It took a while before the rust cleared the pump. Rose-colored water spilt into the porcelain basin and echoed off a tin plate. Framed by the kitchen window, a brilliant moon rose through the pines to stage a dance of whirling neon fireflies, against the dark wooded distance - where whippoorwills lamented the fading heat of the day.
Scrubbing the coating of rust from a jackknife, I mused over the hand pump spilling its pent-up, ironclad contents into the sink. Dormant for some time, the archaic device now groaned with this overdue purging. Understandably so: embroiled in demanding political work in Chicago, I had had little time to spend at the cabin. In such disrepair, it now barely resembled the familiar summer home of my girlhood.
Moonlight splayed through the window, falling into boxes on the buckling floorboards. Dull embers slept in the fireplace. Newspapers brought along lay untouched on the table.
I fidgeted with the dials of a dusty radio - fidgeted and stirred while the river, the memory of its stark wildness, taunted me. It rushed quietly beyond the cabin door. Thoughts of the river grew more restless until I could wait no longer. I circled the room, collected a lantern, paddle, and jacket, and hurried down to the dock.
After flinging wide the boathouse doors, I hove the wooden canoe out and into the water. With a snubbing pole lodged securely on the bottom of the canoe, paddle in hand, I shoved off. There was no question as to the direction: upstream, against the current, to where the Wildcat Rapids lay.
These rapids had taught me much. Years ago, wrestling with their currents had revealed both the meaning of struggles, and the satisfaction of conquest.
Aiming to reach them before a change in the wind (perhaps a sudden storm) flew out of the west, I continued on at a determined clip. My attempts to buck the current were vigorous but rusty, and the journey upriver seemed interminable. As I wove up the last stretch to the Wildcats - the moon's reflection dancing in the current - there came the sound of rushing water.
Closing in on the base of the rapids, the waters before me spat and kicked down the river like some untamed creature. They were wild waters, unyielding. By their nature they excluded human presence.
Pole in hand, standing upright in the canoe, I peered up the path of moonlit water, and at the scattered rocks tinted silver and green by wayward canoes that had grazed their surface. Without hesitation, I pushed toward them. Swinging the pole near the bow, then straining against the current, I began my ascent.
The first half of the rapids were climbed with relative ease. As a mountain climber's pick grips the face of the cliff, so I set the pole securely in the riverbed to draw the canoe upriver. But midway up, rounding a bend where low-hanging pines obscured the view, I turned into the wildest, most furious stretch of the river.
The water churned white, gushing in a thunderous frenzy, threatening to sweep the canoe downstream in a moment. Strong currents that, over centuries, had barely altered their course and beckoned me now in this brief moment to wrestle and defeat them.
After determining where the channel lay, I braced myself and hove full strength into the torrent. Water shot over the bow of the canoe - the river defied my vigorous efforts to maintain forward momentum. The pole slid and flailed among the rocks and soon it became a challenge merely to hold my place - pole taut by my side - while the water whirled and snarled past.
Regaining control was essential - but the canoe spun sideways, grazed a boulder, and the pole slipped beneath the stern. Lost in turbulent water, it caromed off rocks and on downriver. Then without warning, the canoe overturned and catapulted headlong down the rapids while I clutched to its side - through the foam, fury, and ruthless will of the Wildcat Rapids.
A tumble down cold, desolate, rock-ridden waters found me at the base of the rapids where, scrambling up the bankside, I lay down in exhaustion to wait out the night.
Dim light penetrated the pines - it was near morning. Glancing downstream, I could just barely make out a silhouette of the canoe as it lay partly submerged in the river, arrested by a fallen tree that jutted out from the bank. The paddle and pole were gone, and I began to forage a sturdy stick to help guide me home.
After wrestling the canoe for three-quarters of an hour to empty it of water, I headed downstream, drifting with the current - a pawn subservient to the inexorable river that had mastered me effortlessly. Drive extinguished, not a drop of desire to conquer remaining, only a hunger to listen and absorb the stillness was left. Daylight transformed the river to an earthly cathedral of intricate forest trills, stained-glass hues, unequaled peace. The previous night's activity seemed stripped of such acuity by comparison. My journey upriver had been stuperous, single minded, oblivious to the delicate nuances and flow of the river. Narrow focus had confined me - the essence of the experience overruled by my all-consuming goal.
But now the river carried me gently home - to the boathouse, where I tied the canoe to the bankside and picked my way up the root-infested path to the cabin. Only there, for the fist time, did the pine needles and clods of dirt dangling from my sweater become visible, my waterlogged boots and heavily soiled hands and face.
Recognizing my need, I left my boots by the cabin door and headed for the pump, where the water spilled forth translucent - the channel cleared from the previous night's purging. Filling the basin with fresh, clean water, I dipped my hands deep and began to wash.