, not large, but large enough to cause a bit of splash over my bow. The rowers who have laid their oars lengthwise along the dock have decided to put their oars back in storage, to await a calmer day. 

On shore, where the mud extends out further than usual, a fat river rat nibbles, right next to a duck. They seem oblivious to each other, nonplussed. I look closer and the rat's tail is unrat-like, furry and fluffed. And so my rat must be another animal, surely not a beaver with that tail, useless for slapping water-warnings. Maybe it is a groundhog out for an early evening sip of river, but wouldn't I know a groundhog when I saw it? I am amazed  how little I know about the life round me, in all its forms, and feel fascination at the two creatures so close, so calm, so uninterested in each other, uninterested in me, the strange animal passing by. It must be a misconception of mine that animals, by nature, always battle it out with each other. I think of a trip in the bayous of New Orleans, a boat tour of the swamps, white spidery moss dangling web-like over the trees, a raccoon standing on a fallen, rotting tree trunk, and an alligator, sunning itself, lying there, so close to the raccoon, snappingly close. I watched as long as I could, before the odd pair disappeared from view, both still very much alive, and unbothered by the other. I push through the wind and feel glad, even giddy, to be fifty-seven and so very much alive myself, happy and strong in this moment, and braced by the wind. 

___


Caterpillars dream 
of other lives
die into moth wings 

 

    


© Marianne Paul 2011