Saturday, August 25, 2012

Paddling With My Eyes Closed

I asked Mike about the trip on the John Day river.  He told me that we'd planned it as a three-day trip, but we only spent one night because of that missed campsite.  Is it funny that I remember absolutely nothing about that night in the desert?  I've heard people say that if anything goes wrong, that's when you have a story to tell.  The rest of it, paddling, setting up the tent, laughing as Indiana was taunted by squirrels who made her run back and forth, that was just what we did.  It was heaven, everyday ordinary heaven.

I could paddle all day in a canoe with Mike.  The hardest part of it, especially when we had just begun dating, was that I couldn't reach back to touch him. Maybe it was like those exercises for which each partner can't touch the other in order to heighten sensations between them.  I couldn't even see Mike without twisting around and rocking the canoe.  I could hear him, though, even though he's a quiet man.  He always answered my questions, mused on my thoughts, then let the silence fill us.  With Mike, I learned how to feel peace in silence.  I could hear his paddle moving through the water.  I could hear him breathing sometimes.  There would be birds calling.  There was water tapping the sides of the canoe.  There was the sound of the breeze over the water.  And yet Mike let me chatter along like a bird, sometimes talking or laughing, sometimes humming a song.  There is always a song going through my head and it's a relief, really, to let it out.  Mike never complains when I sing. 

Sometimes, when I get tired of paddling, I close my eyes and keep paddling.  Well, that's not exactly true.  I can't usually afford to close my eyes paddling a river.  The current and submerged rocks requires both of us to keep our eyes open.  But when we're on a lake, I can close my eyes to all the beauty.  Then it's just me, Mike, the water, and the canoe.  I just keep paddling and Mike brings me to a new perspective when I finally open my eyes again.  It takes away the distance to the far shore.  It takes away fatigue, somehow.  It's just the two of us in our canoe, floating on the water. 

The portages are the hardest part, hauling food and gear, pretending that I was ever strong enough to carry the canoe solo.  Oh, I only did that a half a dozen times and even then, I needed help getting the thing up and balanced before Mike could walk away.  I always bruised at the back of my neck where the yoke sat and my arms went numb as I walked, holding the canoe.  I never managed to carry my pack and the canoe at the same time.  Even with just the canoe, I could feel my vertebrae compressing.  I could feel the fear of anther back surgery, yet those trips always left my back strengthened rather than the other way around.  When a portage was over, the sweat washed off in the water and I had my paddle back in my hands, I was always relieved.  Maybe I was a little proud, but it was mostly relief.  I remember how happy I was that there weren't any portages on the John Day river.  Lining the canoe through the rapids didn't count.  I wasn't hauling any stuff. 

I had learned to pack light.  Some people assume that if you can put it into a canoe, you don't have to worry about how much you bring.  Mike and I never subscribed to that concept.  We didn't cut our toothbrushes in half or anything, but we discussed the worth of carrying my sun shower, a book that was very big, the extra food I felt I needed.  By the time we were done packing, I could put the 'extra' stuff in a gallon Ziploc along with my flashlight.  I always carried a small notebook, a small book, and an extra pen.  Everything else I packed was essential.  I even planned my clothing carefully, one set of dry clothes, one set of wet, then layers to add as needed.  Well, I did change my underwear.  That seems like a small luxury and I'm pretty sure it would have fit into that one Ziploc if I'd needed to prove it.  Mike never made me prove it, but he'd say, "Are you sure you want to portage that for a half a mile six or seven times a day?"  I have a pretty good memory for how those portages felt.  I packed light.

When we're done paddling for the day, done with any portages, we'd scout the campsite for the best place to set up our tent.  I've set that tent up in the pouring rain in the dark.   I can do it in minutes.  Then I might gather fire wood and Mike would scout for a good bear bag site.  In Alaska, the Black Spruce were so small, we had to throw carabiners over branches of three different trees and hang the bag in the center of them and even then, it wasn't as high up as we'd have liked.  I liked watching him set this up while it was still light out and after dinner, I liked holding the bear bag as high as I could while Mike pulled it up using parachute cord.  I've seen a bear batting at a bear bag with his paws and claws as if it were a pinata.  I know how high a bear bag needs to be. 

I liked cooking with Mike too.  Dinner on the water was quick.  Oh, I'll write more about meals.  Did I ever tell you about the time I caught a trout with my hands?  Now, that was a good meal.

All this chatter over a night I couldn't remember.  See, I do remember, but it blends into one long trip, paddling, portaging, cooking, making camp, watching the dog play, and sleeping.  Did I tell you about having the sandy, stinky dog between us on the last cold night of our honeymoon trip?  Yes, even when we were young and in that tent together, we did do some sleeping on those canoe trips.  We could back then.  It was heaven, those trips, plain old heaven.

Thank you for listening, jb

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