Slippery Rock Creek

img_3365You push that great red plastic hull into the water and watch it dip in slightly before floating on top. The kayak looks so artificial in that swampy muddy water as if anything so large and poignantly red could ever appear from the depths of nature’s own hand.

You wedge your body into the little hole and stuff your legs below the sides until you come to rest below the water. With gloved hands you push the wooden dock away with the tip of the paddle and break a line in the creek like a wound that ripples out and quickly heals.

Round one corner and the cabin disappears. The green water appears in little steady pock marks from the fallen trees that sit below the surface. You can’t help imagine something more fantastical. You press the paddle into those dimples, expecting to hit something hard, but there’s no resistance. You’d sink in to your elbows and then some if you didn’t stop and pull the paddle back through the water and continue moving forward.

Together, you and the paddle move the plastic tub upstream. Dip, pull. Dip, pull. You try to keep the splashing down and pull with grace and yet clear creek water runs down the paddle and splashes onto your pants. Your head whips around with every rustle of leaves, every bird chirp. You’re not certain what you are looking for, if anything at all.

Along the shallow banks, ice still remains from the previous week’s deep freeze. It grows delicately from the sides of the creek in tendrils of white lace until it blurs the line of where ice ends and water begins. Just last week, a neighbor tells you, you wouldn’t have been able to set the kayak in the creek at all because the creek had frozen over, and so you thought of the beavers and the muskrats and the other mammals and wondered if they’d settled in somewhere safe for hibernation, or if they’d braved the icy water only to find later that the surface was a solid mass and they were trapped below.

For a time, you paddle, seeing nothing but the cool green water and the bare branches of wintered over trees. You do, eventually, see signs of life. A game trail sliding down the water’s edge, a bird’s nest, holes in the muddy banks where muskrats make their livelihoods. But that is all.

You pass the boyscout camp where almost a decade ago you went to get out of the creek onto a rock in the heat of summer and without looking put your hand directly onto a fat black rat snake that hissed and coiled under your hand, and you retracted so fast you flipped the kayak and sunk into the water. Now the rock is bare except for a few dead leaves and the boyscout camp is empty and you leave a wide berth around the rock, still remembering.

Further still sits the blue, two-lane metal bridge which creates an echo so loud you hear every drip of water from your paddles and you can hear the way the kayak sounds like the belly of a reptile gliding over sand. You sit there for some time listening to the sounds of water until a semi-truck roars overhead and takes you by such surprise that your heart comes exploding through your chest as you let out an audible gasp.

Past the bridge are many fallen trees and the kayak scrapes over their dead bodies lying in the creek. You jostle the kayak over every one until you come to a calm, empty spot in the water. It is then, and only then that you look up and see the white tail feathers drop like a blade from the trees. A bald eagle cleaves the sky in two as it dips down to the creek before ascending again into the forest.

You paddle forward but there are so many trees in the water now that you can’t help all the splashing. And then the eagle turns its head and looks at you from above with that heavy sideways glance of a predator. It wraps its talons shrilly over the branch and sends down a rain of bark before taking to the air again. The crows nearby let out a great calamitous caw, and the little chickadees flit from one tree to another, darting across the creek, and the whole forest canopy erupts into pandemonium as the silent hulking predator delicately lights on another treetop just out of sight.

But the creek is too shallow now and the kayak scrapes along the bottom until it stops all together, settled upon the rocks and you have to push the paddle hard into the creek bottom to turn yourself around. You let the water slowly carry you back downstream as the bird chatter dies away. The eagle is gone and the rest of the world goes completely silent and you could have been the only person left on earth–the rapture having come and gone–and you might not have known otherwise for hours had you not come across a man dressed all in fluorescent orange, standing alone at the edge of the creek with a fishing line taut in the water.

“You don’t catch much in the winter,” he says, speaking to you, but also to no one in particular. “But then again, you won’t catch anything from the couch.” The man laughs at his own joke.

You smile and nod in agreement and wave goodbye and paddle back to the dock where you haul yourself over the side and onto the wooden slats and drag the kayak up to the cabin where it’s quiet and the collie looks happy to have a companion again and the coffee mug looks like it could be refilled.

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