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Finally, the sharp angles of a manmade structure emerge in the darkness. I squint. A boat landing. I give a victory whoop, yank my boat ashore and scramble up the wooden stairway behind it. Up top, a small clearing is visible in the moonlight. On its fringe: the unmistakable shadows of trees. Ten minutes and two perfect figure-eight knots later, my hammock is hung. With a triumphant cackle, I slither inside its envelope of mosquito netting half-eaten meatball sandwich and dark chocolate bar in hand—and wiggle into my sleeping bag. Swinging there under the stars, I devour the dinner of champions.
The sharp caw of a blue jay wakes me at dawn. Another answers, and soon a cavalry of squawkers organizes in the canopy above me. I lie there, cupped in my suspended heaven, relishing their shrill concert as I watch sunbeams trickle across the forest floor. When I head down to the river to get water for tea and oatmeal, my bliss is broken by the sight of a small carved sign: No Camping. I groan and run back to the hammock to gather my gear.
Standing knee deep in the water minutes later, cramming my sleeping bag into the kayak’s hold, I hear the crunch of tires on gravel. The grey head of an old man peeks over the top stairs. “Up early?” he calls.
“Oh, you know,” I say, casually as possible as I slap down the hold’s lid.
He says something else, but I can’t hear over my splashing and thumping as I clamber into the cockpit, legs fighting to arrange themselves around my tackle box, lifejacket, and several free-rolling bottles of sunscreen, bug spray and water. “Okay,” I yell over my shoulder, as I lurch away, “have a great day!”
Two minutes later, I’m out of sight. I munch on a bag of granola, green beans plucked from my garden, and a wedge of cheddar—the latter two kept nicely chilled on the floor of the kayak’s water-cooled hull. As the hours pass, the sun beats hotter and the river bottom rolls by like an underwater filmstrip. It slides into view a tranquil green-gold scene of gravel and sand, then zooms in and zips by fist-sized rocks and boulders big as basketballs. The accelerating current sails me past open countryside, two kids snorkeling a beaver dam, and trees whose gnarled octopus roots cling to banks that the water has chewed but not yet licked.
Eventually I come upon a shady stretch where a boy, maybe nine years old, slumps on a dock, his sandaled feet dangling just above the water. A dark cottage hides in the cedars behind him.
“Too shady for swimming?” I ask.
“I went yesterday,” he says, straightening for a second. Then the weight of gloom settles again on his shoulders, and he adds, “We’re leaving soon.”
Ah, weekenders. “Bummer.”
“Yeah,” he says, nodding. “Bummer.”
As my days meander on toward my final takeout at Chippewa Valley Campground in Manton, the river widens. Its banks soar higher, some exploding with birch and maples; others only sheer sandy faces shaved by wind and rain, and log chutes of a century ago. Over the last few days, my body has melted into a weightless calm. The rise and fall of my chest moves in tandem with the long, slow stroke of my paddle.
Everything finds its rhythm. Each day I lunch on grassy islands that shimmer in the river like oases. Every evening I arrive at low-slung sleepy meadows well before dark. I swim, fish, eat, swing myself to sleep, then wake up and paddle some more. Sometimes I do poke at stuff as it floats by; other times I bank the boat so I can stand still in the current and catch its drifting curiosities in my hands. I have not yet figured out the meaning of life, but as I untie my hammock from two cedars on the last morning of my trip, I contemplate it.
When my boat is packed, the sun has nudged up over the trees, highlighting a cool mist over the river. I push off into its glow. I’m in no hurry for my trip to end, so when the nose of my boat catches a whisper of current, I lift my dripping paddle and coast, ruminating on a question as timeless as the river itself.
I suspect its answer has something to do with the way a river flows, knowing when to paddle and when to drift and—when it’s time to come ashore—knowing how to tie a knot solid enough to let you hang around awhile, swinging beneath the stars.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I hardly mind. I’ve still got some miles to go.