By Shawnee Johnson Reese
I hadn’t stopped there in nine years and seldom had reason to even drive by anymore. Back then, a virtual road led right down to the water, kept clear by the procession of people coming to boat and fish. Now it was grown over, nothing more than two vague wheel paths in a tangle of brush.
A newcomer here would have missed it entirely. As it were, I passed the once-was road by in my little rusted out eight hundred dollar Ford econo-wagon hurling a thick cloud of dirt road behind me.
Pumping the brakes, my twenty-year-old malfunctioning contraption came to a sliding stop on top the bridge. The Kayak lurched forward on top the car until the rubber bumper holding it up fell off the roof and the boat came down on the hood with a thunk.
Whoops. Hope nobody saw that.
I left the boat hanging down over my windshield and backed up about fifty feet and walking that thin line between brave and stupid like I always do, I plunged the car down in to overgrowth taller than it was in places.
Limbs slapped me through the open window and the rough terrain protruded my rusted out floor panel at times, but I just romped the gas bouncing in and out of covered up ruts until I made it to the water’s edge.
“Good thing I didn’t try to do that in the dark!” I thought, and with darkness in mind, I went ahead and performed a 200-point turnaround bouncing bumpers off saplings and high-centering once on something buried in the weeds. Probably the last fool who tried this.
Remembering its wild, jungle-like beauty, I had wanted to float this water again for nearly a decade, and I finally had my own boat. Now, set for launch, I installed my sleeping four-year-old in to his life jacket and deposited him, still sleeping, in to the cargo hole behind my seat. No, it’s not what you think… With the cap removed it converts into a perfect ‘back seat’. He lulled over using another vest as a pillow.
I whistled for Mowgli to load up and he bound from the woods. With him perched on the bow sitting on the car’s floor mat for traction, he was our little black and white hood ornament. Our odd assembly embarked.
Dirty Creek lives up to its name and reminds me of an old, weary dinosaur that knows it ought to be extinct by now, but isn’t quite sure what to do about it. The waters are brown and thick. A splash will venture out a few rings and fade as if exhausted by the effort before reaching shore.
Oily bubbles rise up from somewhere – some thing – at the bottom; their clusters linger with fatigue before erupting as if their journey to the surface had been a laborious one. And always, the green blanket that is a mainstay on the surface now silently folds back in on itself, dissolving all evidence of movement, all evidence of the little bit of life that remains here.
I floated along practicing my novice paddling skills to move as silently through the water as possible, challenging myself to steer around dead wood and low hanging branches. There was darkness, the perpetual awning of trees blocking out the sun that added to the haunted feeling. Abandoned trotlines decorated the low, overhanging limbs like washed up Christmas tinsel, their bright colors faded to gray. Their frayed ends hung limp over the surface in silent testimony to the fifty-pound catfish that have been pulled out of here. There was a time when eighty-six pound snapping turtles would not have been an oddity, either. And once, a farmer checking his irrigation pump, found a dead animal on the bank – an animal that, curiously, nobody ever quite identified.
But that was a long time ago.
I guess even back then the creek was ill, the signs were there but were not so obvious, or maybe just ignored (although I think that dead animal should have been a clue).
On my last visit to this creek nine years ago, I had ridden up stream in an aluminum motorboat with two guys off the hill who were out to zoom around drinking beer and dragging treble hooks daring each other to grab hold of limbs as the boat sped under them. Swinging there, the victim’s real challenge was to hang on until we circled back around – knowing, but also not knowing, what kind of creatures inhabited the dark water below. The game was full of screams and hoots of laughter and followed by generally disastrous crash landings.
No, “Serenity” wasn’t in their vocabulary, but there I was anyway.
I was probably looking like a river-rat myself that hot summer day because the three of us had just gotten off work placing twenty-two hundred square feet of concrete. Numbing the physical pain that was a by-product of our occupation became high priority and I accepted the invitation to join these two half-wild, half dressed, going on 40-something home-grown and probably self-described versions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn both in need of a haircut and a toothbrush.
We drank beer from quart size bottles because we played as hard as we worked, catching a buzz on both the beer and the boat motor exhaust.
Yet even then, deafened by the motor, assaulted by splashes of both water and spilling bottles of brew, the boat tipping to and fro with their staggering games, dodging hooks whizzing by my ear that were generally catching anything and everything but fish – even there, carousing with these two goons – I had looked around in awe of this creek’s fearsome beauty.
I had sat wishing I could have seen it years ago in its natural, healthy state, imagining it being rich with vegetation and wildlife of Amazon proportion. I wished for that time before surrounding farms polluted the waters by leaching herbicides, pesticides, and a certain waste-product that was widely distributed to area farmers as “fertilizer” by a local uranium processing plant (until a couple of melt-down incidents finally shut it down for good).
That was in the summer of I994. Now, only nine years later, floating upstream in my kayak, dog on front, boy finally awake, I was glad I had seen the creek at least that recently, because by all evidence, the passage of time had not been kind to it. I was witnessing Mother Nature’s version of Inner City Decay.
Beaver slides are grown over now. The slippery, mossy-shelled snappers don’t decorate the driftwood with their sunbathing rituals like they used to. Ancient stumps had become timid little refugees from a time gone by. Too many dead trees loomed overhead, waiting stoically for the rains to finally release their brittle clutch to the eroding earth.
“Where are the beavers?” Brian asked me. I had promised the child beavers… not knowing. Still stunned myself, I paddled to a dried up beaver slide, the closest thing to a live animal I had to offer and explained how the animals would have used it.
We paddled to a hollow tree by the water, exploring it for activity but found only the weathered remains of acorn shells left there many seasons ago, the inhabitants were long gone.
We walked below a fifty-foot tall branchless spear of a dead tree jutting out of the earth. At the top three large holes were bored through the trunk, owls perhaps, but on the ground below we discovered no signs of occupation.
We looked for tracks in the mud where it banked gently enough allow animals access to the water, but found nothing, not even bird tracks.
We were in a ghost town.
The plan had been to take my son on a nature trip. I guess the joke was on me and a long ago voice came in my head, “That’s why I support museums!” Ah yes, years ago when the great debate between loggers and naturalists was getting hot over saving the Spotted Owl, I knew a carpenter who saw no reason to stop the logging. While not an activist or extremist of any sort, I disagreed with him and thought yes, the owl’s habitat should be preserved. In my opinion we didn’t need to expand logging – we needed carpenters to stop treating wood like a disposable commodity!
“I believe in preserving wildlife, too!” He had countered. “That’s why I support museums!”
To my embarrassment and my own discredit, I discovered a dire irony on Dirty Creek that with this particular individual, I conceived the child who was now riding behind me in the kayak searching for vanishing wildlife while his dad, who had left two years prior to chase some wildlife of his own, not only failed to support the preservation of wild life for his own child, but hadn’t bothered contributing to the preservation efforts of museums, either.
We paddled on, the pile of litter was growing at my feet – pop bottles, laundry soap jugs, rusted out cans of spray paint, bread sacks – all covered with the black muddy slime of drift-garbage.
“People are pigs.” Says my son as I fish another piece out of the water. “Why are people pigs?”
“Because they don’t think one little wrapper will make a difference.” I tell him.
“What’s a difference?” He continues.
I sigh, challenged again to find a way to explain complex issues in pre-school terms. “People think if they just throw one little piece of trash down, it won’t matter. What’s one little gum wrapper? What’s one little can? But what if a hundred people each threw down one piece of trash? Well then we have this – a hundred pieces of garbage littering up the world.” I pointed to the crud we’d collected.
“I don’t throw my trash down.”
“I know you don’t Sweetie, but you’re a good boy and not everyone is.” I was reminded of seeing a co-worker toss his lunch wrappers to the wind earlier that year. Naturally I felt compelled to approach him.
“Have I shown you a picture of the man in my life?” I smiled. I was already holding a bright-eyed, happy face photo of my son.
His buddies grinned looking back and forth between us; I was the only woman on the job site and this guy was probably feeling pretty flattered that I’d actually make a point to walk over to his truck and start up a conversation. “Oh ain’t he a dandy!” the man said, studying the photograph.
“Ain’t he though?” I agreed vigorously. “He’s wonderful! A real Peach! And thanks to jerks like you, he gets to grow up in a garbage dump!” I wasn’t smiling anymore when threw the trash back through the window on to his lap, staining his pants with the mustard package.
OK, so maybe I’m an extremist after all but you can bet he didn’t throw his trash down in front of the construction site litter-cop anymore, either.
We traveled up stream until the sun had passed it’s descent below the trees where it was able to peek under the canopy. The glare blinded us but disguised the barren water as it transformed the green sludge surface in to a hazy, sparkling crystal effect. Then it was down, and the shadows deepened around us. We munched potato chips and cookies, a supper of champions, trekked in to the trees to take a leak, and then began a lazy paced return towards home.
A hundred feet away in the late of night, the bridge glowed white in the moonlight. I stopped paddling. “What are you doing?” Brian asked me.
Because I like being on the water. Because the stars are out and crickets are singing, evidently the only living thing left out here besides us. Because it’s peaceful here. Because I’m at a terrible loss to see this wild thing fall to its death and I’m afraid if I leave it now the next time we come it’ll be gone completely.
Because of a hundred different reasons I hesitated to paddle those last hundred feet back to reality. But I said to him, “Because if we sit still and be quiet, maybe a beaver will come out.” I so desperately wanted to see another happy beaver poke it’s little buck-toothed face out to me, slapping its tail on the water in a playful invitation to an impossible game of midnight tag.
Brian sat silent while my eyes took in the sky, clear of trees here by the bridge with a million unpolluted stars shining in all their glory and my ears took in the music of the night creatures that allowed me to pretend fish and turtles swam beneath us.
And then there was another little night voice. It said, “I wannna go home.”
“Aw Baby, lets just – just…” I stopped and sighed heavily. He was right. It was 10 o’clock at night, practically the middle of the night for the little guy and he’d been such a good sport all evening, disappointed as he was to find no wild animals.
“You’re right.” I told him.
I said good bye to the silent water and paddled us in.