In the summer of my eleventh year someone talked my older cousin into taking me on a canoe trip down the St. Croix River. My cousin was tall and lean and reminded me of a bespectacled cowboy, if there ever really has been such a thing. He was knowledgeable and efficient in the ways of the outdoors, in equal and opposite proportion to my ignorance and ineptitude concerning such things, which is precisely why I suspect that there was coercion involved.
My brother dropped us off upstream and said goodbye with a "good luck, you're going to need it" look on his face. We started out with unabashed vigor and worked our way downstream like a couple of four-eyed voyageurs with imaginary fur hats and a Divine Mission. That is how I felt, at least; I can only imagine what was going through my cousin's mind. A childless marriage, perhaps, but in my mind he was wearing imaginary beaver pelts, the same as me.
I had never been in a canoe before that day and I did my very best to conceal this information from my cousin. Somehow I think he suspected, but I maintained my ruse with religious dedication. I was Jacques Lacroix, voyageur, man of the forest, tamer of the turbulent St. Croix.
As an avid comic book reader, I was startled by the sheer brute force of a real river. All the two-dimensional ink and pencil lines had not prepared me for their three-dimensional counterpart: an actual raging river, relentless and unforgiving. I was at once thrilled and scared for my life, which is a feeling that can be therapeutic to adolescents and adults as well. I stabbed at the swirling white water as if I had been born in a canoe and had perhaps even been in the room when the sport was invented.
Trees and riverbanks whipped by at a remarkable speed. We passed various farms and homesteads, along with the odd abandoned car or grazing cow. A hawk screeched overhead. Dragonflies lit on the river surface like perfect miniature helicopter replicas. I had never imagined that such things existed.
My cousin trailed his fingers in the water and leaned back to survey the cloudless summer sky. Much to my surprise, he began to sing:
She's a broken lady
Waiting to be mended
Like a potter would mend a broken vase
And have what's left of the pieces
Put back in place
His voice was strong and clear and resonated off the water like the peal of an eighteenth century school bell. I had never known my cousin to inadvertently break forth with song and I was so taken back I almost dropped my paddle. I guess there is something about the solitude of the Great North Woods that melts inhibitions and returns men to their primal, unadulterated selves. I was genuinely moved and could not help wondering where this enigmatic passage had come from and what it meant to him, if anything at all. Perhaps I will never know -- what it meant to him, at least -- but there are some seemingly insignificant and random memories that stay with you for the duration of your life, and this will be one of mine. I have never heard my cousin sing since, a fact that I have always regretted.
We drifted downstream like a leaf in a rain gutter, brushing against rocks and banks but never stopping. The incessant hum of internal dialogue was finally squelched and in its place was a flawless, magical silence. Something like happiness replaced my predictable adolescent self absorption, if only for a moment. It was a perfect August afternoon and I was floating down a magnificent river and I realized that everything was simply meant to be that way. Everything made sense and I was an important part of it all: a swarthy voyageur, more than an awkward, post-adolescent comic book fiend.
Then we hit the rapids.
I have never enjoyed carnival rides. I am not a thrill junkie in search of a fix. I am a bookish, dreamy underachiever, and always have been. I do not excel at sports or win my coquettish girlfriend teddy bears at the ball toss in some Norman Rockwell Americana gone horribly wrong illustration of a county fair that never existed. Considering this, it is safe to say that I was not prepared for the reality of white water rapids and all of the self realization they bring. I swayed from side to side like a luge rider, switching paddle positions with growing confidence and dexterity. The river baptized me with its fishy sacraments as I loosed a nervous, manic laughter. A thousand watery whirlpools pulled at our boat, trying to suck us down into whatever the river equivalent of Davy Jones's locker may be. My cousin never dropped a beat; his arms flashed around him like a Kung Fu expert I might have read of in one of my martial arts magazines. I felt like a National Geographic photograph or a Jack London novel come to life.
As we pressed on, we passed a smoky power plant that glowed like a uranium breathing dragon against the fluorescent setting sun. I suppose the real voyageurs never beheld such a sight, I thought to myself. The absurd monstrosity was as awe-inspiring as all of the natural wonders I had observed that day, but in a very different way. I imagined it was an extraterrestrial spacecraft and I was very quiet as we passed, to avoid possible detection and the inevitable compromising examinations that would bring. The gargantuan aluminum ducts and flashing lights seemed to be in perfect juxtaposition with the natural beauty that surrounded them, like a cockroach in a box of sugar donuts. This monstrous power plant on the slow waters of the St. Croix River is another image that will stay with me until I die, although I really have no idea why.
Night finally fell and we reached my cousin's parked car where we had left it, marking the end of our journey. I felt as if we had paddled and portaged across all of Canada, singing French folk songs and plucking beaver from their dams as we went. I had met the mighty St. Croix on its own terms and lived to tell the tale. My comic books would never be the same again.