Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Part Ten: On the Waterfront

Part Ten: On the Waterfront

On an unusually warm late-summer day in mid-September I carried my yellow sit-on-top ocean kayak down Evanston’s Dempster Street beach across the sand to the shores of Lake Michigan and laid it down at the edge of the water to fasten the seat and affix the little red scupper stoppers that keep water from filling the cockpit. It was late afternoon and the opalescent waves gently lapped against the beach before me.

Once my gear was packed and the kayak readied, I dragged the boat into the cold water about ten feet from the shoreline, steadied it against the crashing waves and slowly climbed in while carefully clutching the hand rails. Once on top I quickly paddled directly into an oncoming wave to avoid being flipped. The first wave crashed into the kayak at knee level and the cold water felt refreshing beneath the warm late-summer sun. Within a couple minutes—after successfully paddling through several more waves—I was moving swiftly through the water and eventually reached calmer swells that rocked the kayak to and fro. The only sounds I could hear were the waves crashing against the beach behind me coupled with the hypnotic sounds of water splashing consistently against the hull beneath me. No more hum of traffic. No rattle of trains. No ringing of cell phones or click click clicking of texters and Blackberry addicts (myself included). Just gentle waves and late-afternoon sky and a breeze that carried the promise of cooler weather.

As I looked east across the great lake I had the invigorating yet fleeting sensation of being alone—a rarity in a city of more than eight million people. Rocking up and down to the lake’s gentle rhythms I relaxed in the serenity and solitude of sublime repose one can only experience on the water. As I gazed south I took in a view of the Chicago skyline—which rises abruptly from the shores of Lake Michigan as though forced upwards by shifting tectonic plates—and I felt as though I was seeing the city for the first time. For the next couple hours I was at one with my watery surroundings as I gently rocked up and down with the consistent swells of Lake Michigan. It was magical—almost (but not quite) like the many quiet moments I’ve enjoyed in my beloved Rocky Mountains near Estes Park, Colorado.

Of course, not all is unspoiled or idyllic along the shores of Lake Michigan. On at least a dozen days or more each summer the E. coli bacteria levels in the lake exceed a healthy level due to raw sewage spills, which prohibit recreation and force communities up and down the shores of Lake Michigan to close their beaches. (Important note regarding my new hobby: remember to wash your hands thoroughly after kayaking, and don’t drink the water!) City life is all about compromises.

Indeed, living in a Chicago is a wonderful experience, but one here finds it rather difficult to experience quiet moments of solitude in nature. My newfound hobby—kayaking wide-open Lake Michigan as well as the malodorous Chicago River—provides just such an outlet for a Texpatriate who spent his summers exploring the woods along the creek behind his Duncanville home as well as acres and acres of piney forest at the Lively farm in Grapeland (Houston County), not to mention countless miles of hiking trails in the Rocky Mountains, which so many Texans love to visit to escape the brutal August heat. (Okay, to be honest, kayaking the smelly Chicago River near downtown is not quite like paddling through a pristine waterway in the Rockies—one has to be careful not to touch the water while kayaking through noisy, polluted, man-made canals, and certain neighborhoods through which one passes are less than inviting thanks to local gang activity. Still, floating beneath the Michigan Avenue Bridge provides enough grandeur to be worth it.) But on this day, as I paddled along the vast shores of Lake Michigan—trying to ignore the fact that there is likely dangerous bacteria in the water all around me—I was reminded of a canoe trip along my favorite Texas River, The Brazos, some 18 years ago.

The Brazos

In the summer of 1992, before my senior year at SMU, I drove south along I35 with several friends I'd known since elementary school to embark on a day-long float trip. We took Exit 353 at the tiny town of West, just north of Waco, and—following a brief excursion to load up on a half dozen delicious kolaches at the Czech Stop (check it out, no pun intended)—we headed west past an old BBQ joint run out of a rusty, old, broken-down caboose toward Dick's Canoes, which is located along the Brazos River somewhere just south of Lake Whitney.

Dick, who owns the eponymous canoe shop, took the six of us up river about eight and-a-half miles where we loaded our rented, aluminum canoes with coolers with bags of chips and junk food and two cases of Bud Light (a.k.a. “liquid America”). Our potluck float trip party included four guys—Brad, Billy, Todd, and me—along with two women, Carla and Bronwyn. (Last names were removed to protect the innocent.) Ironically, although we had all known each other since grade school none of us had every dated one another. Subsequently, there was a level of comfort and intimacy between the guys and girls that was unspoiled by any jealousy or history of awkward backseat fumblings. Moreover, we all attended different colleges so this gathering comprised a mini-reunion of former childhood friends all finding their way as adults free of petty high school dynamics.

Within a couple miles we had already imbibed several beers apiece and at least two of the three canoes were flipped over and floating upside down without any passengers or cargo. Mine was one of these. It was summer in Texas, so the cool waters of the Brazos felt refreshing under the hot mid-day sun. I floated downriver feet first with my upside-down canoe on my right and the beer-filled cooler to my left. Carla, Bronwyn and Bill were also floating along feet-first alongside the two upside-down canoes. In fact, we probably covered nearly a quarter mile in this fashion—drinking beer along the way in our now wet faded, cut-off jeans and t-shirts.

However, after twenty minutes or so Bill and I glanced to our left and witnessed something rather frightening: two black cottonmouth water moccasins—dangerously venomous snakes common to these parts—slithered into the river from the eastern riverbank and began making their way toward us along this wide stretch of river. These jet-black snakes slithered along with the current in their own deliberate, cool manner seemingly oblivious to us—or so we hoped.

Having just read Larry McMurtry’s classic novel Lonesome Dove (a.k.a. the Texas Bible) that spring for the first time, I was immediately reminded of the scene in which Sean O’Brien, a young Irish immigrant who joins the unlikely bunch of cowboys on a cattle drive to Montana, is killed by dozens of water moccasins who swarm around him as he attempts to cross the Red River following a storm. (For many Texans, one can reference Lonesome Dove for most of life’s experiences; and incidents involving snakes are particularly relevant.)

To keep from scaring the hell out of Carla and Bronwyn—and especially to avoid the fate of McMurty's unfortunate Irish cowboy—Bill and I quickly suggested that we get back inside our canoes. We immediately righted the aluminum canoes and helped Carla and Bronwyn climb in, then we joined them as rapidly as possible without tipping the canoes again. This is not as easy as you think, especially after imbibing half a dozen Bud Lights each. Once inside the canoe I lost track of our slithery Brazos companions. Still, thoughts of Lonesome Dove lingered in my grey matter. Neither Bill nor I said anything about the snakes to our fellow river rats until the end of the day to avoid upsetting anyone.

Over the next few hours we consumed more cheap beer, gossiped about current and former high school friends, and talked at length about the joys of college life. And Bill and I tried hard to forget the water moccasins. Eventually, however, our mindless chatter about life as twentysomethings gave way to a few moments of serene calm along the river. The limestone and granite walls beneath cedar, elm and oak trees along the banks of the Brazos were beautiful and wild. Periodic gravel bars and high granite bluffs punctuated the scenery along the river as we quietly floated along paddling only when necessary. The spring water line several feet above us revealed how deep and fast the Brazos can get at high flows. This was Texas and it was wild and beautiful.

Mostly what I remember are the calming sounds of the river gurgling in the late afternoon all around me on a hot summer day in the prime of my young adult life. We were carefree with no concerns about mortgages or jobs or careers or any of the attendant anxieties that awaited all of us in years to come. If only I had possessed the maturity and presence of mind to return alone to the Brazos the following weekend or sometime soon thereafter, absent the sophomoric hijinks and gossip, not to mention the ornery snakes, to experience the river and take pleasure in its beauty and ponder its mythic history replete with wild Comanches and Texas Rangers. In a way I guess I did return, at least in my mind, as it is the river and its quiet solitude as well as a nagging curiosity about who else saw the same banks along this storied waterway that live on most firmly in my memory nearly two decades later.

Goodbye to a River

Of course, my prosaic recollections from the summer of 1992 fail to compare with the poetic narrative of Texas writer John Graves, a writer often hailed as the “Texas Thoreau,” whose epic canoe trip down the Brazos is chronicled in his classic book, Goodbye to a River.

“The Brazos,” explains Graves, “does not come from haunts of coot and hern, or even from mountains. It comes from West Texas, and in part from an equally stark stretch of New Mexico, and it runs for something over 800 miles down to the Gulf. On the high plains it is a gypsum-salty intermittent creek; down toward the coast it is a rolling Southern river, with levees and cotton fields and ancient hardwood bottoms. It slices across Texas history as it does across the map of the state; the Republic’s first capitol stood by it, near the coast, and settlement flowed northwesterward up its long trough as the water flowed down.”

Graves's lyrical narrative about his solo canoe trip in 1957—which, due to its popularity, helped prevent several dams from being built between Possum Kingdom and Lake Whitney thus preserving this stretch of the river—regales the reader with epic tales of famous Texans from Charles Goodnight and Bigfoot Wallace to Chief Quanah Parker and Peta Nocona, all of whom experienced a harsh existence along the Brazos. Readers of Graves will learn that the river we paddled that hot summer day in 1992 has a long and colorful past: “When you paddle and pole along it, the things you see are much the same things that the Comanches and the Kiowas used to see, riding lean ponies down it a hundred years ago to raid the new settlements in its valleys.”

We didn’t see any Comanches or Kiowas that day, just a few mean-looking snakes, a few old childhood friends, and miles of beautiful scenery divided in two by a river that will share its epic stories of old-time Texas for those willing to listen.

Don’t Rock the Boat, Baby

Back on Lake Michigan, as I made my way back to shore, the waves had grown bigger and I struggled at times to keep moving in the right direction. As my kayak floated within 30 yards or so of shore, the waves began crashing behind me making the boat surge forward every 20 seconds followed by a brief retreat before the arrival of the next wave. However, the unevenness of the shoreline, which breaks off of Northwestern University's landfill campus quite radically just a quarter mile north, makes the waves hit the shore at a slight angle.

After the first three major surges I lost my angle a bit at the bottom of the next swell and the fourth big wave flipped my kayak upside down, causing my body to fly off the port side into the cold water. It was cold. Very cold. After a complete flip under water I surfaced and grabbed the handle at the bow and dragged the kayak toward shore. As I reached the beach I pulled the kayak out of the water and sat down next to my boat, soaking wet from head to toe.

Sitting on the beach looking out at Lake Michigan in all its grandeur, all I could think of was just how much E. coli bacteria I had just ingested. Ah...the life of a Windy City outdoorsman.

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