Paddling South Sample Chapter

Chapter 10.

“Can You See Anything?”

“Can you see anything?”

“How the Hell can I see anything, I’m sitting at the back!”

“What’s that?”

“Some truck starting up. Must be a mile off.”

“We must be in the middle somewhere.”

“What’s that?”

“Tree branch stuck in the water.”

“Looks like a snake. We must be moving pretty good for it to make that slurping noise.”

“More like ripping sound. Current must be doin’ five miles an hour.”

“Least.”

“We’re paddling about five, so we must be doing about ten.

“As fast as a man can run.”

“Where the Hell did this fog come from?”

“Water’s warmer than the air.”

“Ah shit, that’s all we need.”

“Snow, friggen, snot sucking, pain in the ass, snow.”

“Shit.”

“Shit.”

There was a girl in high school that had prominent eyes. It looked like she was constantly startled. Her nickname was ‘Road Kill’ because she looked like a deer caught in a car’s headlights. Road Kill had this huge ball of backcombed hair and several layers of mascara outlining the whites of her eyes. It was like she was daring you to notice her eyes. With an exaggerated casual effort I looked back at John. He had ‘Road Kill’s’ eyes. He looked back at me. I had them too.

“I’d say let’s head for shore if I knew where it was.”

“With all that crap and trees falling in the water, we’re safer out here.”

“Where’s here.”

“Minnesota.”

“Yeah! I know that but where?”

“Upper Mississippi”.

“Your just a Niagara Falls of information John.”

“You know if we tip, we don’t even know which way to swim.”

“Have you felt the water? We’d freeze to death before we got to shore.”

“I’ve been in white-outs before, but I’ll remember this one.”

“’Cause we’re outside. In a car you’re inside an warm.”

“We could get sucked into a power house, or over some rapids, or a falls…”
“John.”

“What?”

“Shut up, your’ scaring the crew.”

“John?”

“What?”

“Your eyes are bettern’ mine, are you sure you can‘t see anything?”

“All I can see is white. White snow, white fog, white rain, all white. Water’s black though.”

You get into a rhythm. The canoe rides like a 53 Cadillac, all soft and heavy. The paddles silent except for an infrequent gulping sound like a baby’s slurp. Your arms and back are warm with movement and pulsing blood. The canoe rising up and forward in a slow sensual cadence, settling between stokes but still gliding forward. There’s a small hiss as the two-inch bow wave slices the river. The water is just above freezing but the palms of your hands holding the paddle are warm. In the chill river air, steam from our efforts follows like a flag in the stillness, dissipating bit by bit, whispering away. The swaying bell movement of the canoe and the bending of arms is as ancient and as natural as the waving of bull rushes in a current. Silence and the paddle’s beat slowly puts your mind in a state of serene emptiness. Hours pass, lulled by the swish and sway, effortless effort and progression. Stroke, stroke, stroke.

“Watch out!”

“Left! Left!”

“C’mon!”

“We must be close to the bank.”

“No shit! I just about got guillotined by that dock. Lets find another dock and wait this out.”

“My sleeping bag is soaked. I can’t stop for the night. I need to find a town with a Laundromat. Let’s keep going.”

“Okay, but just remember I’m the one that’ll be sucked into that powerhouse intake first.”

“Yeah, yeah. You want some cheese with that whine Rance.”

“John?”

“What.”

“I never liked you.”

The paddles dug, and pulled, and abandoned the river leaving a line of dripping water to dig again, and pull again and again leave that line of water, over, and over, and over.

“John?”

“No I don’t see anything!”

“John?”

“What!”

“Do you hear that?”

“No. Well I heard voices a while back. High up. Must be a cliff around here.”

“I hear something. Kinda like a helicopter before you hear it. I feel it.”

“It’s a motor.”

“Big motor.”

“Traffic.”

“Train.”

“Yeah, it’s a train.”

The current increased. Something stuck deep in the river broke the surface and rooster-tailed the water like a mini U-Boat on a blood trail. We stopped paddling and watched it shoot by. It disappeared in the mist and snow. I held my paddle flat, outrigger style, in a small attempt to regain control. There was no movement from John so I knew he was doing the same. Water boils welled up and jostled the canoe, sending it zigzagging all over the river.

“I can’t see a thing.”

“Sure can feel the river though.”

We resumed paddling. Our paddling slowed, becoming tentative. The river had changed. Our paddling became erratic. Sometimes I would stroke and there would be no resistance. Once I pulled the paddle out of the water and looked at it because I was sure something had grabbed it. Blindfolded we rode the dragon.

“That’s a long friggen train.”

“Real long.”

“You think it’d be gone by now.”

“It’s gotta be close, even the air’s shaking.”

“Finally. Look it’s the train bridge.”

Out of the fog and snow of the late afternoon gloom the black shapes of pylons rose from the mists of the river. The river smoothed out. Strange, the fog was deeper on the other side of the bridge. All there was beyond the pylons, was white. Even the black river disappeared into rumbling white.

“It’s a dam! It’s a dam! That’s not a bridge! Back! Go back! It’s a spillway!

”Jeeezzzus Murphy!”

“Hurry! Turn around! Go Back!”

“Come on…come on…come on! Harder! Harder!”

“Over there! Angle over there! Pull!”

“Harder! Harder!”

We hung on for several minutes as the current pulled us towards the rumbling invisible. We paddled. Oh God how we paddled. We just couldn’t beat the current. It was faster than we could paddle. From deep down we pulled. The thunder from the water matched the roaring from our ears. Throats raw from effort and fear we dug and pulled and clawed. First one way then another. Achingly slow we paddled at an angle from the brink. Like a python releasing prey the reluctant river spat us out the side of the spillway.

We followed the lip of the dam to the bank of the river. We ran the boat up into the riverbank by a grassy picnic area. For long minutes we hunched in our canoe not moving except for our heaving chests. I felt the boat shudder as John discarded snow, sweat and fear. I stared at the snowflakes melting one by one on my shaking hands.