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Seven Lengths of Vermont 

Connecticut River: Paddle Buddy meets the Actual

It was Friday night, and my dad, whom I hadn’t seen since we’d come off the river a week earlier, was in a cheeky mood. All twinkle-eyed, he kept saying, “I don’t want to influence the article you’re writing about our trip, but you might consider throwing in phrases like ‘handsome bowman,’ ‘fit and dedicated 61-year-old father,’ or even something as simple as ‘excellent paddle buddy.’”

I told him I liked that phrase — paddle buddy — but that my inclination was to focus more on the river than on us. The river, I thought, is the real character in this story. Or maybe it’s more like a community of characters: the sexy, curvy lady; the old man in a smoke-colored suit; the Zen priest; the marathon walker; the sleepy, yawning child.

“If I were to write about you at all,” I told my dad, “it’d probably be in the service of describing the river, the subtle ways it works over dinky little humans like us.”

He nodded. A week at the office swimming upstream against emails, meetings, assignments and stress had undoubtedly taken its toll, but the memory of our time on the real river was still fresh. He’d partaken in the flow. The silt was under his fingernails. “Which is just to say,” I went on, “that I’d probably write about the time I thought you’d died.”

“You mean when we flipped in the rapid and the canoe shot into the air and I got sucked back up into the whitewater and disappeared?” he said, excited.

In the approximately 260 miles of river that we explored between the small town of Canaan and the small town of Vernon — miles rich in bald eagles, smallmouth bass, slapping beaver’s tails, oxbows, covered bridges, party barges, cornfields, submerged tires, protruding logs, lily pads and drifty clouds — there was only one spot where a paddler might actually flip his craft and disappear beneath a ferocious bulb of muscled water. I recalled swimming out of that bulb, turning around to make sure Dad was following and seeing only his hat floating after me. For all I knew, the river had him in a headlock.

“No, not that time,” I said, smiling. “The other time I thought you’d died.”

Day four. Early afternoon. Sky like a low, gray ceiling. We weren’t really in Ryegate, Vt., or in Bath, N.H.; rather, we were between the two, me in the stern, Dad in the bow, both of us dipping, pulling and redipping our paddles to the same unheard but deeply felt beat.

Here was the heart of a 7.2-million-acre watershed — the wet middle — and a feeling of statelessness or, understood from another angle, of bioregional centeredness. As Gary Snyder says in an essay on sense of place, “… nature, which is actual, is almost a shadow world now, and the insubstantial world of political jurisdictions and rarefied economies is what passes for reality.” Technically, New Hampshire owns the river all the way over to the Vermont shore. Try telling that to the eagles and rotten logs and long-distance canoeists.

The river was “actual”: 500 feet wide, fringed with patches of marsh, walled in by steep, wooded banks. There were no camps on the shore or other boats on the water. A great blue heron prowled the shallows off the starboard side; a belted kingfisher rattled its call down from a twiggy perch to port. Our map showed a dam five miles downstream at Dodge Falls; it would be the seventh of 12 that we would portage around over the course of a week. Some dams were breached, their broken concrete blocks overgrown with wildflowers. Others were close to 200 feet tall, gloomy, noisy, cranking out power. Many backed the river up into a flat, black, unmoving lake. The dam at Dodge Falls was one of these.

An eastern kingbird curled after insects in buoyant, acrobatic sallies, reminding me, by contrast, of my midday, flat-water fatigue. My dad must have felt the same because, without saying anything or even looking at me, he stowed his paddle and lay back, resting his head on one of the big, rubber dry bags tucked in behind his seat. It was a surprisingly comfortable-looking boat-bed, almost like a cradle, and the first time I’d seen him use it. He lay with his eyes closed, face to the sky. I kept paddling. Ten minutes later, realizing that he hadn’t twitched, shifted or made a single noise, I began to wonder. The cradle looked a little like a coffin. I jerked the canoe with a few deliberately crappy strokes … but nothing.

There were two potential explanations. The first was our daily routine. At 7 a.m., I’d wake up, boil coffee on a stove in the tent vestibule, scratch my bug-bitten, ivy-poisoned ankles and read from Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Though written in 1839 on a different waterway (and published in 1849), Thoreau’s observations hold true for the Connecticut. He describes fishermen in their skiffs floating through the reflections of trees, birds flitting through the reflections of trees, trees reaching down to touch the reflections of trees, and the perceptual challenges of looking through the reflections of trees to the pebbly or muddy or weedy river bottom below.

In a burst of early-American eco-terrorist rhetoric, Thoreau even endorses taking a crowbar to the dam at Billerica, Mass., in the name of free shad. Free Shad! Return to the Actual! Along with the instant-coffee sludge, these passages got me psyched for another 10 hours at the helm.

Ten hours — that’s about how long we’d paddle each day, sometimes with the help of a rippling current, sometimes with the help of a lesser current, the kind not felt in the body but noticed in the motion of goose feathers and pollen swirls on the river’s elastic surface. As I’ve mentioned, there were long, straight, flat stretches as well. And there was tedium, too, a dull pain in the shoulders.

Don’t get me wrong: It wasn’t like moving sofas or chopping wood or anything. In a canoe you’re sitting. You’re taking breaks to swim, snack on peanuts or cast the fishing pole (that is, until you lose the rods to the whitewater). When bridge shadows band your shirtless chest, you pull over to a sandy beach, and Dad scrambles up to the road. He’s carrying empty water bottles, searching for a gas station. You stay by the river, twiddling your toes, not wanting to risk breaking that spell, that centeredness, that has taken hold of your mind and body with its damp, soft hand.

Dad returns with potato chips, chocolate and — what?! — a Styrofoam container of General Tso’s chicken from some Chinese take-out joint. You remind him that a bad sandwich crippled you with gut pain during the trip’s all-night-first-night thunderstorm, but it doesn’t seem to register. He’s looking over the map, sticky white rice clinging to his beard. And then you’re paddling again.

Paddling again, paddling again, paddling again. The river meanders through open farm valleys and pinched, misty canyons, past green tractors in green fields and a red fox running. It rolls on toward evening: 30 miles, 35, 40. Its persistence is intense, its “ancient, ineradicable inclination to the sea” (as Thoreau puts it) both mesmerizing and exhausting. There’s no stopping. The river is an arrow pointing in one direction, call it Vernon or call it Long Island Sound. If a cradle should appear on some dreary afternoon, almost anybody — fit and dedicated 61-year-old father or not — would surely accept the offer.

There was something about the way Dad eased from uprightness to nap time, though, something so calm and deliberate and final about it, I had to consider another explanation as well. Perhaps, I thought, he’d altogether let go of the “insubstantial world” above the bank. Perhaps he’d become one with the river. Perhaps he was matching its horizontality with his own. It didn’t strike me as the least bit tragic. For days now, the fish had been jumping and the birds diving, everything converging at the same spot on the same blank plane of water where an insect is swallowed, where dry meets wet, light meets dark, life meets death. I could feel it: Dad had chosen this. He was bowing out with style, embracing his place in the Actual.

A spider walked toward me on the plastic gunwale. My paddle dripped and dove. The dam would appear soon, and I’d have to make a decision. Do I go find help, make phone calls, break the news and the spell of the river? (I suspected sadness would start to sink in if I left the river corridor.) Or do I throw Paddle Buddy over my shoulder, portage him around the dam like Thoreau would a sack of melons and potatoes, and return for the canoe and dry bags on a second trip? The river was such a mellow place, so peaceful and serene. If Dad really had Gone Actual, why not enjoy a few last days together? On the other hand, my neck still felt cramped from previous portages, and I doubted I had enough peanuts to fuel the extra labor.

The spider transitioned from the gunwale to the glossy varnish of my paddle shaft, moving in the direction of my hand. There was so much river left ahead of us, I thought, digging in harder, the canoe lunging forward. So many more clover-field campsites and osprey nests — quick rains, crayfish, rope swings. Every day at 5 p.m., Dad had insisted we stop for a pre-evening swim, and when we got back in the canoe, wet and refreshed, he’d tell me that these last couple hours were his favorites. I knew what he meant; the paddling was not a chore but a meditation, the sun not set but setting.

Five o’clock would be upon us soon. I dug in harder. I knew what I had to do. Paddle Buddy would have wanted it this way.

And then, as easily and unassumingly as he’d slumped down, Dad sat up. He didn’t look at me. Neither of us said a word. He lifted his paddle, and on we went.

Years ago I had a philosophy professor who argued that ancient Greek psychology was rooted in the idea that “you become like the object you intend,” which is just a fancy way of saying that the things we focus on, spend time with, commit our senses to and think about have a way of sneaking inside us and transforming who and what we are. For example: If you eat beside a river, sleep beside a river, bathe in a river, stare at a river and basically live on a river for 150 hours with minimal interruption, you will become like that river. You may not look like it, but you will feel like it. You will feel less like yourself, or at least less like your “regular” self, the one too often struggling against a current of emails, stress and rarefied, insubstantial whatever.

So, then, what’s it like to feel like a river? Is it like a delightful version of multiple personality disorder; like becoming a sexy lady, an old man, a Zen priest, an endurance athlete and a drowsy child all at once? Or is it more like the converse, all the river’s different faces and qualities collapsing in on themselves to form one unified body, a body of water? Sitting at the helm for 10 hours a day, thinking my bioregional thoughts, I often recalled that my body is primarily made of water. I saw my fluid self as just another drop shuttled by the topography into this larger central flow. I saw myself absorbed, like water in water. In a way, it was like death, like losing yourself in something bigger; some ancient, ineradicable inclination.

But that’s some soggy nonsense. That’s a rambling man with silt still fresh beneath his fingernails. Feeling like a river is nothing so poetic or philosophical or complicated at all. You stow your paddle, lean back against a dry bag, ease off into dream. The sky is gray. A spider crawls up your arm. A white bird flies low, bending its wings to touch their own reflections. A tree looks at itself, closes its eyes, leans out to kiss a mirror with its leaves. Everything is soft, rounded, actual and OK. Even the Chinese food is sitting all right.

You wake up. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re still dreaming. You feel like a river and you feel like yourself. You grab your paddle, dig deep, pull — and everything glides.

This is the fifth in Vermonter Leath Tonino’s “Seven Lengths of Vermont” series, each a different outdoor adventure in which he experiences the natural sights, sounds, smells, seasons and people over a year in his beloved state. His first essay was published in Seven Days on November 30, 2011. See the sidebar for links to the previous essays.

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