Monday, April 17, 2006

Journal: Visiting an old friend

As I've done for the last few years, I paid a visit to an old friend over the weekend. Actually, it's a creek, but it feels like an old friend. It twists its way through sandstone ledges and marshy lowlands under a canopy of big old pine trees in the sandy country an hour or so north of my home town. It's small enough that you could stand on one side and spit across to the other, but in the spring, rains swell it up with just enough water to float a canoe.

We met when I was maybe 12 years old, when my dad took me out in our big old aluminum canoe to do some trout fishing, and I was enchanted. The Creek's swift turns made for exciting paddling for a kid, and I dutifully followed the paddling instructions my dad called out from the back of the boat: left, right, a little steam, please. We'd stop to fish above a deep pool or below a little riffle, and the creek gave up a few fish: a brown, a couple brookies. Below the little dam, I pulled out a rainbow that was big enough to merit a photograph when we got home. My dad showed me how the native trout had salmony pink flesh inside, unlike the pale flesh of the trout that had been stocked.

I don't know how many times my dad and I paddled the Creek--twice? three times?--and I eventually turned into an over-scheduled teenager. But it stuck with me, the memory of my dad baiting his hook with a grasshopper taken from a wine bottle, the smell of pine and moss, the sound of water flowing across rocks, the wind in the pines.

One summer, when I was in college, I went back. I put the old canoe on top of my girlfriend's car. I wasn't sure where to put in, and we ended up upstream, or maybe downstream, of the route I'd traveled with Dad. It was hot outside, the water was low, and deadfalls blocked our way at every bend in the stream. It was a long trip: I felt like an idiot, and though the girl eventually became my wife, I wondered what became of the Creek that trickled through my memory.

I grew up, went to law school, got a job, and moved away. I still loved fishing and paddling, though, and every time in stood in a creek with a fishing rod, I thought about the Creek. I looked for maps or pictures on the Web, some evidence that it still flowed. I heard through the grapevine that fishing had gone downhill, a result of a cranberry operation diverting water from the creek and returning warmer than it should have been.

Eventually, I moved back to the area. A few years ago, I heard that a group from the Sierra Club went for an annual spring paddle down the creek. I'd just bought a new canoe, and I invited my recently-retired dad to join me. I met him at the put-in, and I sensed that he, too, had had the Creek trickling through his memory for the last 15 or so years. That day, I sat in back and called out the paddling instructions. Last year, I paddled the creek with my older brother.

On Sunday, I drove up to the Creek with a couple pals. This year, in addition to a dry bag, some Fig Newtons, and an extra paddle, I brought a cane for extra balance if necessary. My pals sensed that I was a little weaker and a little tippier than the last time we'd seen each other, and obligingly carried the boat and gear down down the steep bank. It was a windy day, with storms in the forecast, but we donned rain gear and put in anyway.

There really isn't anything I'd rather do than float down a little stream. Sex is complicated, eating is fattening, and drinking gets me in trouble, but paddling is bliss, plain and simple. At least, it's periods of bliss occasionally interrupted to haul a canoe over a log. And sometimes it gets cold and wet, which is what happened about 20 minutes after we got started. We were re-embarking after getting out to scout a deadfall, and had the boat turned perpendicular to the stream for just a moment. I lost my balance, shifted my weight to the upstream edge of the boat, and, slowly, fell into the Creek on my butt in 18" of cold, rushing water. I was wearing rubber wellies, which filled up with water, making them so heavy that I almost couldn't lift my legs to move to the edge of the stream. It took me a few minutes to pull my feet out of them and dump the water out.

I had dry clothes and didn't lose any stuff, but I felt like a clutz as I sat naked on the bank, perched on my PFD. I was so exhausted that it seemed to take forever to shed my wet clothes and put on the dry ones. Another problem: what to do with the saturated diaper, which had expanded to the size and weight of a small ham. I wrapped it up in my wet pants and stuffed it into the bottom of the dry bag.

I recovered, though, and enjoyed the remaineder of the day. We did run into what seemed like a dozen snags that required getting out of the boat. I worried, because I wanted my pals to take to the Creek the way I did, that these annoyances would, in their judgment, outweigh the Creek's charms. I wanted them to love the Creek partly because I want to go back next year, and I need willing sherpas to do the heavy lifting. I think they'll be willing to come back.

The balance of the 4-hour paddle was mercifully dry, until about 10 minutes before the git-out, when the rain finally broke. Even that was beautiful, though. At the landing, I stayed behind while they shuttled back for the other car, admiring the pitcher plants on the banks of the Creek, cautiously optimistic that next year I'd be back to paddle the Creek.

technorati tag:

No comments: