The Little Bear
On a river, there is nowhere to go. Everything you need to know about love can be found in a canoe.
The green canoe was awkward and heavy, and I tried to balance it on my head as we moved away from the van.
“You got it?” Michael asked, when the canoe wobbled like a drunk.
I didn’t answer, just swung it from my head to the ground, one swift motion that took all my strength. Once it was down, we began to drag it to the river.
“Get your life jackets on,” I called to the boys, as I loaded the canoe with the cooler, blankets, and paddles. Aidan and Kellen ignored me, poked sticks into the marmot’s hole instead. “Life jackets,” I said again, a spring gust taking my words.
Michael and I slid the canoe down the steep bank, rocks and gravel rolling under our feet. We were putting in just south of the bridge where the road crossed the river, and I could see abandoned swallow nests fastened to the concrete. The swallows had yet to return for the season, but the red-winged blackbirds called from the brush, high-pitched shrieks and trilling whistles, a welcome and familiar chatter, one of the first signs of spring. “You know,” I said to Michael, “you should wear the other life jacket, not me. If anything were to happen, you would need to help us.”
Michael guided the canoe into the water like he might return a trout to the river, channeling the body through his long fingers, slowing the slide.
“You wear it,” he said, as he steadied the canoe against the shore. Then he turned to call our sons. “Aidan and Kellen, hop in. It’s time to go.”
And because it was cold and the life jacket would be one more layer, and because the canoe was already pulling to be off, and because the boys needed help getting into the boat, and because I knew that we were only wearing the life jacket to set an example, I zipped it on, the vest a welcome embrace.
Once aboard, we floated quickly under the bridge, the river wide and muddy. On the shore, trees in early leaf stretched over the water, forming a tunnel through which we passed. I sat in front, a paddle resting at my feet, while the boys, seven and five, sat on the bottom of the boat. The two-person canoe meant they didn’t have seats but rather camped on a wool blanket that must have felt both warm and scratchy against their bare legs. Michael paddled from his seat in the back, gentle j-strokes that kept us in the middle of the current. When I turned to look at him, he smiled, the easy smile he always had for the natural world, as if by leaving behind the van he had come home.
15 years earlier, before we had boys, or a van, or any of those tethers that cause you to go to bed early so you can face carpools, sack lunches, and endless whining, Michael and I canoed our “Green Heron” down the gentle waters of the Huron River. We would put in at sunset, when the Michigan sun punctured thick stands of maple and picnicking families packed up to go home. A bottle of wine, sometimes two, a paper bag stuffed with bread and cheese from the local deli, and two wooden paddles were our only gear. Michael would recite poetry from memory, Pattiann Rogers or Mary Oliver, as he navigated the wide channel. His choices grew more boisterous as we drank, so that an hour-and-a-half into the trip he would be flinging Pound’s “Winter is Icummen In” or Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” toward the stars. I loved that he knew poems by heart, that he carried Blake and Shakespeare and Dickinson with him, fleets of words he set to sail on the river, our canoe buoyed by metaphor and image and voice. I, on the other hand, had memorized my day planner, could name the aisle in the local grocery where you would find Cheerios, knew to the penny the amount in my bank account, as well as the seven ingredients found in the Seafood Pita Pocket that I sold as a teenager when I worked fast food. Because Michael brought art into the natural world, it meant every hike, every canoe trip, every backpack became layered in language. Our canoe, both boat and ineffable.
Usually at least once on our night floats down the Huron, often when the last shreds of light appeared like window panes between tree trunks, we would round a bend in the river and surprise a Great Blue Heron. Prehistoric and heavy-set, the giant bird would take off from its perch, tucking its claw-like feet against its body, and move slowly into the air, annoyance in every beat of its wing. Seemingly to make a point, it would often oar toward us, low over our heads, and then turn downstream to roost once more. A moment later, another bend, and the same heron would take flight again. We repeated the pattern several times, could anticipate the feathered whoosh of air above our heads, until, at last, the dinosaur of a bird flew upstream rather than down, leaving us in the Michigan night.
We would remain silent in the canoe for a long time; not even poetry could capture such encounters.
As we floated down the Little Bear, April sun lost behind cloud and red-winged blackbirds sounding their alarm, I thought of those many canoe trips. How Michael courted me with poetry and rivers, so that his veined heart became the channel I followed, how we would heave the canoe and our drunken bodies up the shore and lie in the heron-plumbed blackness looking for the moon, how we never would have imagined we might, 15 years later, paddle the same canoe down a western river with our boys (hearts now outside our bodies), sitting between us. In Michael’s smile, his easy strokes, those rivers all ran together, so that this moment in the spring sunshine, quiet babble of boys, drill of bird, bob of tree branch, unfolded under the same “bones of the sky,” “the meticulous layering” not of down but of memory, Roger’s red bird right there with us.
“Who’s ready for lunch?” I called, and reached for the cooler, unzipping the top.
“Me! Me!” Kellen shouted. He rose on his knees and the canoe wobbled, his 40 pounds enough to shift the boat.
“Whoa,” said Michael, “Careful.” I watched him switch the paddle to the other side of the boat to stabilize the rock. “No sudden movements.”
Aidan reached to pull Kellen back to the floor of the boat. “You’re gonna tip us.”
As usual, Kellen ignored his older brother and held out his hand for a slice of cheese, though I noticed he kept more still this time. I passed Aidan a wedge of cheddar as well as some crackers and a small bunch of purple grapes. “Share.”
Michael and I only tipped our canoe once, during our trip to Algonquin Provincial Park in Canada. We had headed to the waters to celebrate the completion of Michael’s PhD, the Green Heron strapped to the top of his Honda Accord, our clothes and food stuffed into rented dry bags.
The McKaskill Ranger Cabin sits in a stand of Red Pine on a peninsula deep inside the park boundaries. To get there, we would have to put in at the Shall Access Point and then paddle across several large bodies of water, as well as portage the canoe for miles between lakes. Because Michael had been busy defending his dissertation, we had not done the research necessary for such a long trip. Had we, we would have realized that for such a journey you really needed to rent a light, kevlar canoe, something one person could carry easily on his shoulders. We arrived at the park entrance at dusk, our heavy fiberglass canoe atop the car.
Because we had already driven two days and because we had no money to rent a kevlar canoe, we camped by the trail head and set out early the next morning. At first, the two of us carried the canoe by the handles at either end, our dry bags the cargo. But my arms quickly grew tired and the progress was slow because we had to keep stopping in order for me to switch hands. As the sun vaulted the noon hour, we grew worried that we wouldn’t make the cabin by nightfall. For the rest of the day, Michael carried the Green Heron, all 17 feet of it, on his shoulders, plus a dry bag on his back. Mosquitoes swarmed his face and neck, their black bodies dark against his skin. He didn’t have a hand to swat them away, so they feasted on his arms, his neck, the soft skin below his ears. Scrambling behind with the other dry bag, trying not to trip on root and rock, I could hear Michael pant from the exertion. He didn’t talk, didn’t make a sound. August heat pressed like wet washcloths to our face. One foot in front of the other, 500 hundred yards, a mile, then canoe across open water, then shoulder the burden again.
I didn’t think we would make it, couldn’t see how Michael could keep going, but eventually we arrived at McKaskill Lake and canoed across the water to our cabin. I knew it was bad when Michael suggested feigning a broken leg so that a helicopter could take us back out.
Those days at the isolated cabin were amazing, though, a refuge amid miles of old-growth forest, trees that took root when Shakespeare was alive. Every night we fell asleep to the ghostly call of loons and listened to the moose forage outside our windows. During the day, we hiked or paddled around the remote lakes, drinking unfiltered water through cupped hands. The day before we left, we tipped the canoe, right at the shore when we were getting out for a picnic lunch.
“We should never have tried to get in when it was crosswise to the shore,” Michael said, as we stood, completely shocked and soaked in knee-deep water. “That was dumb.” But we laughed because it was only water and the cabin was close and soon we would be dry in front of the roaring fire.
I didn’t think about Algonquin as we headed down the Little Bear, though we sat in the same canoe that Michael had carried. Instead, I studied the light, how, when the sun did appear, the water, the leaves, the birdwing seemed illuminated from within. I didn’t worry about tipping or trekking or getting wet. On the drive to the Little Bear from our house, earlier that morning, I realized that such freedom from danger and worry was a gift Michael had given me for years. He had mentioned, as we drove to the Little Bear, that he wanted to check the conditions at both the put in and take out sites. In my head, I thought about how much Michael worried, too much, and how everything was always just fine. A moment later, though, I realized that I didn’t have to worry because he always did. My peace of mind was a privilege. That I could float down the Little Bear handing out a picnic was possible only because Michael took responsibility for everything else.
Up ahead, the river bent. From where I sat it actually looked like the river ended, the turn that sharp. I knew at some point we would float under a Great Blue Heron rookery, and I imagined for a moment seeing one of the giant birds rise from the shore as we made the turn. The bird would be larger than either Aidan or Kellen, with a wing span as long as five feet. Perhaps it would be holding a fish in its beak, waiting to gulp the silvery body in one piece, down its elegant s-shaped neck. It would sweep across our heads, belly just feet above us, bearing both its lunch and our past.
As we approached the bend, though, I forgot about herons. The river grew shallow on the inside of the turn. I could see the round rocks on the bottom, green and coppery in the sun.
“Michael,” I called. “It’s too shallow. We need to move to the right.”
I didn’t like shallow water. Just the week before we had run aground in the Cutler Marsh and had to extricate ourselves from the muddy bottom. I was worried we would ground ourselves here in six inches of water, jam the rocker into the sludgy bottom. But I hardly had time to articulate that thought to myself let alone name the fear aloud, when the current picked up, and we swung around the bend, the calm river replaced with white water.
It was like there were two different rivers. The one before the turn and the one after. What had been wide, shallow, and slow moving, funneled into a narrow chute. What had been straight and easily navigable became a lightening-shaped series of turns. To our right, at the first tight bend, a giant poplar had toppled into the river. Branches and limbs reached across our path and formed a cage of roots. We were headed straight for it.
Michael didn’t ask me to paddle. He was too busy thrusting his own paddle into the water. I threw down the knife and chunk of cheese, grabbed the paddle. Within two strokes, though, I knew we were going to crash.
The morning we left our cabin in Algonquin, I recalled the temperature of the water when we had fallen in. Shelter and a fire had been close by, so our shivering matched our laughing as we ran for warmth. Now, though, a storm threatened our departure, and I could feel the chill in the air. We could see the dark clouds gathering to the north of us, throbbing masses of gray, but we set out anyway, knowing we had to be back in Ann Arbor the following day. It wasn’t until the final crossing, the largest stretch of water, that the storm really hit. As we had navigated the trails, Michael once again bearing the canoe on his back, and then oared the crossings, the hemlock and yellow birch around us swayed in the gusts, some rain making it through the thick canopy to land on our head and shoulders. Now, though, the trees blurred together in the wind, sugar maple becoming hemlock, the forest thrashing like a many-headed monster. Rain and wind swept against us, somehow rising from our feet, air and ground no longer meaningful, the world turned into storm. If the other shore had even been close enough to see, we would have been unable to trace its outline through the mess. Waves crested on the lake, white caps crashing into one another, a turning brew of water that merged with the wind and rain. No one else was around, the middle of the day as dark as night; hardwood trees, thin lines of black around us.
“We’ll go at an angle,” Michael said. My teeth chattered even though it was August, my shirt and shorts soaked as thoroughly as they had been the morning before when we had tipped.
“We can’t go straight across,” he continued. “The waves will tip us. So we’ll have to cut through them at an angle. We’ll head north of our landing place and then cut back south with the wind and waves behind us.”
Michael stood, the canoe on the ground near his feet, and motioned our path with his hand. Our dry bags sat between the yokes where he had strapped them down with bungees. Water ran down his face, rain most likely but also sweat from having carried the canoe so far already that day. He didn’t even try to wipe it away. Instead he gazed out at the lake, calculating, I knew, how to get us across.
“Once we commit,” he said. “You need to keep your head down and paddle as hard as you can. Don’t look up. Don’t stop. Just paddle with everything you’ve got.”
I didn’t need to ask him about the dangers. I knew from his tone that they were many and varied and most of them ended up with us going into the lack with our gear.
Head down and paddle, I thought, as I helped Michael push the canoe into the raging water.
Every stroke forward resulted in our movement backward. The winds thrashed against us, our canoe a prop on the stage of storm. I couldn’t see the shore, only saw dark water capped with frenzied white, but I trusted Michael to get us there. I kept my head down and paddled, short hard strokes, quick and powerful. The canoe pitched and tossed, pulled or guided I couldn’t tell, but I just counted my stokes. Ten on this side. Ten on the other. Again and again. Short, deep, fast.
“Hit the deck,” I yelled, dropping the paddle, and I threw myself to the bottom of the boat, taking the boys to the floor with me.
The front of the canoe plunged into the cage of limbs where we stuck.
“I’m scared. I’m scared,” Aidan started crying. And then Kellen, “I want to go home.”
Chaos in the Green Heron, as I look up to see that Michael was using his hands to keep the rest of the boat from going under the downed tree. Water rushed past us, almost brimming the gunwales. Birdsong replaced by the thunder of spring run-off.
“Michael, get us out of here. Get us out of here,” I yelled. From my position on the bottom of the boat, underneath the yoke so I could hold the boys, I could only see a roof of limb above us. The water churned beneath the boat. I could feel the madness through the fiberglass hull. The river wanted the boat; all pressure bent in that direction, into the tree, into the river, down.
“Break some branches,” Michael yelled above the fray. “Someone is going to get impaled.”
I tried. I used my foot, my hands, all I had, but I couldn’t break even the smallest of the limbs. It was a big tree; the river had already taken anything dainty or thin.
“Michael, get us out!” I cried.
He pushed against the tree, trying to pull the canoe out backwards, but we didn’t move at all. There was no way back.
The boys were panicked now, crying and begging to get out of the boat. I couldn’t see their faces to reassure them, couldn’t get my body turned around.
“Michael, you have to stop and think. You have to be the one to get us out of here.” I could see his face, the strain of his arms against the thick branch. I looked at his eyes, which weren’t panicked but purposeful.
“The only way out is through,” he yelled. “We have to go through.”
Which is what the river wanted, to carry everything with it on its journey north. I looked at the thicket before us and could not see a path.
Undaunted, Michael began to weave the canoe through the cage of bare limbs, using his arms to push against the tree and moderate our exit. But nothing was gentle in the river, nothing slow, nothing quiet. We surged against the tree, ducking branches and limbs, Michael guiding us as best he could from behind. Never once had he left his place on his seat. The three of us cowered at the bottom of the boat, but he stayed where he was, worked the limbs like a puzzle.
We popped free on the other side of the poplar, the canoe bursting into the rapids. I scrambled to my seat, grabbed the paddle once again. Our speed increased with our freedom. We didn’t even cheer our escape. Now back on the main part of the river, still in the narrow, twisted chute, the current took us up again, a dropped stitch, a forgotten plaything, the third strand of a braid. Within seconds, the river swept the canoe into the second turn where the limbs of a bushy willow reached into the river.
“Short strokes,” Michael yelled. “Short strokes.”
It was the last thing I heard before the canoe tipped over.
The fall before we went to Algonquin, Michael and I took the Green Heron up north to the Ausable Forest to canoe Rifle River, a 60 mile stretch of water in northern Michigan that is popular for canoes because there are no damns or portages. We camped along the banks under an October sky compressed to the brilliance of a gemstone. Days before the trip, I had told Michael that I loved him for the first time. I could not help but read the carnival of color that surrounded us — maples in every shade of orange and red, birch like flames, honeyed cottonwoods, yellow ash all backed by the cloudless blue sky — as a celebration of my happiness. On our third afternoon, we put in a few miles up from our tent site. Even though it was the second weekend in October, we wore short-sleeves and hats. The sun warmed my skin. Michael sat in the back and paddled, while we made our way down the lazy river. Curled leaves in yellows and red, tiny boats, floated alongside us, spinning in the current.
“Let’s do that too,” Michael said, when I pointed out the leaf armada.
I looked at him, confused.
But then he took his paddle and placed it on the bottom of the boat. Carefully he stood up and stepped over the yoke closest to him.
“Come on,” he said.
Realizing what he meant, I waited for him to lay his long body on the bottom of the canoe. Even though the length from bow to stern was 17 feet, the inside dimensions were much smaller, so Michael’s body stretched almost from the back seat to the front. But the Green Heron was wide, a stable canoe meant for easy travel, and there was plenty of room beside him. I got up carefully and made my way to his side.
Then the two of us lay in the bottom of the Green Heron, blue sky above, the occasional burst of color as we passed maples and gums, curled fists of leaf falling through the sky, the canoe, bearing the two of us, bobbing down the river, bumping a bush, a limb, the shore, spinning in the water, just like the fleet of leaves surrounding us, the whole world adrift under an October sun.
When I came up, I saw Michael first. He held onto the overturned canoe with one hand and Kellen with the other. Aidan was closest to me, and I reached for him. We were soaked and already panting from fear. The shore rushed past us as we headed down the river, the four of us moving as one.
“You’re okay. You’re okay,” Michael reassured. I didn’t look at his eyes to know whether he thought this was true. Instead, I counted our four bodies again and watched the shore fly past.
“You’re okay. You’re okay,” he repeated like a mantra.
Aidan and Kellen’s eyes were wide with fear. They gulped both air and water but said nothing. Whereas before, in the cage of limb, they had cried out in panic, now, faced not with the possibility of danger but danger itself, they conserved their strength and kept their heads above the water.
After a microsecond, I felt the cold pour into my body. The river stole into my jeans and long-sleeved shirt, soaked into my socks and shoes, weighted me down. It felt like the river was inside me, that my very center had gone watery and cold.
Our breaths came faster now. Short, gasping puffs. Our bodies swung around the bend, the shore maybe ten feet away.
“Swim to the shore,” I yelled. And I tried to make my voice confident and strong, the rush of water pounded in our ears, blocking every sensation except for cold. I wanted Aidan and Kellen to think we knew what to do, wanted them to trust that we would get them out. But even as I yelled for them to swim, I saw the shore streaming past and wondered how we would make it.
I took Aidan and pushed him in front of me, knowing Michael would take Kellen. Together, we began swimming for land. The rocks and branches were going by so quickly, I worried we wouldn’t be able to grab anything. Even if we made it to the shore, I thought the current would slam us against the rocks or that a branch might take out an eye.
We got closer, the force of the current lessening as we grew closer to land. I could taste the mossy water as it splashed my face and mouth, felt the freezing drops on my lips and cheeks.
“Grab on,” I cried, hoping that Aidan wouldn’t hit serrated metal or sharp rocks, but willing to take blood for land.
“Pull yourself up.”
Aidan reached for a rock and then another. I saw him set his feet against the bank. With slow movements, he slowly climbed from the river, and I followed, struggling against the pull of the freezing water. Every time I tried to place my feet down, the current would steal my footing. The rocks on the shore, chunks of concrete really, were hard and jagged, but I welcomed the solidity. I crawled from the water and then looked back for Kellen. Michael was pushing him up the bank only feet from me. With each shove, Michael’s head dipped down into the water. It was then that I remembered Michael didn’t have a life jacket. While the rest of us bobbed on the river’s surface, Michael had held onto the canoe for support. I watched as he struggled to get Kellen up, the other hand still holding the Green Heron.
Michael looked up at me, as Kellen made his way to my side. Holding the canoe, he was in the water, five feet below me, his face white with cold.
“Let the canoe go, Michael,” I called.
Aidan and Kellen shivered at my sides, my clothes sucked into my body, the sky now full of cloud. Michael looked up at me.
Then again, louder, “You have to let it go.”
I watched him hesitate, watched him look once more at the Green Heron overturned in the water, half sunk. Then he let it go. It hurried away, the cooler, his wallet, water bottles, and paddles chasing quickly behind.
Maybe the reason Michael recites poetry whenever we are in the natural world, rather than, say, when doing the dishes or taking out the trash, is to attempt to narrate, to hold within the bounds of language, a kind of beauty, joy, fear that we will never completely understand. Much like love itself. Lines of poetry, image and metaphor, frame the encounter, just for a moment, pins down what shifts and changes before our eyes. The mountains, the woods, the rivers, never fully known, yet familiar in the ways they call to us, are caught in image. Suppose your father was a red bird, Pattiann Rogers asks. Suppose that before you knew how to speak you knew the “slow spread of his wing.” Then, the poet continues,
Then you would be obligated to try to understandLanguage fails us in both love and beauty; yet it’s all we have.
What it is you recognize in the sun
As you study it again this evening
Pulling itself and the sky in dark red
Over the edge of the earth.
I don’t think it is happenstance that Michael and I fell in love under the flap of a heron’s wings. On a river, there is nowhere to go, nothing to do, no one to be. Everything you need to know about love, the fierce ties that bind us as well as the branches that will take you down, can be found in a canoe.
The four of us stood on the banks of the Little Bear under a sunless sky. Wind whipped against our wet bodies. Michael had lost his glasses and couldn’t see. The canoe and everything with it was gone.
“It doesn’t matter what we lost,” Kellen said, the first words any of us spoke, uttered as he watched his favorite hat and green water bottle sail down the river. “The important thing is that we all survived.”
And that was, of course, true. It’s indeed what I felt standing on the bank, the four of us holding onto one another, the boys without shoes, Michael unable to see, water streaming from our clothes. We had made it.
Later I would realize we had only been on the water for 15 minutes before the canoe turned over; it felt like I had been paddling much longer, that we had lived our lives within the hull of the Green Heron. Shock set in and I would only vaguely remember walking for 30 minutes through a cow pasture full of mud and manure, each of us with one boy in our arms, falling repeatedly into pools of filth. We would eventually made it back to the van and then home for hot showers and food. The following day Michael would return to the Little Bear to look for the canoe. It would take two solid days of searching, through bracken and thicket, bruises and abrasions up and down his arms, but he would find it, wedged underneath a willow, still upside down.
He would enter the freezing water once again, this time held fast by a rope, and, with the help of two friends, pull the Green Heron to shore. Aidan will stand on the banks and watch the resurrection because we will want him to know that what is lost can be found. Kellen, though, will refuse to go, will have nightmares every night for weeks, will whimper in his sleep. And that will seem about right to me as well. I, too, will relive the moment when the world became water and the river ran through me, will spin alternative endings with boys trapped by the yoke, separated from us, Michael unable to keep afloat in the brew. Through my sons, I will hold terror and joy in my hands simultaneously.
When Michael returns home with the Green Heron atop the car, spring rains coming down hard so that both he and Aidan are drenched to the skin, I will run from the house to meet him. His smile will say everything, joy pulsing with rain down his face. And I will hug him to me, feel the rain and the river soak into my sweatshirt as well as the deeper warmth and solidity of his chest, grateful for his return with our canoe. • 12 April 2013
Jennifer Sinor is the author of The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing. Her essays have most recently appeared in The American Scholar, Utne Reader, and Pilgrimage. She teaches creative writing at Utah State University where she is an associate professor of English.
This essay was originally published in Ascent.