After a month of flood I set my kayak in the river. This is the water I grew up on, my parents’ front yard. It’s a north flow of catfish and cattails. The water’s still high, remnants of swelling from filling with spring. Melted snow that turned this body from river to lake. Water flooding fields and roads. Sweeping the old and settling the new.
As I lived in my car in Texas, sleeping in its trunk for more than four months, my parents asked me to watch their country home through the coming disaster. I drove 1200 miles and spent more than a month in flood life. Rise, crest, and fall. Cutoff and cleanup.
For two weeks their homestead turned into an island. One I couldn’t leave. I tended it alone, enjoying solitude. As water receded it left a mess that took weeks to clean. Drag. Burn. Drag. Burn. Drag. Burn. But now it was down enough to paddle. Back to its banks, more or less. So with this I set in for my seventh straight river trip. An unbroken chain of summers.
From the first multi-day paddle I fell in love with solo excursions. They’ve ranged from 65 miles to more than 400. Have filled me with unexpected memories. Untouched weeks of solitude. Now my mom decides to join me for the first 13 of my 135 mile journey. One that means paddling my nasty ass to the Canadian border. I put no thought into this other than knowing it’s what I must do.
The water’s high but changes year to year. Variance the only consistent. This swell is part echoes of flood, part an outcome of recent rain. We paddle and chat, scanning to see if the eagle’s nest a few miles north is still there. It’s lodged in the Y crotch of a towering tree on the North Dakota side. This river splits our home state and Minnesota. Eagles once lived on the opposite shore but a different flood swept the tree that formed their home. This year was gentler. The nest is unharmed.
We sight two beavers and paddle idly, making 13 miles in under three hours. I help Mom load her craft at a boat ramp then set out on my own. 122 miles to go. No sleep ’til Canada.
As I push north sun bakes skin. A month of clouds and nothing to do but wait out the flood has left me pale. Drained the Texas color from my complexion. Today’s overcast but still that orb carries power. I think of how nice it was once I could leave my little patch of land post-flood. How I yearned to be outdoors but slunk into stupor.
I take note of all the flood has done. Uniform blasts of nature’s wrath. On either side dead trees litter each shore. I think of the power of the river. How during the flood this current carried cottonwoods as if they were light as paper. Moved tons of ice like little cubes. Those pieces flowed with trees and all else the flood sucked into its orbit. Then the water rose to fill yard, woods, and country. To cut me off from all.
Now in the kayak I see the aftermath of that power. Not deviance but nature’s indifference. A natural cycle that’s stacked dead trees to clusters, slammed them into fertile woods. They sit in sideways messes, bleached by sun, a mix of trunks, branches, debris. Nature’s simulacra of a nest.
I think of other country dwellers. How once I went into someone’s yard, asking a boy if I could fill my bottles. He pointed to a well from which I drew gallons. But I don’t see many homes or people. The river’s thought of as little more than a place to fish and find corpses. People drown and wash up each year. Those notions keep others out. That’s fine as I prefer to stick to myself. Embrace and embark into solitude.
Stroke by stroke I cut through mud muted water. Clouds and trees reflect off murky surface. A dirty mirror that distorts. Some upside down world that lives in the river. I enter this earth. Slice into its picture. The blade makes battle. Rippling water a portent of apocalypse. As I pass the world reforms. Annihilation in reverse.
Cottonwoods space the banks. These trees are almost done budding. Bits of fluff litter the air. Growth came late due to flood and low temps. Now flora’s in bloom. The woods all life and color. I’m sure I’ll spot the usual assortment of wood, sky, and river critters. Animals whose home I paddle through. Who hiss and honk at my presence. Who squawk and slip to subsurface.
I paddle into dusk. Into cool breeze though shorts and shirt are enough. As sun sets in the west, dying light on high water, I search for places to pitch the tent.
Other years it’s hard to score a spot. One every few miles or so. The banks too steep and high to climb. Too muddy. Too overgrown with sharp burrs and poky weeds. I’ve slept on lumpy ground and mud-fucked holes. In the midst of mosquitoes. In a cacophony of coyote yips come 2 a.m.
My first summer excursion all was wet. Barely knew what I was doing. I stepped in sludge to erect a broken tent. My body sunk in. Got swallowed up. Earth amputated legs beneath knees. I plopped the tent over these manmade sinkholes. Propped it up with broken poles.
That night it stormed, dumping rain and blasting wind. Water filled caverns beneath me. The shelter’s bottom turned wet as river. Lightning lit its interior like a bulb on the mend. I stayed up all night, soaked and shivering. Vowed to learn to do better.
Tonight I find a spot of flat bank. The river is almost level with it, no more than a couple feet off. I pick it for it’s full of deadfall: logs and branches smashed ashore. A standing pond of inland water means mosquitoes but that’s okay. I’ll swat the fuckers and eat their corpses. So I tow the kayak by its rope and fetch gear. After spreading tarp and propping tent I don boots and step inland.
My camp patch is dry but this is muck. The land is lower than where I parked. A natural dip. Nowhere for water to go. It seems the flood was only just swallowed by earth. Eaten by air. It’ll be a mess but that’s fine. For the next half hour I lug wood to shore. Logs and branches. They form a stack to burn for eternity.
From the kayak trunk I pull a vodka bottle. Inhale hot bug spray. It’s a shock to the system. The last time I drank was a night out before the flood marooned me. This cheap swill is a hard re-entry. I send it from throat to stomach in hopes it dilutes the blood. Cycles back and sticks its dick in my brain.
I pick some music and play it. With any road or river trip I find a song or album to score the journey. For this its “Innerbloom” by Rufus Du Sol. It fits the chill and expansive mood of sitting in nature alone, no signs of city or civilization. The downbeat ambiance brings me back to Bonnaroo. All those nights spent dancing ’til dawn.
The astral planes of Nowhere, North Dakota are often thick and lousy with light but not tonight. It’s all washed out. No stars, no streaks, no northern lights. Just murk the reflection of river. But the fire burns well. Gives color to night. I pick a stick and throw another log.
The fire gives guff by coughing ash and ember. I flick it off and swig a sting. The song plays on repeat and it’s beautiful. I’ve been waiting for this. For summer. For nights in nature. No sign of others. My desire to be alone as intense as ever.
I swig more and more and more. Go to the kayak and fill again. I don’t need it but don’t stop. Getting too drunk a first night on the river tradition. Tomorrow I’ll pay but for now I pour.
I throw all fuel on the fire. Let it roar. Flames ripping at sky. Sparks drifting up and turning to stars. The coal bed burns bright. So hot. My skin feels like the hood of a car left in desert. I turn from this heat. Lift body from earth. Stumble to tent and fall down. The world whirls and all is well.
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This is the first of a little series recounting my river trip. The other pieces will follow soon.
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