• Roberta Rathert

A Bowl of River.


Near the final days of my trip, I was paddling an enormous pool of river. Remarking to myself how vast it had become, the surface was fluctuating and pressing as if someone was holding a large and deep bowl filled with river in the palm of the hand, rocking it slightly. The water was making edge-to-edge movement behaving in a full and powerful way. It did not rise up over the bowl but went like a giant’s packed footsteps, heavy up then heavy down. I was paddling along this day watching sun move over the top of the thick water making shimmery special effects like a dressing glass and almost groaning from its own load. Of the miles I already skimmed over the Mississippi River, this pool’s flair was distinctive in its own. I imagined it an especially deep expanse of ground underneath to hold in this intensity of water and allow me to ride on top. The cresting ridges on each side were especially far apart and high reaching. I knew it was a dramatic place I was in, with this swaying motion beneath and rising earth to the sides.


After some hours going downstream here, my down-paddle hit something. It had happened before, so I thought nothing of it. Then the other down-side hit the same. It wasn’t solid like rock but an obvious something. I thought maybe fish, large Asian Carp, I wondered. Because I saw nothing, I kept my rhythm. Then both paddle sides hit again back and forth, twice each. I stopped the motion and held the paddle going blade-down, perpendicular to the water, then plunging as deep as it would go. This a usual thing I do to test depth of my situation and what might be below me – rocks, thick plant life, or a human-left thing. In this circumstance, my paddle blade went down but only as far as its drip ring when it hit something solid but soft. The water texture kept me from seeing it sooner, the bottom of this large body of water only eight inches below my boat. This river bottom was nothing but pure sand and only inches from me. I looked around. Water-topped sand as far as my eyes could see, at least as big as our old hayfield back home, pushed out in each direction. I continued my paddle work until my kayak jammed to a full stop on its keel. I was beached like an old, abandoned fishing boat in the center of a monstrous and moving pool of river water only inches deep.


Without leaving my seat, I scooted to move us forward, but nothing. We hit sandbars before but easily scudded out of the jam to keep underway. Earlier that day the skeg was dropped, so was it jammed deep in the sand bottom like a plow blade? I yanked on its cord to retract it but remained stuck hard. I rose from the cockpit to set foot on this sandy river bottom as cold water filled my wet shoes and grabbed at my river pants. I gripped the deck line and started walking, pulling my loaded kayak behind. I hiked half a mile down the middle of a massive river when suddenly, the sandy bottom dropped, instantly just gone. Jumping back to the cockpit, we swiftly paddled off. I now saw the reason I was a lone traveler on this wide shallow sweep of river.


Proven time and then again, this river was not to be trusted. If it were human, I could not accept its friendship. When humans are not what they show, it is complicated to be near them. How is it then with animals? They are generally what we expect just as we see them, consistent in behavior and true in meaning. A bear is frightening all the time, whatever it is doing for good reason, until humans have tampered to make it dance. Insects are nearly always what we think of them, limited as a basic organism and too simple to show deceit, or ego, and some pride of their own. As a beekeeper, I saw separate individual honeybees while at the hives, but so programmed in their ways, it was as if I was meeting the same bee over again every visit. They were doing the identical and obvious that I saw before and completely trustworthy in every way.


It’s the reliability part of birds that bonds us to them and their ways. In a small birdhouse near our kitchen window, a pair of house sparrows lives and has many babies turn out just like themselves. They lay egg after egg, repeating what they know. We say, “Oh look, they are back!” as if they’re our friends back from winter travel. We just assume these are the same individual birds who we’ve come to know and love who nested early in spring. Whatever is true, obvious, and repeatable helps relationships of any species or ways. Humans can be unreliable, doing the unexpected, then the predictable, whenever they want. There should be room for apprehension when around them, just like being on a river. Its sand bottom is shifty like a sea snake and the mud will cause one to sink. The river is feral even though people work to tame it, they’ve failed. Its energy has a mind of its own just like a human.



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