When I go kayaking with my mother, we usually go on the tidal part of the river, which opens out onto Long Island Sound. The trip almost always begins down by the big rock across from the nature preserve, on a private ‘beach’ that is about the size of two Honda Civics parked end-to-end. We get out on the river, and, depending on the tide, go out towards the sound and into some of the other branches of the river and the marshlands, or we go up to the dam if the tide is flowing in. We’ve never gone beyond the dam, for obvious reasons. It’s kind of hard to navigate your kayak over an artificial rock wall four times as high as you are.
Today, she said that she’d arranged to borrow a friend’s kayaks. They live on the “pond” on the other side of the dam… the upper river. And it’s been kind of a grail for me. The lower, tidal, river, is a sort of elegant representation of the Tree of Life. but of course, it’s impossible to travel beyond the abyss, or in this case, beyond the artificial cliff of the dam, without special technique. Or, at least, borrowed kayaks and a different launching point.
The Upper River is beautiful. Of course, the part directly above the dam is where we put in. I was able to kayak close enough to the dam that I could look down into the spray-dappled water, and see where I usually nose my boat up against the wall to be dappled by the fresh water coming down. It was an odd experience to be on the other side of this moment, and facing into the water. I’ve said in the past that it’s an entirely different experience to arrive at a familiar place by a water-route. There’s a coffee-house, two towns over from my parents, on a mill pond, and if you time things just right, you can drink a latte on the paddle back (or you can drink lattes in the coffee house while waiting for the tide to return, or you can try walking your kayak home).
Anyway, it’s still another experience to arrive at a familiar place by an unfamiliar water route. And to arrive, not below the bridge of a familiar road, but above it, looking down at it, yet still on the water, knowing a gentle waterfall lies just beyond that… that… edge.
The water was smoother than glass on the trip upriver. Gradually the houses faded into the background. They were ostentatious along the ‘pond’ just above the dam, but as the waters narrowed, the houses became older, smaller, more refined. the river narrowed still further — became shallower. The brown stones on the bottom of the river became visible, and the small fish darting in the depths — hardly deep enough for me to wade in. We went around several bends and narrows, found ourselves at the next bridge on the river, next to the store that’s been open since before my grandparents were born. My friend Craig says that there’s always a restaurant at the end of the universe, or at least a general store. Siduri the barmaid keeps odd hours. But still we paddled on, until we started feeling raindrops through the leaves overhead. (The end of the universe turns out to be a bright green tunnel of oaks and maples, with a narrow river running between them… ever onward, further up and further in). Under the last bridge, past Utnapishtim’s house over there on the left… is that Gilgamesh’s hammock?
The rains started.
The paddle back was hard. So hard. The wind was in our faces. The rain was on us. The water was choppy and slopping into our kayaks, mine and my mother’s. Even with all this turmoil and excitement, though, there was no lightning. The storm clouds gathered but they just drizzled. The fog threatened to descend, but the mists never enveloped us. The way back was always clear.
After a good hard slog, we made it back to the dock, stepped out on to Ratziel’s front porch, said thank you to the men who were washing windows and doors in preparation for a party tonight, starting around sundown. All the brightest stars will be there.
It seems a very ordinary thing to return to the world I know after being in a place so long sought, so long imagined, that turned out to be nothing like what I expected. So normal, so very normal, and yet utterly and completely its own place. I look forward to going back, soon. Maybe even in my own kayak, next time, in the mysterious further reaches of the upper river.