Rocks in the River

The following is a piece written by Hank Kohler, originally published in the 2015 edition of Getting into Soil and Water, a publication produced by the Soil and Water Conservation Club at Iowa State University. To request a copy of the 2015 edition, please email millerms@iastate.edu.

It is a short drive to the put-in spot. Arm out the window, I watch fields of corn and beans go by, and though few farms have hay land these days, my nose is alert for the chance to smell a recent cutting.  I don’t understand the physics of the sound waves, but I think it’s cool that although I’m going down the road at 60 I can clearly hear the song of a blackbird or meadowlark as I pass by.

The canoe is unloaded just above the stream’s bank.  On this trip, like many now, I will be alone.  Our children that used to accompany me on these excursions have grown and moved away.  It’s a very special day when one can join me now, but this time I’m going solo.

The list of what I take, camping gear, fishing equipment, food, drinks, etc., along with its packing has become routine.  I caution myself to never take for granted how special both this place is and how my day will be.

Everything left in the canoe I drive downstream to the take-out. I’ve never had anyone bother my stuff while I was gone.  Dad told me years ago that if you can’t trust a fisherman, who can you trust, and I guess I’ve been fortunate so far to have had only anglers notice my unattended supplies.

With the truck left at the county park, I mention to the camp host that I will be on the river for the night.  I don’t want anyone to wonder if some guy had trouble upstream.

And so it begins.  Since I am now where I will get out tomorrow, I need to pedal my middle-aged mountain bike out of the park, up the hill and back to the canoe.  The total trip is only about five miles, with the last mile and a half being smooth black top.  The start and longest stretch is gravel, hopefully packed hard, not loose with small drifts of sand.

The incline out of the stream’s valley is a bear.  Geared way down I pass trees and fence posts slowly and then even more slowly.  This is my first trip of the year.  Did the winter and passing months take too much of a toll?  The front wheel wobbles, I hit a stone or two that I should have missed, but I make it.  That’s good, I think.  Satisfied with my effort, I sing a bar or two of Three Dog’s Night “Out in the Country”, and head for the canoe.

Once on the river, the first one I meet will be Andy’s. Kerry’s is the largest and just past Robyn’s is the best place to camp.  I will paddle by hundreds of rocks today but only three will be oh so special.

The “That rock’s mine” tradition started when our son was first old enough for a river trip.  Asking many questions as kids do he wanted to know who owned the rocks we passed by.  I replied that they were part of nature, no one had title to them and you couldn’t move the big ones if you wanted to.  “I’ll tell you what,” I continued, “why don’t you choose one, call it yours, and you can see it every time we come back.”  Not being particularly patient or picky, he immediately pointed to a boulder in the middle of the river right in front of the canoe.  It has been his rock and our river barometer to gauge its water level ever since.

That was almost 30 years ago now.  Our daughters’ rocks were chosen when it came time for their first float, and they both were more selective.  Decisions that seemed final were changed at the next bend.  Short-term favorites were replaced as if later in life they were trying on shoes or buying a purse.  Imagine that.

Passing Andy’s rock, I notice it is half submerged and smile.  “Perfect” comes to mind.  The ease of the float and chance for good fishing should be just right.

Every time I dip a paddle in the current or slowly drop an anchor above a snag that may provide supper, I marvel at the river’s beauty.  I am sure that a 200 yard hike in either direction would put me in cropland but I see no fields from my canoe.  Instead, I am treated to high green canyons formed by maples, walnuts, cottonwoods and willows.  They capture and hold the aroma of stink bait, the whistle of wood ducks and the scolding chatter of kingfishers.

Anchoring across from Kerry’s rock I think of the times spent here with my kids.  Looking down the river valley is like staring into a kaleidoscope of brightly colored memories.  I view friends, family and fish from years past.  My children appear of all ages from the first time on the river to the present.  I can see their smiles, hear their laughter.  Images appear to float on the breeze and current like the cottonwood fluff.  Here for a second, then drifting away only to be replaced by another.  They cover the canoe, the river, and my thoughts with warmth.

A tug on the line jolts me back to the present.  The fight is on.  It hasn’t surfaced like a channel cat or jumped like a small mouth.  It’s hooked on my night crawler pole so it could be one of a dozen species that the stream holds.  Not having seen it yet I enjoy the resistance created by the strength of the fish and current of the river.  Hopes of walleye fillets sizzling in the skillet start to rise, but soon I am gently releasing a brilliant scarlet and silver red horse.  Once you get past the lips it is by far the most beautiful fish in the river.  Having kept a few catfish I watch the up and down flight of a red-headed woodpecker as I paddle towards Robyn’s rock and a sandbar camp.

Passing by banks filled with nesting swallows my mind drifts with the current, and I, too, start to wonder about the rocks.  Where did they come from?  How old are they?  Compared to their age my entire life is just a wing beat.  I try not to, but sometimes I feel my years.  I used to sing “Sunshine on my Shoulders” while I paddled shirtless, grateful for the strength I had in the two of mine.  Now they throb at times.  As I’ve aged my body has become a ledger of additions and subtractions.  A new hip and an ankle brace show up on the plus side, while strength, flexibility and the hair that used to adorn my top-knot have all become minuses.

I know that day will come when I won’t float the river.  That day will come when I can’t bike the hill, lift the canoe, raise anchor or paddle the rapids.  Yes, that day will come.

But it will not be today!  Not today!

Catfish cleaned, I take a strong stroke.  Shoulders hardly ache.  Another stroke and they are almost healed.  As I approach Robyn’s rock I seem to gain strength with every bend of the river.

Perhaps these are the life sustaining waters Ponce DeLeon sought so many years ago.  Perhaps for me they are even more special.  Completely immersed with appreciation for what the river has given and still provides, I start to sing ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” when I see them. Up ahead in the shallows, three children laughing, splashing, skipping stones.  Their magical aberration calls to me “Put in here Dad, we’ve been waiting. Camp’s set up.”

Paddle at rest, it’s the current alone that guides me to shore.

Through the portal of time.

Past the rocks in the river.

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