His poems have recently appeared in Atlanta Review and Missouri Review, and his fifth chapbook, What It Was Like, is scheduled by Small poetry Press in April. "Lost at Home in the Bottomlands" is from Stepping Again into the River, a manuscript tracing North Dakota's Sheyenne River through the state. Read other work by Robert King published in Weber Studies: Vol. 16.1 (essay), Vol. 18.1 (poetry), and Vol. 23.1 (essay).
"You don't know what it's like," my daughter Lynn said, turning onto a paved road after rescuing me from the tangles of the Sheyenne bottomlands, "to watch your father, almost sixty, disappear around a bend, in a canoe, heading off to God knows where." And I didn't know, not having thought I was almost sixty—until then—and certain I knew, along with God, exactly where I was heading.
The main worry I had that late June about canoeing and camping a stretch of the Sheyenne, the last few miles of Nelson County and halfway through Griggs, was that it was too commonplace. I wouldn't be Samuel Clemens on the commercial Mississippi, and I wouldn't be John Neihardt following the symbol of his soul, the Missouri, in 1909. I would not even be Thoreau setting forth with his brother John on the Concord and Merrimac rivers in 1839—in August, a month after Nicollet crossed the Sheyenne heading toward Devils Lake—to see what country lay behind him.
The Sheyenne wound so narrowly through pastures and fields that I might be trespassing, and I imagined a county sheriff coming upon me in my bedroll, tucked into the small space between the stream and a private fence. Or, if I wouldn't be illegal, then laughable, a solitary gray-haired figure, more Rip Van Winkle than Thoreau, paddling past farmers working the fields or sitting on their back porches. I was, therefore, both afraid and embarrassed to ask for advice—Forest Service, Game and Parks, local farmers, anyone.
I wasn't worried about the canoeing—it seemed simple to put in south of McVille and let the slow current take me thirty miles or so downstream to Sibley's Crossing where the Sheyenne backs up at the beginning of Lake Ashtabula. I knew the river meandered—a friend suggested three miles of water to one mile of map—but I had three or four days to spare. It wouldn't get dark until late and I could make some headway even after suppers. Plenty of time.
The river flowed placidly under the couple of highway bridges I drove, and I'd checked some county road crossings to find the same mild stream coming around a bend toward the bridge, sliding under it, and moving thirty yards or so before disappearing around the next bend. The observant Joseph Nicollet, for that matter, had declared the Sheyenne passable by canoe. There was nothing to worry about. What did I know.
Lynn was picking me up after work that Wednesday outside my downtown apartment building, the Red River dozing north just beyond the parking lot, and I waited in the lobby hung with photographs of steamboats from those years the river was crowded with traffic. None of them large—200 feet or less—they often trailed long barges behind them, hauling farm equipment, flour, supplies, and lumber downstream north to Fort Garry, the original Winnipeg, and then back to the upstream terminal of Fargo-Moorhead, huge loads of furs at first, brimming bushels of wheat later.
One of the photos showed the first steamboat on the river, the Anson Northrup, built in 1859 at Lafayette, a town now only a shadow in the trees near where the Sheyenne emptied into the Red. Perhaps it wasn't very well built, as it sank a few years later near Winnipeg, but it looked impressive to me each day as I came off the elevator. Last winter I'd read Roy Johnson's account of steamboating on the Red with its "long and colorful history," and I guessed that fifty years—the last boat on the Red south of Canada, the Grand Forks took its final trip in 1909, two years after my mother's birth in Westhope—qualified as long compared to the short lifetimes of army forts or towns betting inaccurately on the railroad's direction or the historical eye-blink of the Pony Express further south. But colorful, it certainly was. Imagine a river-race in late fall, one crew putting in for the night because they'd had too much to drink and waking to find their boat frozen in, staying the winter in a few cabins to establish the town of Grand Forks. Imagine the yearly floods, the saloon-owner at Fisher's Landing on the Red Lake River, the other grand fork, finally tying a rope around his building so that it wouldn't be carried away each spring, or the flood in 1897 which lifted the grain-boat J. L. Grandin several miles away from the main course and stranded it on the prairie near Halstead, Minnesota. Johnson nicely describes those days, boats "bulging with enormous cargoes" and loaded with salesmen and scientists, speculators and homesteaders, government officials and Mennonites from Russia—steaming past towns still there and towns no longer there, shipyards and docks, hotels and warehouses, saloons and flour mills and cafes and more, for fifty years' worth, and now a series of sepia-tinged photographs on the wall of a remodeled hotel where senior citizens, or almost senior citizens, sit in the lobby.
Two years later, after a long winter of heavy snow and a terrible spring melt, the Red would rise easily over my parking lot to become the great Grand Forks Flood, and I, in another state by that time, would watch the local news made national, houses overwhelmed, the city's center part of the river's middle, two blocks of buildings blazing as helplessly as a homesteader's barn in a prairie fire. And I would think of my lobby inundated, the Anson Northrup washed from its moorings on the wall and riding the trashy currents of disaster.
But today was dry and warm and bright, and Lynn arrived in her van, the 18-foot aluminum Grumman lashed on top. She watched, half encouraging, half dubious, as I loaded my gear into the van: a sleeping bag and tent, water, a backpack, and a one-burner propane stove. I also had a day-bag which carried a hand tape-recorder for my "reflections," a coil of rope, a knife, and—because I'd found it in my toolbox—a small pruning-saw just in case there might be a branch across the river.
We turned south at McVille and slipped into the Sheyenne valley, pulling up behind a car parked along the bridge, its owner fishing on the west side. He glanced at the canoe as I got out, but his expression didn't change as he looked back to the river. "Some luck?" I asked. "Some," he nodded.
The river came cleanly around a bend from the northwest, slid under the bridge, and vanished just as cleanly around a bend to the southeast. Lynn suggested checking around that curve where we found the Sheyenne gurgling through a tangle of branches from two downed trees blocking anything like a canoe. Lynn looked at me. All right, I shrugged, there was another crossing two miles down. That would save me two miles. "Even better," I told her.
We drove south, turned east, and came to the next bridge where the same smooth Sheyenne moved. We checked beyond the first bend and found the way clear. "Shouldn't we walk farther?" Lynn suggested, "No, it's fine." I replied. Lynn shook her head. We unloaded the canoe, and I yanked it awkwardly through the grass and slid it into the water. I stowed my gear and stepped in, holding onto the long grass from the bank to steady myself. I'd probably camp tonight on the other side of the next county bridge. She should pick me up at five o'clock Saturday afternoon at the cafe at Sibley. And not to worry about being late. If I got there earlier, it'd be easy to while away the time. I settled in and pushed off, but Lynn wanted to take a picture, so I posed in mid-stream, paddle lifted, then turned and dug in. She took one more photo—which I didn't know until later—the back of her father, almost sixty, as he disappeared around the bend, heading toward God alone knew where.
Rivers, Thoreau thought, were "the constant lure to distant enterprise and adventure" and "the natural highways of all nations." I was being lured but not to enterprise or adventure, and the Sheyenne had not been a highway for much of anything. I would be traveling neutral country for awhile, halfway between the Dakota reservation and the Cheyenne's ancient village, between Nicollet's crossing upstream and General Sibley's crossing downstream, nothing on either hand to remind me of history as I floated through a familiar landscape, a century of farmers.
I was lured here to find nothing more than the river's movement, the "lapse of the current" which Thoreau took as "an emblem of all progress, following the same law with the same system, with time, and all that is made." For Thoreau or Emerson or a number of mid-19th century New Englanders, Nature's facts were sets of spiritual hieroglyphics, and I knew the lure of such emblems. I'd thought that myself, even before discovering the Transcendentalists. I wasn't sure I agreed with Emerson's generalization that "Nature is the symbol of spirit" or with his specificity that "Particular natural facts, are symbols of particular spiritual facts" but I knew there was some connection.
Thoreau was also fascinated with the natural scientist Louis Agassiz—his name later given to the ice-age lake on whose fertile bottom now sat Grand Forks—who advised his students to study and trust Nature, rather than books, as the objective giver of truth. "No one can warp her to suit his own views," he declared as he presented "lessons of God's magnificence" drawn from his study of marine invertebrates, each natural object representing "a thought of God."
But even if no such connection between nature and my own condition or God's actually existed, it often felt that way and that was enough for me. So I was taking a commonplace journey in an ordinary location and whether I'd discover a liquid progress or find some other emblem, I'd let the current lapse me along and see what I found in drifting. I'd find a lesson in nature or, given what happened, Nature was about to teach me a lesson.
It was still sunny, the tall grasses along the shore bowing over to complete the circle with their bowed up reflections, and I lifted the tape recorder for some poetic observation—until I realized I had to paddle to get straight again. I tried it twice more, having to quit to regain control, and then gave up. Whatever I saw, I'd have to simply remember. I paddled around an occasional water-smoothed log anchored in the flow. Here and there cattle had gathered, the mud pocked into the shapes of their hooves. The stream ran smoothly.
Emerson described setting out for a boating experience with Thoreau, crossing one local field to leave time, science, and history behind, whereupon they "entered into Nature with one stroke of a paddle." In about fifteen minutes, I came around a bend and entered into Nature myself, coming suddenly upon a ten-foot high, bank-to-bank logjam, two or three trees having fallen into and across the river, capturing flood-driven branches and debris. I back-paddled fiercely, but the stream pulled me on, the bow hitting the first log and stopping with a shudder, the current bringing the stern around, smacking me flat against the jam.
I yanked at branches, the canoe trembling and rocking, but they resisted. This was not a giant handful of jackstraws tossed randomly down. The pressure of the water—and perhaps the lifts and falls of the river over time—had woven together a witch's nest of logs and sticks, tied and tightly knotted. I tried my small pruning saw, making only a few toothy scratches before I gave up. With a few heaves, I back-paddled the canoe, then dug fiercely to the right to put ashore. "Well," I may have said out loud as I stood on the bank.
It took two trips to portage, one to lug the gear ahead and one to pull the empty canoe through the long grass, and I re-stowed the pack, tent, and sleeping bag, and put back in. Midstream, I gave a few vigorous strokes, the water hissing beneath me as I lurched forward. That wasn't so bad, I told myself. It hadn't taken that long.
Ten minutes later, around another bend, I found another logjam, as large and complete an obstruction as the first one. "Well," I may have said out loud again, with a slightly different tone.
My trip would be partly a test of optimism, of a basic trust in nature. The idealist minister and professor Henry Van Dyke proclaimed, in his 1901 Little Rivers, that "every river that flows is good, and has something worthy to be loved." I agreed with that and, yes, a river was probably "the most human and companionable of all inanimate things," full of character and life and good fellowship, but that early evening, I grew less sure of the Sheyenne's character and doubted its fellowship completely. I had paddled for ten minutes and spent fifteen portaging around a logjam to put in and paddle ten minutes until the next one. What I'd seen from the bridges was a false view. Approaching a crossing, the river had been straightened out and engineered, logjams removed to protect the bridge. Out of sight of the road, it was a series of tight twistings blocked with accumulated debris.
I also hadn't clearly understood the problem of cutbanks, where the river pushes to erode, and pointbars where it slows and deposits its silt. In my room, I'd thought I could "jaywalk" across the bend of a meander, but in actuality the pointbar would ground me. I had to follow the main current, curving exactly with it.
And I also hadn't expected the level of land to change. Sometimes I glided abreast of a low pasture, but most of the time, enclosed by high banks, I was at the bottom of a ditch. I hadn't yet read John Graves' warning, apropos the Rio Bravo, that since a river seeks the lowest line it allows very few views of its country. "Things a quarter-mile away exist for you only because you know they are there," he wrote. He appreciated solitude, as I did, but he also found times when the river's banks closed in with blank isolation, and now I knew that too. The valley was over half a mile wide and a hundred feet deep, but I was a dozen feet farther down in an incised stream, out of sight, at the bottom of the bottom.
I had little company. Coming around a bend I did see a beaver cutting a V across the water who quickly disappeared with a whack of his tail, and once a heron rose in front of me and flapped almost mournfully on, following the river's course to disappear, but nothing else. There were, of course, trees—mostly elm and oak—and tall grasses along the river which made it at least a strip of semi-wildness through the agricultural landscape but there was something foreign, almost foreboding, about the river and its banks. I didn't feel I was in the middle of Van Dyke's river of good fellowship or in the middle of a transcendent Nature, as Emerson capitalized it.
Nor was I in the middle of a settled countryside. Once I passed a wooden wagon wheel half-sunken in the mud along the shore, its bone-white spokes flaking away, its rusted iron rim, loosened from the wood, moving a little in the current. Another time, the land falling a bit so I could see around me, a white farmhouse appeared ahead through the trees, and I straightened up to meet someone, ignorant of where I was in time. Nicollet recorded the loneliness of passing an abandoned fort, and Neihardt, farther up the Missouri, had slid alongside the remnants of Fort Benton, "one crumbling bastion and two gaunt fragments of adobe walls in a waste of sand," he wrote, "an odd, pathetic little ruins." As I came closer, the sparkling farmhouse became a weathered frame house starting to tilt, its windows blank, its back door missing and, behind it, the trailer someone must have occupied after the house was abandoned, the trailer now abandoned as well, its windows smashed, a pathetic little ruin of its own.
After the heron, there'd been no animal life, and after the deserted house and trailer, no signs of humanity, not even the echo of a car or tractor in the distance. Nothing was happening here although I moved through evidence of happenings, slipping around the mud-caked skeleton of a tree, length-wise in the current, its intricate root-system exposed as if an anatomy lesson, or passing clutches of straw plastered in branches six feet above the ground by spring floods. I was exploring, in a sense. But it felt more as if I had disappeared, dropped off the end of the earth. I was very much alone and it was getting dark.
By 9 o'clock, tired from six portages in three hours—I'd kept count—and concerned about the clouds building up, I pulled ashore and unloaded my gear. Snapping the tent up, I boiled water for instant coffee, then drank it while I heated up stew and munched on dry crackers in the otherwise absolute silence of the wooded bottomland.
On my township map, the river wound through sections, a little square for each farmhouse, a line for a road, broken lines for a field road, but my topographical map showed the river much more torturous, turning east, north, south, west, the banks of the valley swirling and dark with elevation lines, the scratches of hills, the etched lace-work of Nature's ups and downs. I didn't know exactly where I was on either map, but my first landmark, the bridge, had not been reached. I had not yet gone three land miles.
I felt something troubling about my adventure, but I decided I'd think better in the morning and slid into my sleeping-bag. My legs ached a little from the portages, and I stretched them out fiercely and let them relax. The ground felt hard at first and then softened as I drifted into sleep. Around midnight I woke to the steady ticking of rain on the tent, but I was dry, I was fine, I was going back to sleep. It didn't even occur to me to wonder what Lynn might be thinking if she were lying awake, her last view perhaps, her father bent to his paddle and rounding a curve to vanish into Nature.
On the last of August in 1839, Nicollet, returning from his Dakota journey, entered the "familiar country" of Minnesota. On that same day, somewhat to the east, Thoreau and his older brother John began their boating and walking tour into New Hampshire that would become A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers, a kind of "sacerdotal withdrawal from the village," Thoreau suggested, a journey to discover the surviving wilderness of New England. One hundred fifty six years and two months later, I woke up on the banks of the Sheyenne after a night of insistent rain.
Water had collected from some small leak, soaking the bottom half of my sleeping bag, and I crawled out of the tent, the trees dripping, the long grasses slippery, the whole country having wept, as Thoreau had described a morning on his river. For him, a sparrow had trilled in the dismal dampness with what he called "cheery faith," but I heard no such spiritual messenger and I quickly drank a cup of coffee, ate some fruit bars, struck a wet camp, and settled myself in the canoe, wet up to my waist from the long grass and down to my waist from the overhanging trees. I pushed off with a stroke, the water hissing under my aluminum shell, and settled in again.
Here and there I passed thick chocolate rivulets tumbling into the river from the torn pasture land, a stream clear and pebble-bottomed to earlier explorers now the recipient of an eroding usefulness. The silty gurgle from the fields and the trapped deadfalls made it seem I was traveling a series of disasters, but I tried to concentrate on the flow of the water. That was what I'd come to experience. Going upstream, Thoreau thought, was a matter of conflict and power, but downstream favored a certain meditative state, an onward flow within which one yielded to "the liquid undulating lapse of thought"—and thus I lapsed on. If the river was an emblem of progress, it followed the same law and the same system as everything else, but what was that law? It turned out that seeing a river as a flow of uniform progress—or even a uniform death-ward current—was a little too simple.
There's a rhythm to meandering streams, a combination of the movement of water between banks and within water itself. It seems that given a river of a certain length left to natural processes, a meander will result because water is a random object.
"Water is a random object?" I asked Frank Beaver as we sat in his university office a month later. I was still trying to find out exactly what I'd experienced.
"Well, sure," Frank said. "Water can't resist any stress, so anything that happens is going to cause movement. Say we have a straight river." He drew two parallel red lines and a third winding between them. "It will often develop a sinuous thalweg and that can lead to—"
"That's if you connect the deepest points of a stream channel with a line."
"And this is in a meander?"
"It's anywhere," he shrugged, pulling my attention back to the two straight lines and that snake-like one. "If you have a stream with straight banks the thalweg is still going to wind its way from side to side inside the water. This lifts the water surface slightly against one bank, pushing on it, and thus eroding more on that side than the other."
I watched the red lines thicken on Frank's sheet of paper, small arrows surfacing and bending as he spoke. The water starts to curve, okay? And once the water starts to curve, it pushes faster, eroding more of the cutbank side, here—scratch, scratch with the red pen—and on the inside of the curve—scratch, scratch—the water slows down so it deposits sand and silt and forms the pointbar, okay? Okay.
Now, do I know laminar flow from turbulent flow? Well, if you have a smooth, straight channel of slow water, the layers are parallel, shearing over each other and that's laminar flow. The maximum velocity in the stream is in the middle, just below the surface because friction of the stream-bed slows the lower part and the friction of the banks the outer part.
Now, when you get going faster—Frank turned the paper over, more red lines, curving arrows—you start to get turbulent, secondary eddies superimposing themselves on the main forward flow, a lot of chaotic movement happening. And now we've got just one more step. Water flows primarily downstream because water's an expression of gravity.
"Water's an expression?" I lifted my eyebrows
"Of gravity," Frank nodded, not lifting his.
So. Here was water moving primarily downstream, a kind of turbulent flow, but there was also another flow, and the red pen scratched some more. You have surface water moving in toward the center of the stream and down, while bottom water is moving outward toward the walls and up which produces a helical movement of the whole mass, a spiral energy that could really help create meandering from side to side, the ultimate cause of which is the sinuous nature of water itself. Frank ended, re-capping his red-pen and shoving the boiling tubular diagrams of the inside of a river across his flat desk. "It's the way water works," he said.
On the Sheyenne that day, I was feeling what I couldn't yet explain. Van Dyke had observed that his little companionable rivers were both their water and their banks, a stream molding the shore as the shore controlled a stream. He likened it to the union of soul and body, although he didn't identify which was which. I knew what that meant—the origin of "river" being the Latin ripa for bank, the movement defined by its limitations—but I hadn't thought about being at the mercy of both shore and stream, of the helical flow or even so obvious a feature as cutbanks and pointbars. If water was an expression of gravity, the course of my canoe was an expression of water. I was helpless in this emblematic flow of invisible dynamics, and all I could do was guide the canoe into the thalweg of the stream, following the fastest and deepest water to the left and then ricocheting to the right around the next knot of land.
Trapped in the current which shaped the bank, I was also trapped by barriers intruding from the shore. The first logjam and portage for Thursday came in twenty minutes. I slipped and slid through rain-slick bushes, occasionally stumbling over fallen trunks hidden in the grass, dragging the muddy canoe under low, snagging branches and over hummocks of soaked grass. By the time I pushed off again, I was breathing heavily, my boots and pants shiny with water and mud.
It took about fifteen minutes of paddling on the fluid surface of my thoughts to reach the next logjam and a heart-breaking portage. The current was too fast for me to turn back into the shallows and the banks so high I had to toss a rope up around a tree and pull first myself up and then the canoe. I slithered it across the grass to an open space, looked downstream and saw another logjam. Leaving the canoe behind, I waded through hip-high grass, my feet feeling blindly for hidden logs, for twenty more yards before I spotted another jam. By this time I had stopped talking out loud to myself—I didn't want to hear it. I went back, portaging around all three by hauling the canoe straight inland because the Sheyenne, a process of cutbank and pointbar and the helical flow of this most passive element unable to withstand any stress, had reversed its course, coming back at me from the opposite direction.
Portaging around the logjams had taken on a dogged, desperate quality so that when I actually made it through one I was unduly pleased. Once I hit a jam and found a large branch which, removed by my saw, allowed an opening. The next consisted of a half-submerged log running the width of the river, another fully branched tree having fallen over it. Realizing that without my weight the buoyant canoe might slide over the log, I rammed the prow forward, grabbed the suspended branches of the second tree and lifted myself so the canoe bobbed up and over the log. I imagined what it might look like if I missed, dangling suspended in the middle of the stream while my supplies sailed safely on, but I managed to catch it with my boots and slide back down.
Soon I was again in the bottom of a steep ditch between banks of weathered shale and siltstone, sediment settling just offshore, the ancient ocean-way of North America now an exposed wall of loose gray bits which, when I brushed them in passing, flaked easily away into the water with a spattering hiss. The pointbars were made of the same shale, popcorn-sized chips of gray and black, whose looks were deceiving. Once I nosed into a pointbar and stepped solidly out on the crusty flakes to look around. Another time, at an identical pointbar, I stepped out with one foot and sank to my knee in shale-covered mud.
At about ten o'clock I hit the county bridge I'd been expecting the night before and pulled up on the rocks underneath to make a cup of coffee. The desolate silence—not a farmhouse seen, nothing heard all morning—was broken suddenly when a car passed overhead, the bridge resounding loudly, and I felt almost cheerful, near civilization again. I even felt a little good humor at being, for all intents and purposes, hidden from sight and society under the pilings of the bridge while a citizen rumbled his own method of transportation on his way, never suspecting mine, a drifter, literally.
By the time I finished my coffee, the sun had come out, and around the next broad bend I slid into a stretch of pastoral stream, a painting in which water mirrored its shoreline trees. It was not the richness of Thoreau's New England air and water, so transparent that "we are uncertain whether the water floated the land, or the land held the water in its bosom," but it was a Dakota version, the river darkly the river, the tan reflections of trees and grasses blending in a murky harmony. The banks lowered and fell back so that I could actually see some of the surrounding countryside—elms, a knobby pasture—then rose again like walls, shutting the landscape from my sight, and I was left focused once more on the opaque, grainy flow.
Here and there the end of a branch stuck up, the brown water dividing into a set of V-shaped ripples before it joined seamlessly together again. Sometimes a jutting stick would bob helplessly insistent, pushed forward by the current to its point of tension, snapped back, and pushed forward again, an incessant nodding at forces beyond its control. So this was accident or eternal law, an emblem of endurance or perhaps futility. Or it was an emblem of both at once, nature assimilating all the contrasts and distinctions which we worry out and worry about.
Occasionally I glimpsed an almost imperceptible roiling of the current and wondered what it signified. The shallowest water, Thoreau said, was unfathomable, but that was being philosophical. In practice, someone like Samuel Clemens knew a pilot had to read the river, the Mississippi's face "a wonderful book," and that a passenger might be "charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface," but the pilot, man of science and the practical arts, would know it meant "a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated." I tried to read the subtle swirls and rolls and gushes but always felt I was guessing and it didn't seem to matter in this single-minded stream, the deep flow of the thalweg carrying the canoe, helpless as water itself, toward the cutbank away from the shallows of the pointbar and then the reverse at the next bend.
Around noon and after several more portages—I had stopped counting—I pulled up on a spit of pointbar, stepped gingerly out on the wet shale mud and set up my stove to make coffee and have a sandwich while a few cows looked down from the high bank with a kind of puzzled concentration. It was an oasis in time and place, the sandwich familiar, the coffee bracing, but after that it was river and logjam, paddle and portage, until mid-afternoon when—muddy, still wet, arms and legs a little rubbery—I came to another wall of wedged driftwood and thought of surrendering.
The bank was low, the walls of the valley quite close. On one bank were buildings—a collapsed barn, a deteriorating trailer—and although they were deserted, I saw the nearly fresh tracks of a pickup in the grass indicating access. This was it. I would walk ahead to see if the river had miraculously changed its nature and, if it hadn't, I would simply walk up the hill and call for help. I would give up. The barn bore a sign warning against trespassing, and I hoped to come face to face with the county sheriff from whom I would beg arrest.
The canoe tied up, I staggered again through tall wet grass and nettles and over hidden logs, too tired by now to think clearly. Once, following the river south, I heard other water a few yards through the trees and found a stream flowing north, standing almost stupefied for a few seconds before I realized it was the same Sheyenne, having eaten its way around another loop. Ahead, I counted three logjams in the distance of half a mile.
I came back, pulled the canoe up onto the pasture, and plodded up the hill. George Catlin, the western and plains artist, often landed his skiff and "mounted the green carpeted bluffs, whose soft grassy tops invited me to recline, where I was at once lost in contemplation." He often found "soul-melting scenery" as I had on top of Lookout Mountain and Devils Heart Butte and dozens of others, but this view was different. I could see at least four miles in each direction and except for a herd of cows to the west there was nothing, no corral, no barn, no house, no road. I thought of simply starting to walk—I'd have to reach a house sometime—but that wouldn't solve the problem of getting the canoe out.
I stood there for a long time, turning around as if I expected something to change. "One must needs climb a hill to know what world he inhabits," Thoreau wrote one century and sixteen days before I was born, and I had climbed one but couldn't believe it was my world, this empty landscape this close to home. In the middle of a state I'd lived in for almost thirty years, I was right now the only one around. I couldn't even surrender to the river. I sighed an exasperated puff of air, then started back down.
I unpacked my gear, lugging it the half mile or so downstream, scaring up a deer who bounded with a certain difficulty herself under thick, low-hanging branches and over the scattered hidden logs; then I tramped back to grab up the rope and haul the canoe over the wet grass. Putting in, I paddled ten minutes and hit another logjam, portaged, ten minutes and hit another one, until dark. Camp that night was a small peninsula, by now a familiar pattern, the Sheyenne in front of me moving south, the Sheyenne behind me moving north. Just as I finished heating water, it started to rain again and I had hot instant coffee and cold stew in my tent.
That Thursday night I gave myself a speech, needing the words out loud in the air. I was in no danger, true. It was a kind of adventure, true. I was tired of this adventure, very true. There was no way of knowing where I would be Saturday afternoon around five o'clock—except that it would not be Sibley. The only thing to do tomorrow was to push on and get out of the river at the first house I saw. I warned myself not to think that if I hit an easy stretch it would be all right because it wouldn't be all right for long. Remember that, I told myself. Promise me.
I lay back, surrender bringing its own relief. The rain had stopped tapping against the tent, and the bottomland was silent. One of the many things I didn't know in the dark end of that Thursday was that down river a few miles, just off the Sheyenne near Cooperstown, four men had been digging and brushing to uncover the backbone, ribs, and breastbone of a platycarpus, an almost thirty foot long creature with a long toothy snout and scaly skin, the main predator of the ancient sea that had covered the internal plains 75 million years behind us all and had covered the dark silent bottomlands where I'd been sailing inside an old sea-bed. Reading about the fossil later, I remembered lying there and the one sound I heard from the darkness.
It was after midnight when a huge, echoing, two-part ka-thunk of a splash a few yards away brought me upright, eyes wide, body tingling with adrenaline. I waited, my heart thumping, but nothing else happened. A beaver? Not unless it had jumped from a tree, since it was the sound an anvil would have made dropping in. Some large fish could have surfaced, leaped, and splashed down, but it must have been the size of a platycarpus. I lay back down and listened to my heart gradually slow. Something was "out there," as we sometimes say of nature, something large and unknown hidden inside the mystery of the dark water which kept rolling in and over upon itself, cutting to one side, lying down to the other, curving back and forth, the way water works.
The next morning's bright sunshine—"The sun is new every day," Aristotle said Heraclitus said—and my decision to quit whenever I could combined to lighten my heart. I took my time at breakfast, washed in the river, and lounged around over a cup of coffee, drying out a bit. I pulled the canoe up, dragged it through my campsite and slid it back in the river heading the opposite direction. I struck my wet tent, crammed my wet gear into my wet knapsack, packed the canoe, and put off about eight o'clock. You're out the first chance you get, I reminded myself.
Two or three tiring portages later, about mid-morning, I came around a steep-walled bend to find more deadwood tangle. Pulling myself up the muddy bank by the roots of trees, I saw, almost all the way up on the ridge of the Sheyenne valley, a heavenly white farmhouse with a trimmed lawn. I tied the canoe to one of the roots, followed the edge of a pasture, and headed up the steep cattle path to the house.
Mr. Hengsa, the Norwegian farmer who came out on the porch, was surely surprised to see a muddy, disheveled stranger emerge from the Sheyenne bottomlands, but his face was neutral, waitful. I needed to use his phone, I explained. I'd been trying to canoe the Sheyenne and there were too many logjams. Oh, he knew what I meant. His two nephews had tried it and it had taken them three hours to go the two miles to the church down by the bridge there. There'd been that outbreak of Dutch elm disease in the mid `80s, you know. That was what killed a lot of the Sheyenne elm and caused so much driftwood.
Well, come on in, and he introduced his mother who offered coffee and "bars," a crusty fruit staple in this part of the country. I accepted, then called Lynn at work, repeating the directions as the Hengsas gave them—west one mile, south two miles, and so on.
I had a second coffee and two more bars. Did I want to wait inside? No, but thanks. I had to haul the canoe up and I was too muddy anyway. I'd just wait out in their yard. Mr. Hengsa followed me out onto the porch and we stood looking down to the Sheyenne which had, from this perspective, sunken back into mere decoration, a lovely hump of trees meandering in the lush valley.
"It's pretty here," I finally said.
"That's what they say," he replied. When I glanced at him, he shrugged. "I mean I've lived here all my life."
I nodded, though I wasn't sure what I was agreeing to. He went back in and I stood looking down a while longer. "Vista"—and that's what the Sheyenne's valley was at that moment—suggests a physical as well as a mental view , the way we lived upon the earth teaching us how to live inside ourselves. The ancient Indo-European weid is at the root of the multiple words we use for "seeing"—of vista and view, vision and advice, wit, wisdom, and evidence and even of idea itself. I stared at the broad overview of pleasantly wooded curves but they seemed now a curtain draped over the reality of what it was like to be inside of them. Emerson, looking at nature, felt like "a transparent eyeball," and Thoreau declared it would be a luxury to stand "up to one's chin in some retired swamp for a whole summer's day," both comments easily ridiculed, but I had gained some small notion of what that would be like.
It would be easier to discover another New World, Thoreau thought, "than to go within one fold of this which we appear to know so well." I'd been isolated in the heart of my own countryside, now at home in a stranger's side yard, but at least I'd tried to go within one familiar fold. In my commonplace journey, I'd wanted to find a drift of thought, a union of body and soul and the outside world, and I'd ridden the surface of laminar, turbulent and helical flow, as passive as water myself in our progress, pulled by the simplicity of gravity, that singular law which causes a million expressive complications every second of a small Dakota river.
Then I went back down, unloaded my gear and lugged it up the slippery cattle path to the barn, catching my breath, and then on up to a horse-trailer beside the gravel driveway. Hauling the canoe up the steep slope took almost half an hour, a few yards at a time before I had to rest, but it was the last thing I'd have to do today, I told myself.
I sat propped against the horse-trailer, physically stunned by the effort of
the last few days and the relief from the effort, relaxing into a tired
meditation and watching fluttering white cabbage moths. Their jagged flight
followed the slope of the grass, but when they hit the trees across the driveway
at the edge of the lawn, they rose immediately—almost breathtakingly for such
until they were the same distance above the trees as they had been from the grass. I vaguely wondered what their vista was.
Emerson would have proclaimed them a lesson, Agassiz a number of God's little thoughts. Fragments of lacy white fluttering around me, I lay in a stunned reverie, the outer world one with my inner, until a pickup clattered past on the gravel drive and I opened my eyes. Mr. Hengsa, on his way somewhere, waved. I, no longer on my way anywhere, waved back.
Robert King (Ph.D., U of Iowa) is a Professor Emeritus of the University of North Dakota and currently lectures at the University of Northern Colorado.