• Roberta Rathert

Water.


When young, I was not wild but said yes to many things. Twice I went to distant mountains and stayed so high and deep in that the only way down was a rough dirt road of tire furrows. I had no vehicle of my own to ride on those well-worn grooves, so I remained there for weeks at a time.


Nearby where I stayed was a cave that drew the interest of three others and me. Inside the cave was a crack in the stone just the right size to slip through to miles of rocky mysterious tunnels. There was a drop off that we crossed by pressing our knees against opposite walls and sliding over the narrowed gulley below. It fell below us into darkness and farther than we could see. After this crawl, a second crack was revealed in the darkness lit only by our headlamps. This one smaller than the original entrance so I was chosen to explore it as the narrowest person at the time. I went down on my belly to twist into the hollow on the other side, coiling like a spiral to get in. The room was so black I could not see my hand at my face and had no idea if there was a cut ahead or other obstacle to my front. I had first sight of this space when my headlamp was passed through to me. I was in a tiny room, unusually round with sharp creases on the interior surface. It was too small for me to stand so less than five feet for its height. The floor had two parts, the upper where I sat then a step down to the other.


My light shone a glow on the lower floor and I realized it was an indiscernible pool of water that was clear, smooth, and still. I shouted about it causing excitement beyond the door as my companions, unable to see it, took my word about its beauty. The miniature pond was a foot deep, its floor mirroring the dry one above. Reaching my hand through the crystalline surface, I felt the coldness of this untouched and hidden water. I went down into it, my arm covered to the shoulder. Still, I did not feel the bottom. I put in my foot, then my leg, but it was deeper than all this. The illusion of its shallowness has been on my mind these many years since. I still wonder about its depth if it ever came to an end somewhere. Water. It is not of us and we have no say how it goes. It is wild and peaceful. It does what it wants. I did not know this before that moment.


On a winter day I found a narrow river where the ice surface was snow-covered and drifting. Near the edges, the snow had blown aside revealing cold hard ice smooth enough to slide on. I did just this, trying to miss the hard knots that were frozen to the ice face when I suddenly dropped into the water below. A thin seam broke beneath me and I slipped right through. The winter wind was cold above but the ice water below took away my breath. I knew I was in trouble. I don’t know how I got out or warmed up again but the next day in town, a man I didn’t know leaned over and said, “I heard you almost drowned.” The water was wild, strong, and dangerous. The first I’d known water so deadly.


I jumped into an ocean swell once at the southwest corner of Mexico, not aware of how deep or feral it was beneath. It was only an instant when I found myself upside down and tossed in loud booming suds, so swift that I didn’t even know I stopped breathing. I have no memory how long this water had me wrapped in it, but when I got free, I crawled to the sand gasping and wondering what became of my sunglasses. This water, so untamed no one should be in it. Not even me.


Water. It is everything. It kills us and saves us. It gives life and suffocates. It moves us and snares us. Mississippi River water is all these things. It is stagnant and rushing, calm and frightening, it is magical and mundane. I needed water, so thirsty I couldn’t douse it this entire day. Water was everywhere, I was on it and it was on me. But like floating on a saltwater ocean, thirst can still kill a human. Today I was on so much water but craved so much more to drink.


Up ahead I thought I saw a pirate ship. A man was onboard tending something on deck. As I approached, I saw his hair and beard white as sugar and his t-shirt read, “Pirate’s Pit Stop.” He turned and leaned to grab the bow of my kayak and secured it to a cleat on his ship. “I’m Whitey,” he said. A sign ran across the top of his ship, “snacks, pop, beer, supplies, gas.” I ordered two cold bottles of pop hoping to satisfy this thirst while Whitey sat above me on the deck. He told of all the owners before him and how the ship became his. There were two gas pumps on the pirate deck where boaters were filling up for their day of fun. I said yes when Whitey offered to fill my water jugs, then watched him walk over a long boardwalk away from the ship to a parking lot where he drove off in a golf cart to somewhere I couldn’t see. A woman was backing up her food truck to sell cheeseburgers and a campground was under a rail bridge to the rear. If it wasn’t so early, I would stay, I thought. There are campsites, people, cheeseburgers, and the ice water Whitey is bringing. Instead, I paddled down the remainder of Picayune to Bunker Chute where I asked some fishermen why the water was foamy. As if someone flung them from shore, these suds were in large clumps with blackened tops and dirty underneath. One fisherman thought a minute then said maybe the dam below or the chemicals upriver, not sure and he didn’t seem to care. They were there for catfish or just any fish, they said, and the suds did not bother them at all.


After Bunker Chute, I crossed the channel as quickly as I could and went along Hurricane Island’s east bank. I could avoid the heavy weekend boating that was on the west and I was not up for the traffic. I believed it was the way to go. I paddled hard without break as I watched a cruiser barreling my way. I did not have time to stop for a drink, so I made a run for it toward Hurricane instead.


The day was nearly over when I found the dredge island, a sand field an acre or more in mass. Its top was pressed with rows of skid tracks from when it was pushed flat. Green growth was fresh but covering the entire large surface as if planted by a person. The sides were steep with occasional gentle slopes and flat sand that I was certain could be used for sleep. I felt worn and hungry, especially parched and very tired too. As I paddled, just below Rosebrook Island, I scanned the dredge sand for a spot to make my camp when my eyes set on the perfect place that was fronted by an enormous lake of still water. This was a stump field made decades earlier when the dam flooded a vast woodland that had just been cut low. The stumps still underwater are a hazard to boaters unless it is a kayak skimming the top.


For this evening, the sand beach and water were mine. I was so hot, I stripped down and took a plunge, then rested in the shade of my tent. Still so thirsty and tired, I called home. My heart was racing and my head pounding. Something was wrong.


Stump Field

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