I walk breathless and soaked to the bridge. My Lowe Alpine Triple Point jacket seeping in rain, Duofold shorts not doing as good a job to keep me dry. My Montrail Gore-Tex shoes keep my synthetic running socks comfortable, save the red ankle bit with the mercury winged foot, drenched. My eight-month-old Weimaraner puppy, Geronimo sniffs out the woods.
I stretch my mud-splattered tired legs and sit in the puddles that have formed on the concrete structure. Grabbing a magazine that’s laying open on the other side I laugh, “Missoula Recreation, The Clark Fork River and River trails offer a large array of outdoor activities for outdoor enthusiasts.” It seems uncanny someone would sit here, looking out at the river, and read this article, and fitting that now it’s saturated with spring rain as the run off roars from the canal, directed through the concrete and waves out into the river. I set it in front of me, looking out at the water and lie down to read it.
Geronimo comes to nose me, shivering some. He’s less impressed by our rain run than I am. For perhaps the first time in Missoula I breathe deep like summer. Smells of lilacs, grass, dirt, life fill me. And engulfed in water, I feel, finally, part of this place, pulsing with this place.
The dumbo eared gray ghost entices me to get up, so we make our way down the bank to the water. Still unconvinced that he has webbed feet, he stays out of the river. I stare across the gray waves to the dining room and guard-railed balconies of the Double Tree Hotel wondering if they can see this sopping wet duo. Waves lap the rocky shore, and I think about them, rocks. How people (me included) are tempted to take a particularly attractive one home. They never look as good out of their niche. Rocks always look better wet, I think, content that right now all the rocks in and out of the river are just that.
Snaking through the trees I lick and catch the drips off new leaves. I sample them from different plants, curious to taste each one’s influence on the water. I pull up some reeds from the loose soil. Growing up we called them pooh sticks, because they’re great to race under bridges like Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet do. I can usually make flutes out of them, breaking off different lengths, holding all of them like Peter from Heidi. Today they’re not making their usual whistle. When I finally get the sound Geronimo cocks his head sideways, I let him eat one and we trek on.
I convinced Carrie to go running with Toby, her ten-year-old mutt and Geronimo and me over Christmas break. After the dogs fought like siblings in the back seat of her Cabrio and we crossed the mountain, the family unloaded happily at Patterson’s Creek.
We set off down a trail, which I undoubtedly decided to veer from once in the woods and on top of the mountain. “Let’s take this hollow down to the creek,” I say. “Are you sure this works,” Carrie asked. Out of all of our adventures she always takes the role of cautionary advisor, me being the exploration’s leader. “Sure, we followed a creek in here, and crossed one on our way up, regardless of where this particular creek goes, if we follow the water we’ll eventually find our way back,” I said.
A hollow traverse later we were out, back on the dirt forest service road. I was amazed at aging Toby who seemed to be in better condition than Carrie, me, and Geronimo’s puppy energy. As we rounded the bend and spied Carrie’s red VW poking through the trees we heard a crash. Looking down in time to see Toby sliding/falling down the steep bank with every winter dead leaf, 30 feet to the creek, we both gasped.
Carrie was beside herself, and we rushed to the road’s edge to look for Toby. There, 30 feet below us she was swimming like a champ in the creek. “Carrie,” I smiled “Toby found a swimming hole! You’re dog is awesome! Let’s go swimming.” Still shaken up, Carrie and I made our way off the road through a field, and the woods, a safer way to Toby. I threw my T-shirt and shoes aside and look over at Carrie, fully clothed. “It’s January,” Carrie said, frowning. “It has to be at least 60 degrees,” I reassured her. “I don’t have dry clothes to wear on the drive home,” she said. “We’ll go in our underwear, and then take it off after we’re done and wear our clothes, we’ll be warm and dry,” I told her.
Tiring of my pep talk I walked into the chilly chest high water, and swam over to Toby. Carrie grimaced. “Get IN,” I coaxed her. Finally, stripped down to her underwear she walked in, calf deep. “Ahhhhh it’s freezing,” she said. “You’ll get used to it,” I told her; but before I knew it she was back on the bank with Geronimo, both of them shaking their heads at Toby and I.
“I’m taking Toby with me everywhere I go Carrie,” I laughed. “She’s like the metal detector of swimming holes.” “Yeah, really great,” she said as she stood on the bank waiting for us to stop.
“I don’t know why you’re scared to roll,” my kayaking instructor told the class. “You spent the first nine months of your life in the water; it wasn’t until you came out that you started screaming and crying. And now you’re scared to go under. Why? It’s peaceful. Don’t you think it’s calming? Just take a deep breath and flip over, enjoy it.”
We laugh at him of course. He has a habit of saying off the wall comments. Sculling, he would tell us to lean more, look at our paddle blade. “There’s a picture of your roommate mooning you on that blade, but you gotta get down and look for it. You won’t see it if you don’t concentrate.” We never really wanted to see our roommate’s moon, but we skipped the blade across the water, like spreading butter, and tried to look while we braced low.
“Ladies what advantage do you have over these guys?” he would ask us. “See a lot of people think kayaking is about this,” he said as he pushed his tricep up to fake muscles. “I mean I know all you guys wish you were as ripped as me, but I’ll let in on a secret, that’s not what this sport is about. Do you know what it is? Why girls are better? One word: FINESSE. They don’t try to muscle through it. You shouldn’t look like you’re working when you do this. If you’re working, you’re not doing it right.”
Finesse, my roommate and I laughed as we biked home from the pool. I took her to the bridge, thinking whitewater would inspire her. We sat with chlorinated hair, wet suits and towels hanging from our bikes. Laying on our stomachs, looking down at the waves I asked her which line she would take if she was paddling through it. We studied the flow, figuring out the least dangerous route, where we could make the river work instead of us. Finesse, you spent the first nine months of your life underwater.
My high school cross country team used to swim about as much as we ran. If there was a water hole in any creek, river, pond, or lake remotely close to our planned course of action you could bet we’d be in it. There were trails in the woods by our school. We’d warm up on the track, jog past the practice fields, recycling bins, and softball field until we got to Tinker Creek. Usually we climbed onto the railroad bridge to cross the creek and get to the trails that a local cleared and up kept.
We’d laugh through Lover’s Lane, Turkey Trail, Deer Run, to the meditation spot, and other overlooks the owner had planted flowers in, made wooden trail name signs, and set an occasional bench or swing at. But after about 30, 60 minutes we always ended up at the creek.
One deep hole in that whole stretch of the creek, and it was ours. There was a young tree that arched over the hole. We would strip our shoes off and monkey on its underside to drop off into the cold water. Screaming gleefully we would see who could make it the highest in the tree before dropping. Our coach would stand on the bank and shake his head smiling, reminding us practice was over and we were choosing to do this on our own time, as we’d tout back for him not to sneak into the woods for a cigarette.
It rained all summer in 2003. I had my friend, Dr. Scott’s kayak, and every weekend when I was free of parenting 12 church campers I would watch the creek, wanting it to be high enough to paddle. One Sunday I got back to camp particularly early. Grinning I walked up to the porch of the Staff House. “I’m going to run the Roanoke River before the staff meeting; does anyone want to come with me?” I asked. Most of the staff looked at me from the dilapidated couch and metal folding chairs strewn about the porch. “I’ll go,” Paul said. “I’ll go too,” Josh chimed in.
We made our way down to the supply shed to grab my boat and a Perception Torrent the camp owned. Josh opted to grab an inner tube because of the limited space in my Honda CR-V for two boats. After some complicated shuttling of three people, two kayaks, one inner tube, my CR-V and Josh’s Miata we hit the river. What was usually a calf-high crawdad catching creek was rolling with rain water, white. Within minutes Josh was screaming with his hand under his butt. “I got a hole in my tube over that last set of rocks,” he said. “I’m holding it shut with my finger, I think it will be ok.” Paul and I laughed, and asked him if he was sure, then kept trucking.
Not long after that I looked back at the sit-on-top that Paul was paddling. Josh was straddling the boat just in front of the seat hole, with Paul straddling the boat just behind the seat hole. Both had mini paddles from splitting the kayak paddle in half. They looked like a sad war party of Indians scouting out the river, and not getting anywhere they wanted to with their insufficient paddles. They would scream in the rapids, Paul’s high pitched voice like a girl that just saw a spider. They fell off in every bit of whitewater, chased their boat back down, and got back on.
How we made it back to the Miata across the street from camp’s entrance I’m not really sure. Once our wild ride was over we pulled the boats and half-inflated inner tube out of the river, shuttled the cars and boats to get back to camp, just in time to snicker into the staff meeting, right on time.
I met Henry David Thoreau when I was 16. It was like waiting my entire life to meet my best friend, someone I finally related to. He was my hero for years. That year we had a project in my English class to pick a Thoreau quote and illustrate it on a wall size piece of paper. Sifting through books of his writing I came across something.
“You can’t count a river while it moves by you. The best thing to do is take off all your clothes and go swimming in it, then when you feel the water all around you you’re part of the total river. Where it’s been, where it is, where it’s going, Plunge In!”
I embraced it, wrote it on my 8 foot long piece of paper and taped pictures of runners, swimmers, skiers, bikers, hikers, and other endorphin loving junkies getting into the good stuff in life. After they hung in our classroom for a week I took mine home with me, and hung it behind my bed room door. It stayed there until I was 20.
The fact of the matter is, most of life on this planet is water. It covers about 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, and composes about 70 percent of human beings. From the beginning it has been mystical, a cleanser, bearer of life; and in that great tradition I am connected to it. “Plunge In!” is perhaps the best advice I’ve ever received, and I make it my personal goal that wherever there is water, to be a part of it.
I have to taste it, breathe it, slide down cliffs through the leaves, drop out of trees, paddle creeks while they’re raging, all to trapce back into society dripping with nature. Because nature is like that, you can’t count it while it moves by you. The best thing to do is to take off all your clothes and go swimming in it.