The current has microcurrents which go willy nilly every way, sometimes when the paddle pushes forward it's resisting instead of adding. You can sense the bottom based on how the surface yields and swirls. I've never seen so many whirlpools. Porter teaches me how to find the current. This is the part of the river that is deepest, and so fastest. It's running near the steeper bank, always. Between the current and the bank, the deepest whirlpools turn, carving out the top of the water. One day my kayak will get sucked into one, but today I steer clear into the safer, deeper waters.
I'm learning to read the surface of the water, I'm teaching my paddle to work with the force of the river. The birds dip and swoon: eagles, hawks, finches, more than I know names for. The rest of the Kaw is quiet. We are far enough away from civilization that there is no evidence of man's footprint on the world, only push of current and push of paddle.
There is no hurry here, there are no phones, no traffic, no transactions, no interruptions. My mind is effortless in a way I've never known before. I know I belong here, it's like you can't choose who you fall in love with, and I can't help that this is my unexpected home. There are no invasive thoughts, no keeping up with mental to do lists. There is no worry of where is he and what is she and how are they and when will I. There is no worry.
There is a sandbar. The river is low.
Porter and I get out to explore and eat. He has hunks of beef rib, I have bananas and apples. We bank our boats and step onto the temporary island, still against the water's ceaseless drive. We walk out together, sand in toes. The quiet is extraordinary. Porter and I fit as river companions, both appreciating the river for itself. We have no need to impose narratives on the moment.
Suddenly, behind us, is a tremendous burst of noise. Both of us pivot simultaneously and become the centerpiece of a rush of Barn Swallows in a ballet of flight. They swoop down and around us, circle the sandbar, dozens of wings in furious and gentle synchronized, chaotic motion. No birds crash or fall, they have that sense of surroundings and fearless movement that is the heart of why I love the river. This is what I am here to learn.
There are shallow rivulets running through the sandbar, the water is cold cold and powerful even in the crosscurrent shallows. Porter says
Lay at the foot of the rivulet. Feel the river run over you.
This is the heart of the day. As I lay in the shallow delta, the river pushes, the wind caresses, the mind succumbs to peacefulness. I evaporate, my body feels the pull of gravity. I have this feeling I call ocean size. It is when my mind stops the monkey business and I feel fully part of the world, fully connected, as all oceans are really one ocean, as sky seeps the ocean from its surface and drops it as rain, as the water connects every part of the world: necessary, dangerous, impenetrable, penetrating. In this micro-delta, I am beyond ocean size, I am planetary: dissolved and complete. Porter takes my photo, sensing the importance of this moment for me.
We continue. There is sun and bird. There is current and push. I see some strange creature swimming across the river. Porter says
I don't know what that is. Never seen anything like it. Don't think I can catch it, though.
I say: I can!
I paddle upriver, I'm pushing with all my might. I'm swinging left and right of this strange little animal who is bobbing its head up and down, but never coming up for air. I can't make heads or tails of it. It looks like a stick, maybe its a snake. It's heading for the opposite bank relentlessly but it doesn't seem to be making any progress. Porter is hollering for me to give up and come on down the river.
Some things are meant to be left to the imagination. He says.
(On the drive home I realize this event is the equivalent of snipe hunting in the suburbs. It really was a stick the whole time. Sticks get stuck in the river and create the craziest illusions of life. Porter let me fall for it hook, line and sinker, the stinker! I hope he had a good laugh and that someone had done the same to him long ago!)
We continue along, the sun continues along, the five mile stretch is closing.
We stop at another sandbar. Eat more. Mostly just biding time, not wanting to be done with the day. We treasure hunt, I find a bird leg bone, a turtle shell. We walk the edge of the islet and talk about how the water cuts the sand in different ways. We watch the tracks of the birds. As we walk back to the boats, there are coyote tracks running perpendicular to the way we'd walked down the sandbar.
There's no way we missed these tracks on the way down. I say.
Let's follow back to our first tracks. He says.
Sure enough, the coyote has passed silently behind us at some point in our leisure. We find his tracks over ours.
We follow the coyote tracks along their length. Its clear where he sees a bird and begins chasing it down, the tracks weave in and out of the water in it's fowl chase until there's a chaotic whirlwind of wing edges and close paw prints where the bird met its demise. The coyote tracks head back into the water completely then. Porter and I continue back to the boats, about to meet our own end of the day.
I have a feeling I'm about to find something cool.
He says. We both snicker a little, knowing these are generally famous last words. And at that moment, Porter looks down and finds the jaw bone of a deer. This is an old deer, long in the tooth is not a metaphor. You can see years of wear and exposed gums. This is an animal that ruled and lived. Lived hard and learned to survive. This is what I want to learn from the wild.
Our jump off spot approaches. We swing into the eddy of the crush of the creek into the Kaw and begin the struggle up current. There have been tremendous storms in the past few weeks, and while we didn't see evidence of that on the river, the creek is totally blocked up by fallen trees. I take the lead into the creek and begin navigating the detritus. The creek is faster than it would otherwise be, rapids created around the fallen trunks and leaves-laden branches.
There comes a point where I choose to climb on the bank and walk over land, dragging my kayak for about 10 feet to avoid a rapid spot. I climb out of the kayak onto a rock and grab the paddle and step confident as you please
what I now know is
I sink to my knees instantly. Two things also instantly cross my mind:
The mythbusters said to fall and distribute your weight evenly.
So I fall.
My shoes are gonna get sucked off by the mud.
So I clench up my toes to hang onto my shoes. There is no way I'd make it the rest of the way without shoes. You may not know that when you pull out of quickmud, it doesn't give up on you. I now have an inch of mud clinging to my legs, and to the left half of my body where I fell. I also have the ability to visually tell the difference between quickmud and regular mud. Which means I see I have 10 more feet of quickmud to get through. So I commando crawl my way across, dragging paddle and kayak and tits and loose shoes and elbows and knees through more more more quickmud. I am covered in mud goober, I'm taking part of this river home with me.
At the end of the crawl, I jump back in the boat and push to the loading dock where we exit the river. Standing in the calm of the dock, it takes a long time to wipe all the mud off. Look at those shoes!
The sun is setting. Porter and I share a nip of spiced rum in celebration and for warmth. Parting ways and returning to the fast, worrisome world is what must be done. We will pay bills, raise children, run errands, chase dreams.
We will keep the river within.