Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Good God Almighty Rapids

I climbed into my ladder stand in the pre-dawn dark of opening day.  There are plenty of opening days in my year, but the opening day of deer season is the only one that doesn't need to be qualified when speaking with friends.  The first day of trout fishing is called the trout opener, the first day of pheasant hunting is called a fustercluck, with every bird hunter in the region pounding the fields, and the first day of woodcock hunting just happens unbidden, in all it's blistery, sweaty glory without being named.  Opening day of deer season, in turn, earns the succinct title of "Opening Day" with all the glory and anticipation that implies.

I sat spellbound with my back to the river bank feet away, night slowly giving in to dawn, looking across an opening in the dense pine forest.  Multi-stemmed oak trees inhabit this riparian glade, as does my sneezy friend Goldenrod.  Ferns abound in spring and summer.  A small creek, not much more than a rivulet, its name unknown to me, makes a burbling entrance from the dark mystery of the pines extending up the bluff, and meanders it's way through the clearing to the river.  It twists and wanders over riffles and under secretive cut banks, as if trying to delay its fate, attempting to remain its own until gravity inevitably brings it to the river, and the end of itself.

While I saw not a single deer Opening Day, presiding like some humble and powerless guest conductor over the meadow, I was thankful to be in the presence of so much other activity.  With ready eyes and ears straining to pick up the tell-tale snap of that statuesque buck slipping through the forest cover, I had a full menu of woodland fare to feast my senses on.

In my heightened state of awareness, sometime later in the morning, I was severely startled by a series of snappy, wet-sounding barks and whines directly behind me.  Quick little snorts and bubbly wheezes right on top of me.  A crazed ferret in a full bathtub, panting while dragging his nails across a chalkboard, it sounded like something was being murdered in the river.  Honestly, it was making me a little uneasy.  I didn't want to look and blow my cover, but as I would soon find out, it was too late too to worry about that.

Four otters eventually appeared in my peripheral vision.  They'd busted me sitting in their tree on their river bank, and they were pretty pissed off about it.  They took turns, in pairs and threes, popping their bewhiskered faces out of the icy water to scold me.  I couldn't get a count at first, as they would randomly appear and disappear, rolling and splashing, making their disapproval well known to anyone within a quarter mile.  And they were committed.  They were going rip me up one side and down the other until they were content in knowing I was fully aware of my transgression.  Or maybe they just confused, having never seen a giant pumpkin sitting in a tree holding a rifle before.

In any case, their four-headed harangue was cut violently short when a bald eagle came rocketing down, out of seemingly nowhere, to make a breakfast burrito out of one of them.  This must have been one hungry eagle, as he payed me no mind at all, sitting not twenty yards away.  I'm sure the otters were more frightened than I was, but it was my second major adrenaline spike in as many minutes.  We see plenty of bald eagles in winter in this part of the country, especially around open water, but I'd never been this close to one in action.  My mind's eye very nearly could not compute the massive size and wingspan of the raptor.  The brilliant white of the head and tail, the flashing gold of talons, it all almost too much to take in as he climbed away, all four otters safe in the depths for the moment.  The gregarious otter brothers returned to check on me throughout the weekend, but they were always slightly more quiet about it after the Eagle Incident.

Back on dry land I enjoyed the slinky undulating gait of a weasel, running this way and that, doing I have no idea what.  He snaked and slipped, a mercurial white specter, all around the clearing for quite a while, no apparent destination in mind.  I'm no ermine expert.  I have no idea if he was hunting, lost, or walking off a bender with the boys the night before.

On the tiny creek his cousin the mink later appeared.  Rusty brown with the cutest little round face, he bounded up and down the banks, dove in and out of the water, stopped on a dime to sniff and look around.  While I suspect he was hunting for trout, my personification of him likes to think he was simply having a rip roaring good time.

And who couldn't on that little stream?  I don't know it well, but I grew up stomping in and out of it's brothers and sisters in the southern part of the state.  While completely different in it's specific environment, in that section it shares all the same qualities and character of the little rills of my childhood.  I was immediately drawn to it.  Like meeting a long lost relative with your family features plainly displayed in his visage and mannerisms.

I grew up in a place with water running out of the ground all over the place.  Springs, seeps, artesian wells -- there are braids of tinkling water around every corner.  Ponds and kettle lakes dot the countryside.  It's a place steeped in native American history as well.  The earliest known inhabitants were mound builders, later displaced by the Potawatomi.  With a nod to the statute of limitations on trespassing, I can say now that we spent a ton of time in winter on Potawatomi Creek as it passes through Big Foot Country Club (so named for the Potawatomi Chief, Big Foot).  I don't know much about golf, nor do I care to, but I do know that that private course, home to many springs and The Seven Sacred Pools of the Potawatomi, is also home to many of my dearest memories.

I came to know the heft and swing of a canoe paddle a full decade before I ever hoisted a fishing rod or gun.  While I now hunt a fish more than I spend time propelling myself across water, that was not always the case.  We canoed, kayaked, and rafted rivers and lakes from central Wisconsin to Tennessee, following Dad and Brian, and their love of both flat water and white water.  I've dumped more canoes in the Kickapoo river alone than most people have ever been in, something I'm oddly proud of now that I'm much better at staying in them.

The little creeks of Fontana are not big enough to support a canoe or kayak, but that did not stop us.  Among our countless winter outings on the golf course, from skiing to building forts, sledding to just wandering around, my favorite, the family favorite, was always floating boats.

Not big boats, mind you.  Not even little boats.  Miniscule boats.  The earliest "boats" were simply chunks of scrap wood pilfered from grandpa's shop. Or wine corks.  My brother Josh and I would spray paint them our favorite colors, and set out for the golf course with a pocket full of them, alone or with parents in tow.  Often, Brian would accompany us as well.  Our little boats evolved somewhat, but never really amounted to much more than anything that could be carried in our pockets, and happily lost to the whims of the stream.

The rules were simple.  Drop your boats in the creek at the designated starting line, and the first one to cross the finish, be it yards or a miles away, was the winner.  No getting in the stream, and no advancing your boat with your handy, specially chosen poking stick.  Only gentle nudges were allowed to free your boat from a micro-eddy or tangle of overhanging brush.  Of course rules were bent and flat-out obliterated in the heat of the moment, brothers competing with each other and the Old Man to win a close-fought heat.

I dreamed of my brightly painted wine cork, tossed and heaving in those currents.  I imagined it being beaten and dragged when I was supposed to be listening to a teacher rambling on about multiplying fractions or some other useless prattle.  Crewed by the heartiest of Lilliputians, it was the bravest little vessel ever to make the journey from one end of the golf course to the other.  Those daring, diminutive sailors, Vikings of my child's mind, were the only ones brave enough dare passage through the Good God Almighty Rapids.

The Good God Almighty Rapids, so dubbed after many mini sailing ships were lost to their tumultuous depths, were formed where a smaller feeder creek dumped into the main channel through a culvert under a cart path.  Our boats would be dropped in at the upstream end of the culvert, only to have Josh and I race to the other end, giddy with excitement at the prospect of our boats rocketing out into the tailwater.

We would tease and taunt, run and fall, fighting our ways through the streamside brush to help our little boats along the length of the creek.  Entire family days in winter were spent urging our micro-craft down the treacherous gauntlet of that creek.  A lot of them.  We'd leave the house to go sledding, but that never lasted long.  Everyone knew we were going boat floating.

My brother Josh was developmentally disabled.  With his beautifully simple mind he could make me laugh harder than anyone I've ever met.  He could also make me see red faster than anyone alive today.  I've never seen him happier than tearing up and down that little stream, poking stick in hand, splashing in and out of the water, exhorting his little boat to victory.

He's gone now, and so is Dad. As I sat in my tree stand this weekend, and whenever I see a little creek like that I look back fondly, sometimes with a tears on my cheeks, and remember our times braving the Good God Almighty Rapids.

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