About ten o’clock Labor Day morning, four canoes, three kayaks, ten adults, four children and a dog, put in the Wisconsin River at Sauk City. The group encompassed three generations of a family and a quartet of friends. The dog belonged to the children, but was not related. The four children were related, two brothers, Joey ten and Ethan eight, with their twin sisters, Emma and Leah, squished between them. They carried with them an assortment of coolers and various lunch containers.
The splash of the canoes and kayaks roused the reluctant river from its reverie. Lazily it cocked an eye in the direction of the commotion and stretched itself across the shallow bed of sand. ACome if you must.” it invited. And with a subtle flick sent a slow series of ripples around and under the vessels.
“Not much of a current.” Opa, the grandfather, remarked with undisguised skepticism.
“How far did you say?” Jason, the father asked as he steadied a kayak for Emma.
“Twenty miles.” His wife Mandy replied brightly, helping Leah, into a life jacket. “Should take about six hours.”
“That would be with a current.” Opa observed, still skeptical. He held the canoe for Oma, the grandmother, while Ethan did cartwheels into the water.
Twenty minutes later ten adults, four children and a dog were dispersed among the four canoes and three kayaks. Zig zagging in energetic patterns the twins and Joey, kept the kayaks moving, yelling with the delight of the day. Ethan crouched in the bottom the green canoe in front of his mother. One of the friends, Raju from Nepal, accepted instructions on how best to paddle a canoe. Friend Josh threw a fishing line into the water. The dog sat happily in Mandy’s lap.
“Not six hours, ten.” Jason commented, thinking that they were ready to begin. They were not.
“Listen up people.” Nate, whose car had been spotted at the landing, called for attention. “Three bridges, a railroad and right after it a highway bridge, around a bend and just before the third bridge the landing is on the right. Remember, three bridges and get out before the last one.” He took his place in the back of the orange canoe with Heidi in the front. Heidi was equipped for the trip with her canoe food, red licorice sticks. “If they fall in,” she waved one in her fingers where it flopped happily, A no biggie, just wipe them off and you’re good to go.”
“Three bridges. Got it. Let’s go.” Opa stated and began to paddle.
“You think so?” The river asked. It gave a slight heave and sand scraped the bottom of the canoe. Opa and Oma used the paddle ends to pry against the sandbank.
Opa gave a small snort. “Ten? I’d say twelve.” The river laughed softly sending teasing ripples over the sandbank and promising deeper water ahead. The breeze traveled upriver, directing waves of coolness against the sun’s heat. The river and breeze mingled, bringing their own time to the day. Six hours or twelve they conspired, what did it matter?
The energy of the three children in the kayak quickly sputtered to low. Raju traded his place in the canoe for Joey’s in the kayak. The girls got towed.
“I just want to be off the river before dark.” Jason remarked as he paddled with three adults, two children, a kayak and the dog.
“Oma and I can tow the empty kayaks to the bank and leave them.” Opa suggested.”We can pick them with the car later.”
The canoes clustered and waited while the girls scrambled from the kayaks. The river chortled at the delay. Several herons near the shore tilted their long necks. If they laughed also it was to themselves. “Go on.” Opa urged. “It won’t take but a few minutes. We’ll catch up.”
The river was perhaps amused, but offered no objection as they crossed the current. Opa tied the kayaks to the bank. He pushed them beyond the river’s reach and directed the canoe in a diagonal path back over the water. Oma pointed to where the collection of canoes still clustered. “There.” She said pointing a second time with her paddle.
“They’ll catch up. I told them not to wait.” Opa replied.
“They are waiting. They want us to take Leah. We have to go get her.” The air parted with the force of Opa’s sigh as he redirected the canoe. The river chuckled and let them pass.
No one knew or cared when noon came. They only knew and cared when snacking from the coolers no longer satisfied their hunger. A sandbar offered itself as a picnic spot. “I’ll be here when you’re ready.” The river burbled and small though it was the current continued onward while sandwiches were shared and water passed from hand to hand. The sandbar afforded relief to cramped muscles and suggested a rearrangement in the canoes. The four children and Mandy found different places. The dog didn’t much care and stayed in the green canoe.
Mandy rode in the canoe with her parents. “Look at me. Thirty-four years old and my parents are doing the paddling for me.” Mandy gloated to Jason who was still paddling from the rear of the green canoe.
Lazy and long the afternoon moved downstream with the river. Turtles raised mildly curious heads at the passage of the canoes, the one lone kayak and the curly haired dog. “Watch them,” the river murmured instructions to the canoeists, “and leave them be. They only want the sun.” Cranes stood, long legged and indifferent along the edges of the bank. A fish, bloated and bleached, bobbed on the surface. It must be examined, discussed and left to itself. An eagle, fish in its beak, found perch to enjoy its dinner. Crows circled, glided, fell and climbed above the trees. No one asked, how long? The language of the river had no word for time.
Clouds began to cover the sun, but the air remained hot, the breeze cool. Distant thunder came from darker clouds behind the trees. Mesmerized by the soothing voice of the river the ten adults, four children and the dog ignored it. “You are between the beginning and the end. There is only to finish and I am the only way to that finish.” The river’s words rose and fell with the paddle strokes. The bridges would appear, perhaps the next bend held them.
“It is so demoralizing,” David, paddling in the back of the canoe with Josh in front, groaned “to think the bridges might be around the next bend, and then they’re not.”
That was the taunt of the river. The next bend, surely the next bend held the bridges. “It’s a surprise,” the river promised, “they will appear suddenly and then you must leave the peace of my water.” The river was correct. They should not be in a hurry to let go of this, the last day of summer, the stolen day of vacation from a fall schedule.
The canoes strung themselves indifferently over the length and width of the river. One canoe might explore a deviating channel, another stop to splash away the heat of the day. Canoes connected to exchange food or drink or passengers. The dog stayed where he was.
Others beside the family, enjoyed the river. Some of them spoke their language, loudly and heedless of the river words. A pair of kayaks darted with purpose, reading the river, avoiding the sandbars. The canoes passed a raft. Four bright blue barrels supported a wooden platform that held a heap of accouterments and four dispirited college boys.
“Hello!” Mandy called cheerily. “Where did you put in?”
“Sauk City.” One of the boys perked up enough to answer and made an effort to shove against the pole he held.
“So did we. We’re going to Spring Green.”
“Us too. When did you start?” A boy in the front pushed ineffectually at the water with a paddle.
“This morning about ten.”
“WE started YESTERDAY!” If they had begun with excited pride, now it was submerged in discouragement. They poled and pushed, but the river was disinclined to let them proceed. The raft’s forward progress was imperceptible.
Almost the river cackled in delight at the boys’ plight. “What did you think?” It whispered, “In the summer drought my waters are difficult for the smallest and lightest of vessels.”
“Well it’s not far now. And it’s still Monday!” Mandy called. Everyone laughed and the canoes left the raft behind a bend.
As the river had promised, the bridges surprised them. Suddenly the railroad trestle with the highway bridge just beyond appeared before them. Imperceptibly at first, excitement climbed, the paddles began to quicken with power. The end was not far.
“Hey, we aren’t even in third!” Joey gave blatant voice to the unspoken competition. “Hurry Opa,” he urged, we have to at least take bronze.” Opa gave a laugh. His strokes remained deep and even, pushing the canoe through the water. “They’re landing. Look!” Joey pointed to where two of the canoes were pulling to shore. The kayak hovered, uncertain if he should follow. In the front of the canoe, Oma looked back to Nate and Heidi in the orange canoe.
Nate stood up and with his arms motioned forward. “Around the bend.” Came the faint call. His arms pointed onward. Oma nodded.
“He said three at the start. He says to keep going.” At her words, Opa gave a powerful stroke and thrust the canoe under the second bridge.
“We’re first!” Joey clapped, squirming in delight. “Go Opa, now we can take gold.”
Joey wanted to paddle. He wanted to help Opa take first place. Carefully he climbed in front of Oma. Carefully she backed herself out of the seat and onto the bottom of the canoe. She gave Joey the paddle and he eagerly splashed it through the water. His strokes had more noise than effort.
The kayak was the first to catch up to the canoe. They ruled that the kayak, however, was in a different class. It was lighter, and held only one person. It might take any place it pleased, but it could not compete against the canoes. Joey was not concerned about the kayak. He did become concerned when his father, Jason in the green canoe with Paul, Emma and the dog caught up to them. Faster Joey shoved the paddle in and out of the water.
“Not like that Joey,” Mandy told him, “push the end forward, it’s not about how fast it’s about power.”
“Extend your arm.” Opa told him.
Joey did not listen. He heard the river telling him to hurry, faster, it urged. His dad’s canoe was too close. Joey’s canoe would not come in first. “Hurry Opa,” he yelled.
Joey pushed the paddle through the water, his arm followed it and then his body did too. With barely a splash he was in the water of the river. Everyone in the canoe laughed. The canoe went past him before Oma could grab him. Opa slowed the canoe. “Keep paddling, Dad,” his mother said. “He can swim!”
Paul saw the canoe slow down and stop while Joey balanced himself over the side of the canoe and Mandy and Oma heaved back inside. “Maybe we shouldn’t pass them.” Paul suggested. “Not take advantage of them since Joey fell in.”
“No way! Keep going.” Jason commanded. “We have to win.” Emma cheered. The dog did not care overly much. The green canoe with Paul, Jason, Emma and the dog, took first place. Joey’s canoe took silver. Raju brought the kayak to the beach somewhere between them. His place did not count. AIt was fun,” He said with a big smile, “I never kayak before. I like it, but it was long time.”
“We would have won.” David said as he climbed with Josh and Ethan from the canoe that came in third. “But after the second bridge wasn’t the end, I was just too demoralized.”
The orange canoe with Heidi and Nate was last. Heidi was sun burnt, but she wasn’t tired. “I sort of let Nate do all the work.” She laughed. ” And when he asked me if I was reading the river,’Ooops,’ I’d say as I saw a rock slide past, ‘there’s a rock.’ Maybe that’s why we came in last.”
The canoes scraped against the sand of the landing beach. Hands reached down and carried them as close to the road as they could. Drivers piled into Nate’s car and left to bring back the other cars from the canoe launch. Five adults, four children and one dog waited at the landing for the cars to return. They looked at their phones, they checked the time, they spoke of work and school in the morning. They exclaimed over sunburned patterns on their necks and backs and ate what was left of the food in the coolers .Leah sat on Oma’s lap; Emma stubbed her toe; Joey and Ethan played catch. David walked like a bow-legged cowboy. “Chafing,” he announced. The dog ran on the beach and got full of sand.
The river no longer spoke to them. The river had its own business to attend. The waters must follow the current, they must flow over the sandbars and around the bends, they must course through the riverbed until they joined the waters the Mississippi south of Prairie du Chien. The river spoke its own language and on this day for seven hours and twenty miles, ten adults, four children and one small dog had hearkened to its words.
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