I’m late for a meeting. The car in front of me travels slowly, cautiously navigating every curve of the road along the Kickapoo River. I consider passing, yet the double yellow line offers a constant companion to travelers of Highway 131, where sight lines disappear around the next bend. I impatiently tap my fingers on the steering wheel.
I meet Mark at the canoe landing, where we unload the canoe and shuttle his truck and trailer downriver. On the way back, we jabber about the latest river project he’s working on, the difficulties of the job, the hazards of his work; and of course the obligatory discussion about the weather.
Outside the window, the river travels with us; oblivious to our conversation, describing its world in a visual language that twists with every turn of the river. The highway offers only glimpses of the river, hints of another world apart from meetings, appointments, and slow moving traffic; an opening to another time.
The Kickapoo Valley invites patience. Untouched by the last glaciers, the valley was left alone to its own design; to its own time. Melt water from retreating glaciers carved the valley, sculpting its shape over eons in the likeness of a deity ruling over an indescribable beauty.
Returned from our shuttle trip, Mark and I launch from the Highway B Bridge above Gays Mills. I step into the bow of the canoe and gingerly search for its center along the keel with my foot – I prefer to spend the day on the river rather than in the river – while Mark stabilizes the stern. Swallow nests punctuate the grayish underbelly of the bridge, like heavy paint strokes upon canvas.
The current takes us. Takes us downriver, takes us south, takes us east and west. It takes hold of us, away from our troubles and obsessions to a place filled with sensory experience that never loosens its grip. I have left my world and joined another, a place only imagined from the highway.
We are on the river to mark deadfalls and ‘leaners,’ trees felled or destined to fall into the river because of their roots undermined by erosion. The river subjects the land to erosion and flooding, changing direction on nature’s whim. If rivers show us the way to the Gulf of Mexico, the Kickapoo shows us diversion and misdirection. It shows us patience.
This is the way to experience the river. This is the way to experience life.
I take photos and GPS coordinates from the bow while Mark expertly guides from the stern. Something else happens. The valley unfolds before us, unaffected by our pedestrian measurements and assessments. River bluffs rise to either side, tree lots and pastureland on the margins, each dissected by the river.
Green-tinted mallards, startled by our appearance, take flight downstream in a wing-flapping frenzy. Dairy and beef cattle, less startled than curious, stare at these incomprehensible interlopers floating by. Each sight and sound draws out time, pulling at its ends like taffy.
The best way to know a place is to walk its land or paddle its rivers. Each undulation of the land and turn of the river informs me of its character. I feel it in my feet when I walk its trails. I feel it in my hands as I work my paddle.
Mark’s truck finally appears around the final bend, a relic from another life. We arrive at our destination, complete with photos, coordinates, and measurements; complete with new experiences. We arrive changed, with new-found patience for a world that moves at different pace than our own. And new-found patience with ourselves.