Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Memories: Up the Stream

From time to time I plan to make a new type of post, called Memories, where I describe some facet of my life before MS. I hope you enjoy these digressions. 

Up the Stream

Most of the leaves had fallen from the trees, so you couldn't call it autumn. Although a few flakes had sputtered in the air, there was no snow on the ground, so you couldn't call it winter. In Maine, we just called it deer season.

With the 20 foot aluminum canoe half in the water and half on land, my father would waddle down the length of the canoe into his seat, while I held the bow to steady the vessel. It was always crisp and cold when I heaved the canoe into the frigid currents of Passadumkeag Stream and deftly jumped on board. We were so well practiced in the launching procedure that no conversation was necessary.

As soon as I sat down in my seat, rifle in hand, my father would begin to crank on the 6 horsepower Johnson outboard, establishing a rhythmic cadence. The sounds from the engine would inform us of which pull had been successful. I listened with anticipation, because if the process took too long my job was to frantically paddle the canoe clear of the downstream rocks. For a teenage boy it was unpleasant to deal with the downstream rocks, and equally unpleasant to deal with a frustrated father.

But on most days, within a few pulls the engine would fire. A pungent, gray cloud of exhaust would spew into the air. The little motor would sputter and chug and then settle into a steady hum. Dad would put the transmission into forward gear, and open the throttle. The only way to know for certain when we were prevailing over the force of the current, and making headway up the stream, was to pick a spot on the shore and verify which way we were moving relative to it. If you only looked down at the water rushing by, you thought you were going a hundred miles an hour.

We launched early in the morning, so as to land the canoe and be situated at our prime, upstream hunting locations before the deer bedded down for the day. But there was always enough emerging sunlight to expose the outline of the stream and the surrounding woods. At that time of day no colors exist, only black and white- like watching the world through an old Zenith TV set, but without the horizontal hold adjustments.

Once we gained speed the cold wind would cut through our heavy wool clothing. There was no stopping it. There would be shell ice along the shore, which would form each night and melt each day. The wake created by our motorized canoe would reach shore 30 or 40 feet behind us, loudly shattering the thin ice.

As we continued up the stream more light would spill over the horizon, and the landscape would unveil itself. The shades of gray would mingle and dance with the deep blue of the rushing water, the various yellows and greens of the wild grass, and the reds, golds, and burnt orange of the autumn leaves that still clung to the trees or laid on the forest floor. Mallards, wood ducks, and black ducks would explode into a flurry of feathers and water, beating their wings and zipping down their wet runways, taking flight to escape our intrusion. Beavers would slap their wide, flat tails on the surface of the water in disgust, and then retreat to their lodges. Perfect V-formations of Canadian Geese would glide overhead toward their winter homes, guided by some invisible, primal navigator.

For the first few minutes of our upstream voyage the waterway felt intimate, with trees growing up to, and even leaning well over the shoreline. But as we approached the first big meadow, the true grandeur of Passadumkeag Stream would emerge. If not for the height of the grass relative to the canoe, you could see great distances. Therefore, it was my job to stand up at the bow of the moving canoe and scan the meadows on both sides for deer, alternately using my naked eyes and the high powered scope on my rifle. Although I had a life preserver, it rested on the floor of the canoe. We rarely spotted deer in this way, but we felt obligated to try nonetheless.

Small islands of higher ground were scattered throughout the grassy meadows, often with a solitary tree standing guard. Meandering brooks weaved their way through the larger meadows, the incessant flow of water having carved out their paths over a period of hundreds, no, thousands of years. Behind the meadows sat rolling hills of hardwoods mixed with ancient spruce, pine, and hemlock. Common sense suggested that I conduct my standing survey of the meadows expeditiously, because canoes are tippy by nature. But I couldn't help myself, and would remain erect in the front of the canoe much longer than was necessary or prudent. Dad thought I was a dedicated scout, but I was more of a reverential witness.

Eventually we would arrive at any of several hunting destinations on the stream, with names like Oak Point, Big Island, or Behind the Camp. Having previously discussed our strategy for the day, we would tie the canoe to a tree and then each fade into the woods, silently and separately. At the agreed-upon time we would meet at the canoe and head back downstream to the boat launch. Every once in a while we would be fortunate enough to bring home a deer, but our appreciation for the day was not contingent upon that.

The stream was our portal from civilization to wilderness, from necessarily complex lives to temporarily simpler ones. It was inanimate, yet it was alive- breathing, moving, mysterious. It would swallow you up if you made a mistake. But if you allowed yourself to converse with the stream, it spoke to you, revealing secrets and inspiring wonder.

photo courtesy of http://penobscotpaddles.blogspot.com/


  1. Criminy, your writing is just beautiful. Maybe you should have been writing for some publication on the side all those engineering years.......Ginny (who doesn't want to hear about any cute deer getting shot)

  2. An essay just perfect for Field and Stream, which my father used to subscribe to back in his day.

  3. Ginny,

    I looked through all my old photos to see if I could find a good picture of Passadumkeag stream. However, I noticed that they all included dead deer, and I thought of you, so I didn't use them :-)


    That magazine was a staple in our house when I was a child too.

  4. Wonderful--you can take me back with you any time!

  5. Wow bud. Transported me to a new time and place. Agree with Webster. Appreciate how you incorporate multiple senses in your descriptions. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Sounds wonderful. ahhhh
    I must apologize, I have not been keeping up with my blog visits and I inadvertently joined you blog again...if I fix the error of my ways, I fear it will remove both seagulls...and my finger is giving out. The voice techo makes me sound like I am half brain dead...oh, right, I kind of am...yours works perfectly. :)