Sunday, May 19, 2013

Current (recently expanded)

Splashing in the shallows, the man guided his canoe out from the oozing of Round Springs and into the main flow.  He leapt into the stern and began to paddle. Dip and draw, dip and draw...  Down this stream of inevitability, the current moved him.  He was not sure if he was standing still and the landscape was moving or if he was the one travelling past it.  Down the river of life.  Was each stroke of his paddle pulling the shores upstream?

He soon lost his ability to reason logically.  All sounds, all sights, all smells, the feel of the spruce sure in his hands, all seemed to merge into one.  He felt now that he was on a different journey than the one he had started out on.  A journey not only forward into space and time but also backwards to the Current River of his youth. A journey into itself.  The Current was the play, not his paddling.  He was not even the actor but rather the observer.  So this is what they mean by the observer changing that which he observes, he mused.  He was changing the outcome of the experiment with every stroke.  The result of each stroke was different sights, different sounds, and even different smells.  The feel of the air and the spray from his paddling varied with the speed and strength of his paddling.

Suddenly, something radically new forcefully inserted itself into this experiment, this journey.  It seemed to his reveried mind, and then to his very Self, that there was a dull roaring sound off in the future.  This roar was becoming gradually louder.  The current seemed to be getting stronger, faster as if it existed independently of his mind, of his consciousness.  Does a tree make a sound if no one hears it fall in the forest?  Apparently so as he had to adjust his paddling continuously to compensate.  It was only then that he noticed the Springtime waters had risen outside their normal banks.  Many trees normally not in the water were now easing into the depths of the stream.

He would have to stay more alert to this...reality.  But, what did that mean?  This reality.  What would happen if he did not disengage from one journey to travel on this new one?  Was he ever even "travelling" or was it, and everything else, all in his head.  What was it that caused him to even react to these new sounds and sights?  Would he ever be able to continue the other journey if he made this switch fully?  Regardless of his thinking, his conscious self - what he conceived of as his self - was pulled into this new reality by forces unknown and unbidden.  The switch was being made for him regardless of any action on his part.

The roar was now upon him.  He could see the white horses of the rapids up ahead and the water spray rising feet into the air.  The sounds became deafening.  The landscape up ahead, past the whitewater, seemed to be much lower than that he had been travelling in before.  His natural abilities steered the canoe towards the longest downward-pointing "Vee" in the rapids.  He automatically sped up the canoe to be travelling faster than the current but, being only one man, this was in vain.  Oh bowman!  Where did you go?  Did you ever even exist?

He was able to call upon his whitewater navigation knowledge of the past and manage to steer safely through the surprisingly difficult rapids.  The past he drew upon was as real as the present.  All seemed to merge into one and suddenly he was in the deep eddies below the river’s sudden drop.  Apparently, he did not need a bowman after all!

Suddenly, out of the fog, an old wooden ferry appeared.  Seeing no boatman, he put his two coppers away and turned the bow to point behind the ferry's course.  Then he saw the thick rope strung across the river on which the ferry, attached, could cross back and forth using the current by simply adjusting the angle of approach.  A diminutive figure could be seen now huddling near the rudder, attempting to hide from the heavy, damp evening air.  The ferry connected two gravel roads on either side of the Current.  Just before passing the ferry, he noticed a branch of the river rushing into and adding volume to the stream.

He remembered now the name of this branch and the name of the ferry.  Jack's Fork.  Soon now, he should be drawing abeam of an old abandoned cabin.  Many a night had he and his companions spent warming up to the cabin's old iron pot-bellied stove.  They had called this Maloney's Cabin.  It was complete with its own bat-filled cave.

He steered the canoe over to the left bank and beached the canoe on a convenient sand bar, tying it off against the current to some old pile of driftwood.  He then grabbed his gear and headed up the bank towards the cabin.  He moved excitedly ahead, imagining the warmth and dryness of the cabin.  Perhaps he would get the old washtub out and heat up some hot water on the stove for a bath, just like in the old days.  Just then the dripping air was torn asunder by a lightning strike so close the hairs on his arms and face stood up.  A torrential downpour began and the man quickened his pace towards the cabin.  But, the faster he ran the farther away the cabin seemed to get!  It was as if he was wading thru molasses.  Finally, the cabin was lost to his sight and he was enveloped in a fog so thick you could cut it with a paddle.  The ground turned to deep mud in the heavy rain and he turned around to head back toward his canoe.

Sliding down the river's edge, he grabbed the canoe and overturned it, propping it up with some of the driftwood.  Then, into his make-shift shelter he ducked, only partially hidden from the wind-whipped rain.  He was shivering and shaking mightily as the suddenly cold wind knifed through his soaked clothes.  No fire possible in this weather, he huddled as best as he could to try and get warmer.  This reminded him of a similar circumstance when he and eight other Boy Scouts got lost in nearby Blair Creek Cave.

This cave was just a little distance downstream and up on the bluff south of the Creek near the confluence of the two streams. The boys had lost their way in a complex maze and became separated from their Scoutmaster and the rest of the Troop.  Realizing they were lost, their training kicked in and they stopped crawling around.  They chose one spot to stay in until they were found by rescuers.  Soon, the cold from the cave, their damp clothing and their inactivity began to set in.  They decided to huddle in a group of 3 layers of 3 people.  They would rotate the bottom layer when the load became too much to bear.  For 14 long hours they waited to be found.  It seemed more like forever!  At last they heard voices and suddenly a face appeared over their heads.  The University of Rolla Caving Club had found them and began to guide them out back to the surface.  However, they ended coming out of an entirely different entrance!  Apparently, they were the first ones to ever connect what had been thought of as two separate caves.  At least something constructive was accomplished!

Another nearby bolt of lightning jolted the man awake from his dream.  Or, was he still asleep?  Had the last few hours since the rapids all been a dream?  Was he still there, except instead of free, stuck submerged in the branches?  Was he dead and this was the afterlife?  If so, this was Purgatory at best!  Perhaps the entire trip was a dream.  It might be argued that everything before the trip was the dream and the trip was reality.  It dawned on him that the fact he was arguing with himself might indicate he was now awake.

He began to drift off again with the steady rhythm of the rain and the lessening of the lightning and thunder.  This time, he began remembering the first few occasions he had explored the Current River, here in wild Southeastern Missouri.  Back in the mid-1960s.  Although now the area had become civilized and was christened a National Wild and Scenic Riverway, back then it was wilderness.  A man, or especially a boy, could get lost in the wide expanses of hills, streams, forests and caves.  Any roads in the area were dirt and many were only traversable by four-wheel drive.


Each time, the boys in Troop 15, Boy Scouts of America, would gather at Blankenship’s there near downtown Marion, Illinois.  The sponsors of the trip would show up, one of them driving a red and white Chevrolet Suburban towing the canoe trailer loaded with six aluminum canoes ranging from 15 to 17 feet in length.  Several of the canoes had cracks that had been welded shut as signs of the River’s dangers.

The boys had all purchased their own gear for the trips.  A good paddle that stood at eye-height from the ground, waterproof duffle-bags or, if you were lucky, waterproof metal ammunition boxes.  Changes of clothing.  And, of course, all the normal camping gear.  The boys were a mixture of old hands and newbies.  They would be distributed, when the time came, to each canoe according to what would be the safest way.  The old hands would man the stern and do most of the steering and navigating.  The newbies would be relegated to the bow.  If the stern-man was lucky, the boy in the bow would be strong and therefore best able to assist in propelling the canoe faster through the water.  The bowman also had a role to play in whitewater.  They would be able to push out sideways from any threatening rocks that might rise up out of the rushing waters.

They loaded up the trucks with their gear and piled in.  It was at least a couple of hours to their destination down past Ellington, Missouri or further north, depending on where they were going to put in at.  Sometimes they would go as far north as Akers Ferry, but more often they would start at Round Springs State Park.  One time, they even went to the south and started at Big Springs State Park.  The river down there had a different character.  Wide and less whitewater.  The whole way there they would listen to KXOK, the AM station from St. Louis and talk and talk.

They would arrive late at night and set up camp for an early start down the river the next morning.  When they awoke, they made breakfast, broke camp and packed, and then off-loaded the canoes, beaching them on the river bank.  The early morning light, the birds chirping and the sounds of the rolling, cascading river served as their reward for the long drive.

If at Round Springs, they would always go check out the spring before leaving downriver.  The large, blue spring quietly oozed out of the ground from a circular depression.  The volume of water coming out of there though was indicated by the size of the outlet stream which went on for a while before finally dumping into the Current.  This early in the morning, a mist usually gathered around the icy cold waters.  It was always a little spooky for some reason, that much water just rising out of the ground with hardly a sound.

There were other springs in the area, most being designated as a State Park.  Alley Springs, out on Jack’s Fork.  Blue Springs.  Big Springs.  Cave Springs.  Seven Springs.  All were unique but similar in their ability to mesmerize.  Without exception, each spring added significantly colder water to the main branch of the river.  He always thought it was neat how, especially if you were swimming alongside your canoe, you could tell when you had passed a spring’s outlet due to the sudden colder temperatures of the water.  Even the many smaller springs that could be found up and down the river served to add their chilliness to the overall river’s environment.  He was fascinated by those type of springs described as Ebb and Flow springs.  Often small, you followed their narrow outlet streams up to their source and then sat there eating your lunch or whatever as the spring would flow strongly and then, after some amount of time had passed, usually 30 minutes or so, suddenly would slow down markedly and nearly stop flowing.  Then, after another 30 minutes, just as suddenly pick back up and flow strongly again.  The mysteries of Nature.

After loading up the canoes with their gear and lashing it all down tightly with rope and carabiners (against the likelihood of capsizing), they would sort out who was going in which canoe and then step inside them to shove off downstream.  They would quickly sit down as standing up in a canoe that is underway is a surefire way to capsize one and end up in the drink, soaking wet!  Then there they were, six canoes off on their 20 to 30 mile journey downriver.  They would meet up with the drivers at an agreed-upon location on the morrow.  Frequently, it was down at Powder Mill Ferry near a cave bearing the same name.  They would make camp somewhere tonight along the river on one of the many sand or gravel bars.

This Powder Mill Cave was a little bit of a source of pride with the Scouts.  A few boys, who were now older and in Explorers instead of Boy Scouts, had donned scuba gear and made their way well into the cave, often being submerged for fair distances.  They also, while they were at it, mapped the entire cave!  It was the only known map of this cave for many years.  Perhaps it still is the only map.  One of these boys was the man’s cousin.

It was not long before the tell-tale signs of whitewater ahead would show themselves.  The noise and the sudden quickening of the stream, especially headed over to one side or the other of the river.  You could see the “whitehorses” of the tops of the waves crashing off of submerged rocks long before reaching the feature.  It did not take the newbies long to figure out the standard ways of dealing with navigating white water.  Rivers had a way of forming “vees” of quieter, deeper water pointing downstream through the maze of rocks, submerged or surfaced.  Normally, these were sure routes through the rapids.  However, you needed to avoid at all costs the “vees” that pointed UP stream!  These signified the location of large rocks at the crux of the vee.  Also, to have the best control over your canoe, it was essential to be travelling faster than the surrounding current.

It was normal to experience whitewater every 1/8 mile or so at a minimum.  Often, they came up one right after another and you sometimes had to shift all the way to the other side of the river before getting sucked up in the strong current flowing towards the rocks.  Upon occasion, there would be tree branches either fallen into or leaning down into the very place where you had to route your canoe!  Paddlers would sometimes be swept from their canoes or injured by these branches.  You had to try and hold onto your paddle when this happened or you would literally find yourself “up a creek without a paddle”!  Some of the boys would actually tie their paddles off in some fashion to the thwarts inside the canoe to prevent such an event.

When not in whitewater, much of which, by the way, was able to be handled in a routine, relaxed manner, you were able to enjoy large stretches of quiet, slow, deep water.  On the banks of the river, cliffs often rose up to tall heights and you were surrounded on all sides by forests and hills.  You would see buzzards or other similar large birds circling overhead.  It was a very relaxing and enjoyable journey down this river all in all.

As evening approached they would sight a likely place to pull in for the night and make camp.  In those days, there were no restrictions on where you could go or camp or what you could do really.  No one even knew you were there and you very seldom even saw other people all day long.  Very different from the crowds of drunken college students frequenting the river and filling it up from bank to bank now that it had become “civilized” and advertised.  So, sad really.  It probably needed the protection offered by the Wild and Scenic designation, but, in the man’s mind, it was ruined for all time.  His children would never be able to experience it in the same way that he had.  Even the Powder Mill Cave, “their” cave if ever there was one, was now locked up and blocked.  Probably most of the many other caves they had explored in the Blair Creek Valley and the surrounding area had suffered similar fates.  Progress.

The evening routine consisted, as usual, of setting up camp by selecting some level, rock-free sites and then pitching tents and tarps, rolling out sleeping bags and foam pads, and then preparing the evening meals.  Meal preparation varied widely depending on the trip.  For an overnighter, folks often brought fresh milk, bacon, eggs, and a T-bone steak!  For longer trips, freeze-dried foods were usually the fare.  Food could be kept cool by building a little “cooler” in the river out of rocks.  A roaring fire was, of course, standard in those days.  No thought of fire restrictions anywhere ever entered the boy’s minds.  It was usually kept going all through the night to ward off animals and to provide heat in the cool evenings and mornings by the riverside.  Tired after a full day of paddling, usually the Troop would head off to bed soon after the Sun had.  It would be an early sunrise.

During the night, all sorts of sounds could be heard, given their location out in the middle of nowhere.  Most of the boys were used to these sounds, but the newbies could experience some sleepless hours as they tried to discern just what it was that was out there.  There was an urban – or was it wilderness – legend about one particular varmit out here.  It was not quite known what it really was, bird or reptile or mammal, but it was called a “coot”.  There was even a mountain downstream from Jack’s Fork called Coot Mountain.  Which one, if any, of the myriad of noises heard during the night was a coot it could never be known.  Was it a complete myth like a “snipe” of snipe-hunting fame?  Or, was it just a local critter?  Small or large, tame or vicious, it would always haunt the boy’s imaginations.


The man awoke with a start.  Had he dozed off again?  Yes.  But, why had he awoken?  What was different?  The rain.   It had stopped.  Only the sounds of water dripping from thousands of branches disturbed the silence.  And, the rolling river of course.  It never fell silent!  He suddenly realized that his shelter had been inadequate in that water had coursed underneath it and soaked his back and buttocks.  In the middle of the cool Spring night, he felt a chill.  He rolled out from under the propped up canoe and began looking for dry wood to build a fire.  He then realized where he was and, instead, gathered up his belongings and walked upriver towards Maloney’s Cabin.  There would be wood there and, soon, a piping hot wood stove would be going!  There would be old coffee in the cabinets and, with luck, maybe some useful canned food for dinner.  The place operated on the idea of trust in that folks were – unspoken – expected to resupply the place on their next visit.  The Scouts had always been good about doing that, so he had no qualms about freely using the hospitality tonight.

He walked up onto the front porch after having noted the yawning hole in the ground behind the cabin that was Maloney’s Cave.  It was then that he realized that he was not alone.  He looked in the window and saw two men sitting around the wood stove drying out.  Odd that he had not noticed the smoke that must have been pouring out of the chimney!  He knocked on the door and was warmly welcomed.  The coffee was already ready and so were some beans and rice.  He put his gear in one of the empty corners and sat down to good old-fashioned country hospitality.  Many a wild and occasionally true story were told that night!  It turned out that one of the men, both hunters, was ex-Navy and the other a retired Marine.  Small world thought the former sailor.  He reached for his big cup of dark, strong coffee and lit up his pipe.  Puffing away without a concern in the world, his clothes drying on the rigged clothesline near the stove, he began to tell the hunters stories from his year on a “gator freighter” (an amphibious ship that often had Marines on board).  The hunters hunched over closer, the better to hear his tale.

There was never a present to be more fully present in than this.



mindbringer, original draft: 26 December 2012, expanded 18 May 2013