With the Flow
The bow of my canoe says hush-h-h!, carving into the muddy sand. I obey and get out on the small stretch of beach, grateful for the chance to stretch my legs. The damp sand, still warm from a day of full sun, feels good underfoot. I'm in no hurry; I decide to unpack my camp chair, sit and enjoy the last hour or so of a clear, quiet, perfect day on the river.
A few hours ago, as I paddled past this very spot, I'd surprised a confab of red horse suckers in the shallows, their flight churning up plumes of sediment like so many cartoon dialog bubbles: "Zoom!" "Whoosh!" I love catching red horse, so I bait my hook with a night crawler and throw it out to the spot and let it sit. I keep one eye on the hanging arc of line, while the other scans the river.
A vulture, working circles just above the treetops, casts a darting black dot in the reflection.
Here on the Minnesota side of the St. Croix River, the sun's clicking off the last few degrees of its arc across a cloudless sky. As my little beach welcomes the shade, the forest across the way on the Wisconsin side glows with that rich, warm light that distills out of normal light just before sunset—the kind that artists love.
The northwesterly breeze, hazy with smoke from Canadian forest fires, has died down now, and the water's surface mirrors the golden sand banks and a hundred shades of green from the far shore. Even a vulture, working circles just above the treetops, casts a darting black dot just below them in the reflection.
A thousand insects have begun their evening chorus with a constant, high-pitched sizzle.
Instead of red horse, I'm catching bass— smallies. I'm surprised they're going for the weeks-old, nearly lifeless night crawlers I've brought. I play them for a minute or two, admire their elegant, muscular beauty and let them go. But for their obvious annoyance, I convince myself they're none the worse for wear. I wish they could tell me so.
From the woods behind me blue jays scold; across the river, a crow shouts them down. Still deeper in the forest, a thousand insects have begun their evening chorus, a constant, high-pitched sizzle. The percussion section chimes in—a throaty squawk that reminds me of a güiro, the hollow, grooved gourd played like a washboard in Latin music. I've never heard this one before; some kind of katydid, I suppose.
Just as I'm starting to believe there's really two of everything on the far shore, a motor boat goes by, addling the reflection…and me.
As the colors on the Wisconsin shore deepen, a bald eagle works his way resolutely northward toward the high rock cliffs, his size and majestic wing flaps making the vulture look scrawny, awkward.
Just as I'm starting to believe there's really two of everything on the far shore, a motorboat goes by, addling the reflection…and me. I watch patiently as both gradually regain their composure. I'm grateful this boat is the only one I've seen today.
I visualize the one-foot-thick vertical slice of water that's passing me in this instant, and wonder where it will be at this time tomorrow, next week, next month.
Though the river appears very still, a few floating leaves and sticks betray its slow, silent power. This is the quality of rivers that moves me the way the tides move sea-lovers. Every time you look, it's a new river. I visualize the one-foot-thick vertical slice of water that's passing me in this instant, and wonder where it will be at this time tomorrow, next week, next month. Will it outrun sub-zero temperatures before they catch and detain some of it till spring?
Now, as the sun sets behind me, the mosquitoes come on in their blood-lust. I appreciate the dragonflies that dart around me, picking them off in mid-air. Once again I avoid having to test the potency of my 30-year-old army surplus deet.
The shadow line crawls visibly up the trees on the other side, slowly snuffing what's left of the stubborn sunlight. As if on cue, the evening's first bard owl inquires in its inimitable cadence, "Who, who, who-who; who, who, who-whoo-o-o?" The sound echoes the sensation I remember when, as a child, I'd first come down to the river by myself at dusk—only then the owl didn't accompany a near-full moonrise.
Might an Ojibwe or Dakota elder have stood in this very spot three centuries ago and experienced the very same sensations I'm feeling now?
The sun now departed, the day's warmth takes the hint and follows. A palpable wave of cool, damp, muddy-moldy-smelling air is pouring down the valley and envelopes me. And I wonder, Might an Ojibwe or Dakota elder have stood in this very spot three centuries ago and experienced the very same sensations I'm feeling now? Was this just another day at the office for him, or did he share the sense of wonder and gratitude I'm feeling now?
Taking this thought with me, I pack up, drift quietly back down to the landing and head home. But my reverie lasts, the memory of this final hour etched forever into my heart and soul. I feel so in harmony with the flow of the St. Croix and the ways in which it parallels my life.
Perhaps most importantly, it reminds me that I'm so much more than simply an observer of life's flow as it moves inexorably past.
I'm on it. I'm in it. I'm part of that flow, connected with other places and other times, with the rocks and sands that contain it, with all those slinking, swimming, soaring creatures that are drawn to it as I am, and with every single human being who's ever let himself be swept away by its wonder.
Jeffrey Willius is a Minneapolis writer. His blog, One Man’s Wonder (www.OneMansWonder.com), encourages followers to put this sped-up, dumbed-down world in its place and reclaim awareness, curiosity and wonder.
Willius's first book, Under the Wild Ginger – A Simple Guide to the Wisdom of Wonder, is scheduled for release this October.