American Sabbatical 63: 2/28/97
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 days 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.
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 cant 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 Id mutter around inside and stew instead. Then I found I had high blood sugar, and I HAD to go out and play. Doctors orders. Aint that awful? Outdoorobics: the cure for indooremia.
We can walk down the hill to Littlefish or Jimmys, 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. Its 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 Sharpies sailing ground grins me deep.
Upriver or down theres 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 its 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 theres more exposed ice, or following snowmobile trails where theyve 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 dont have to fish them out, which can be tricky.
River Bend Camps
Of course they arent 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
One afternoon I got entranced by the rhythm and dazzled by the sun on snow, and ventured downriver, onto the bay, around Centers 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. Manns for a breather and a mug-up. I hadn't come down onto the river at that point for days, but I didnt even break stride as I swept up to the breakers. The dogs came up short and balked at the crossing, but I yelled, Lets 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 wouldnt 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.
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. Hell
drop back out of my peripheral vision, then cut behind a shanty,
and snake away. If I happen to look when hes on the dodge, its
a hoot. His neck stretches out, ears down, and he goes all skulky.
He knows hes 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 didnt see us in front of him. The wind was a dead muzzler, and he didnt 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 its 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 its 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 didnt pinch you awake. Even a pitchdark night cant 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 Bernards camps when a voice in the woods spooked to us.
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. Id 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.]