American Sabbatical 63: 2/28/97

Winter Light

2/28.. Winter light on pewter.

It took us about a month to settle into our old ruts here in Bowdoinham, and unfocus our eyes. Your whole perceptual apparatus is heightened by living on the road, peripheral vision widens out, the details intensify. Trying to see everything, verbalize each day’s experiences, and get the landscape down in our sketchbooks made us acute observers, but the familiarities of the home turf fuzz the outlines. The day I drove all the way into Brunswick without noticing anything, I knew I was home.

Home Fires

Time slows down when you go back to a walking pace, too. Especially when the old dog has decided he can browse the neighborhood scents at HIS speed. Go away and abandon me for months at a time, and you want me to hurry along now? So we pause and sniff around town, and up and down the river.

Mind you, Bagel can lope along at an easy canter when you get swinging on skis, and Cream Cheese waddles in stride. After two weeks of perfect skating on black ice, we finally got some serious snow, and the cross-country skiing was primo. I can’t imagine how I survived the dark months before I discovered river skiing.

I can sink right down into my introspective stew in the dead of winter, and get a wicked case of indooremia.. gloomy, dosey, snappish, unable to face the work. I used to believe that going outside and playing in the weather was a skulking sort of avoidance, so I’d mutter around inside and stew instead. Then I found I had high blood sugar, and I HAD to go out and play. Doctor’s orders. Ain’t that awful? Outdoorobics: the cure for indooremia.

Abby Camps

We can walk down the hill to Littlefish or Jimmy’s, go down their ramps onto the river surface, and glide away. Or I can clip on skis in the back yard and bushwhack down the gullies and onto the river.. the dogs wrestling in delight. It’s maybe 8 miles upriver to the Cathance River falls, along undeveloped foreshores with only one A-frame camp to be seen. Wild enough for the jingles to get unjangled. Capt. Ken and I skated almost the whole way when the ice was slickest, only to get stopped by bad ice under the railroad bridge, just shy of the falls.

Downriver you can go all the way out onto Merrymeeting Bay as far as your enthusiasm will carry you, or as far as you trust the ice.This is tidal fresh water, and out in the deeper sloshing the skin is never as thick. But sliding to an inner rhythm out in the middle of Sharpie’s sailing ground grins me deep.

Upriver or down there’s often a winter tailwind heading out, a northerly. The village of Bowdoinham is in a serpentine bend of the Cathance, and you put your face to the sun leaving town by river, and your back to the breeze. Sometimes the slog home into a frigid blast, with your clothes full of sweat, is a study in stubbornness. But it’s some grand.

The shore oaks are eloquent in their nakedness, reaching wide, and the big pines, with their dark horizontal sprays, make oriental patterns in the air. But your eyes are mostly scanning the surface, reading road. Depending on conditions, you might be riding the pressure ridges, where there’s more exposed ice, or following snowmobile trails where they’ve compressed new snow, or steering clear of all pentimenti to slip across virgin whiteness. Where the tide seeps through the cracks, new ice is puddled in a greenish tinge. Where channel ice meets the shore ice, breakers may gape wide revealing floating pans and open water, or the colliding pressures may heave plates of crystal on end, and the sun shine through like glass. Bagel and CC are determined to examine every iceform, and they each have to take a dunking at least once each year, early on, before they get ice-savvy again. Usually I don’t have to fish them out, which can be tricky.

River Bend Camps

Of course they aren’t the only fools at risk. I generally break trail around a circuit: up river a couple of miles to the A-frame, up the tote road to the powerlines, across the height of land by powerline access road, back down to the lower Cathance, and up river the last mile or so, with winter in my face. Getting across the breakers is the only dicey bit, but you can usually pick out a road that the dogs are willing to hazard. After a couple of weeks you pretty much know where you can get over, or think so.

One afternoon I got entranced by the rhythm and dazzled by the sun on snow, and ventured downriver, onto the bay, around Center’s Point, and partway to Brick Island. Bucking a headwind on the way back, I was about pooched when I made the mouth of the river again. I decided to cross onto shore and go uphill to Mr. Mann’s for a breather and a mug-up. I hadn't come down onto the river at that point for days, but I didn’t even break stride as I swept up to the breakers. The dogs came up short and balked at the crossing, but I yelled, “Let’s go,” and plunged ahead.

Plunged is right. The gap was full of loose chunks and both skis nosed over and in. I threw my weight back and crashed assdown on the thick ice. My skis were now trapped fore and aft under the ice, and I was soaked to the waist. The dogs ran forward to check on me, and I bellowed them back so we wouldn’t all tilt in. The absurdity of it makes you laugh. There I was, unable to lean forward to release my toeclips for fear of swimming, and stubbornly refusing to abandon shoes and skis in any case. I jabbed at the chunks with my poles, and slethered round as best I could, until one toe poked up, then the other was free, and I rolled back onto the channel ice. Very carefully, I picked out a new road to shore, and squished uphill to the Manns'. Drenched, but warm as toast with the adrenaline rush. No fools, no fun.

"Goverment Housing"

Do we have to dare the edges? I think so. This river skiing is pretty tame stuff. A little risk adds the spice. Bagel and CC are interested in other spice, though. The highlight of their outings are the fishwastes at the smelt camps. MMM. It got so bad this winter that I had to herd them past the camps, or spend an age playing hide-and-seek. Bagel is particularly sneaky. He’ll drop back out of my peripheral vision, then cut behind a shanty, and snake away. If I happen to look when he’s on the dodge, it’s a hoot. His neck stretches out, ears down, and he goes all skulky. He knows he’s being “bad.” If I catch him, he looks abject, but will be selectively deaf, particularly stiff and slow moving, and disappear if my attention strays. Damned old fool.

They remember every ripe carcass that was ever in their travels, and I know where they are likely to slip off into the woods for a nostalgic moment. One afternoon CC and I hid under the shore while Bagel checked out some deer bones, and he stumbled out onto the river about an hundred yards ahead of us, doing worried little sprints when he didn’t see us in front of him. The wind was a dead muzzler, and he didn’t hear my whistle or my shouts, just kept running ahead. CC and I chased him for about half a mile, until he paused at a bend, standing in that HUH pose.. like where are they? Then he started sniffing around and cocked a leg to make his mark. At that instant he spotted us, and almost fell over. I laughed so hard I did.

Winter light is precious, and when it’s in full glitter you can feel it charging your batteries. The dazzle on river ice and snow creates an ethereal expanse, and you can float right out onto another plane. The damnfool dogs turn into mythic creatures hovering in white space. When an eagle jumps and lifts your eyes, all the grumbling goes mute. Then, all too often, the blue pales, and altostratus fans across the sky. The sunlight goes all sallow, the colors pewter out. The air gets denser. At the edge of evening descending grays take on a faint ruddy blush, and the wind hardens southerly. We fly home with the gale at our backs, hallooing the coming snow.

After a new snowfall it's often better skiing at night. The powder gets crusty and loses it’s mid-day stickiness. Moonlight on a white river is one road to the otherworld, and you could easily dream across the divide, if the frost didn’t pinch you awake. Even a pitchdark night can’t hide the way on a winter river. The dogs become wraiths flickering across your peripheral vision, the wooded shores a looming presence, all your senses on high alert. One bagend night Mr. Mann and I were kickgliding downriver below Bernard’s camps when a voice in the woods spooked to us.

HOOhoo...hoo...hoo. HOOhoo...hoo...hoo.


50TH and 2ND

Indeed. And last week, out on the river ice, with the sky all pewtered over, and the world at arms length, I skied myself into a trance, meditating on a dying old man in New York City. I’d gone out to blow the dust off and get my blood circulating, but had pushed on beyond my usual round. The dogs had fallen way behind, and I was moving by pure instinct, in that silent place where the spirit dances free. Finally I coasted to a stop, emptied out.. where the unity begins.

“LET GO!” I shouted. “LET GO!”

[Peggy's father died while we were between journeys, granting her the time to be with him, and to begin her grieving at home. Then we set off again, and Peggy could fill her days with the American road. A graceful parting, and a new beginning.]

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