Go With The Flow

Up the Susquehanna, with and without a map.

for Philadelphia City Paper

Because the kayak twirls like a leaf down the river when left alone, I dip my paddle first on the left, then on the right, to hold her straight down the current. Sometimes I give her way, to move as quickly or slowly as the current takes her.

The Susquehanna is a wide, fast, shallow river, populated with tree-dense islets through its length, and clean water and abundant fish, and turtles sunning everywhere on rocks until you near them, when they slip over and enter the water with a plop.

The river is undeveloped along 95 percent of its banks above Harrisburg. You can float for miles and see nothing but long banks of trees, the green ships of islands gliding past, and a swirl of quicksilver curling around your bow.

This absence of development I cannot explain, except to say that those living in the large population centers probably find the river just as inaccessible as we did. The river winds through untouched woods, coming suddenly upon tiny hamlets asleep on the banks, in the way it did 100 years ago.

This trip has become an annual event for us, my friend and I, an outing we created as an exercise in planning: Take kayaks to the Susquehanna and paddle for three days.

Actually, it is my own planning that needs exercise. My friend, Ray Lewis, has skill enough.

To Ray, life appears in prospect already in its final shape, or near enough to it that discrepancies don't matter. Ray predicts with an almost mechanical precision. There is no contingency he cannot calculate, no emergency he cannot eradicate beforehand.

Even here, for a three-day trip down a slow river, he has come armed with maps. The prize in his collection is a series of three large charts made from aerial photographs of the river, showing every smallest turn of the current. These he has studied with diligence, and during our passage he frequently ceases paddling to consult them.

On one occasion, incensed that he has paddled so far ahead, I duck behind an island—only to find the island is two miles long. When I finally come out the other side, he is waiting.

This, to me, is the modern man in operation, the scientific and cognitive man: Know everything. Conquer the unknown. Leave nothing to chance. No surprise, my friend works with technology. He helps run the computers at a daily New York newspaper.

"It's doing the river twice," he said before we set out, explaining the maps. "It's doing the river once in planning it, reading it beforehand, and again in seeing it, seeing it with the awareness of your motion through it."

"That makes the difference between us," I said. "To me, the future is a hazy dream of bends and slow surprises. I guess I give up what control I might have over it. But to me it is beautiful as it comes."

We had had this discussion many times.

"There is no less beauty in knowing," he said. "And maybe there's more, a beauty of knowing with the whole mind."

"I don't disagree," I said. "But maybe we're talking about fundamentally different kinds of knowledge. Maybe you find your knowledge in a map, in the knowable and verifiable. And maybe I find mine in guessing, sensing, feeling ahead of time."

"The river as emotional knowledge," he laughed.

"Laziness," I said.

We put in Friday at a place called Shady Nook, near Selinsgrove, and paddled several hours. When night fell, we made camp at an island no bigger than a tennis court. Lewis set up the tent and got out the cooking stove while I tried to appear useful.

We lit our camp stove and cooked some pre-packaged field-tested camper-ready Indian curry from an envelope, slurried up some hot chocolate and watched the twilight deepen around us, listening to the liquid susurrus of the river.

This morning, Saturday, we got on the water by 6. A translucent mist made an enchantment of the banks and trees. The summit of the mountain we'd camped opposite slowly emerged from the mist, and over its shoulder at last rose the white smudge of sun.

We stopped our paddling to turn and look back at this picture, the silver float of cloud hiding the mountaintop. Patches of light shone bolder and more radiant where here and there the sun had burned away the mist.

The rhythm returned to us, the monotonous stroking of paddle face across water, and in the places we passed we left a slight wake and the small eddies of our strokes, and gradually our thoughts went quiet.

Our way lay through a baffle of islets dividing the river into a manifold of interweaving channels, and among these we disappeared and reappeared from brakes of scrub and underbrush, and the lambent green of new-leaved spring saplings.

It is still possible to flow with the streams that run among the islets and feel oneself no longer part of the greater river system. I entered the channel at the head of one of these islands and the wide river narrowed to 50 feet. The panorama of green misty hills became a close canopy of trees, with the birds all yacking above, and the sweetness of honeysuckle and wildflowers in the air. The echoing chamber of trees sent back the whisper of paddle strokes and the flurry of fins and fish tails.

And then the island came to an end and I emerged once again into the open river. Thirty ducks took the air, making a damnation of noise, flew downstream and disappeared around a bend. And all was silent again but for the burbling water.

Well, I'm thinking. Maybe I'll always be a loafer. Maybe I'll never see beyond the bow of my little boat. Foreknowledge and circumspection—these are marvelous for those who can handle them. But me, I never could. For me, the present by itself is always too beautiful to bear.

© Rob Laymon 1998

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