IN Boston, tourists can buy T-shirts that declare, "I survived Boston traffic." Last year, a friend and I were introduced to a more subtle type of survival when we decided to canoe down Beaver Brook.
The name itself is deceptive. One thinks of adorable little animals paddling to-and-fro, of birds chirping in the trees, of a gentle stream meandering through New Hampshire and northeastern Massachusetts on its way to the Merrimack River. Canoeing down such a stream would easily be the stuff of which television commercials are made - the beautiful girl in the lovely dress, the handsome man paddling occasionally.
The real Beaver Brook is quite different. While it is relatively gentle, its wildness means that if several trees along the shore fall into the river, they stay there. Any canoeists going down the river must climb over them if they wish to carry on. This doesn't make the river less inviting - it just gives it a different kind of appeal.
My friend and I were attracted to the river because it had a kind of friendly charm, and after choosing a launch point and a "taking out" spot where we could park my car in relative safety, we took the plunge.
That's probably an unfortunate choice of words, but actually we did do a fair amount of plunging. Once we got beyond the charming part that had lured us onto the river in the first place, we soon had the joy of climbing out of the canoe onto logs (or into water), lifting the canoe over obstructions, and then attempting to get back in. If you like to bathe, taking a shower is easier, but Beaver Brook is more fun.
Then there is the wildlife. There are ducks, some muskrats, and fish, of course. But of more immediate interest were the woodland spiders. When we were able to canoe past an obstruction, we often had to bend low to get our heads under the branches. On these projections, groups of lively arachnids would be waiting to hitch a ride. As we bent under the branch, the spiders would use our backs or heads as a suitable place for a soft landing as they migrated down river. They were about the size of a quarter, black and scrawny. And when these insects fell into the canoe, they proved to be both frisky and strong. Their presence gave our escapades under tree branches a thrill I had not read about in the books about canoeing.
At one point we came to a place where three full-sized trees had fallen across the river. My assignment was to climb out and guide the canoe to shore so we could carry it around the obstacle. The climbing out part didn't work too well, as I ended up with one leg in the brook and the other firmly settled in the canoe. At last I tumbled into the water and staggered toward shore, planning to climb what seemed like a simple river bank. It couldn't have been more than four- or at most five-feet high, but some how I lost traction and began sliding down despite my vigorous efforts to stop.
My friend at this moment decided to come to the rescue - or maybe she was beginning the portage. She stepped out of the canoe onto one of the trees and promptly slipped off the log into chest-high water. Meanwhile, I had managed to slither and flail my way to the top of the bank by grabbing onto grass and various other natural objects, flinging them aside as they gave way. I was stopped in mid-snatch, however, by a perfect pitcher plant - the first one I had ever seen in the wild. After a moment of ponde ring how close it had come to oblivion before a human lawnmower, I turned back to the business at hand - namely, portaging the canoe. As we guided it through a rather narrow open space on the shore, amid clouds of mosquitoes attracted by our insect repellant, the picturesque charm of the scene momentarily escaped us.
Moving on, we came to the Land of the Black Mud. We had just finished another portage and were endeavoring to relaunch the canoe from a mudflat. At the time, I was investigating some interesting marsh plants a slight distance from the river. Suddenly my friend called for help because the canoe was slipping away from her. I rushed to the rescue, only to find my whole body skidding along the black mud. Somehow I had lost my footing and was now sliding toward the river just as though I were the one being la unched! (Fortunately, my friend maintained her grip on the canoe without my help.)
By the time I got back on my feet, I would have put even the best greased pig to shame. My formerly beige plants and white shirt had taken on a blackish hue - a color that would intensify as the trip went on. But, the muddier I became, the less the mosquitoes bothered me. A friend told me later that Indians used to use the mud as a repellant, and I can attest to its repelling powers on all fronts but the spiders.
Even if one is having as much fun as we were, it's not unnatural to think of the pleasures of home. As the sun sank lower, and we realized that we had no flashlights with us, our thoughts turned more and more to home. Our feelings were given added poignance by the knowledge that we had no idea how close we were to the mill and the falls where we would remove the canoe from the water. We pondered the possibility of not being able to see the falls in the dark. Not to worry, we were positive we would hear t hem.
I've never been quite sure what it is that marks a place as "home," but I do know that I was looking for it whenever I saw a house or any other sign of human presence. Then as we rounded a bend, I saw a house that could only be one that belonged in our town. I couldn't have proved this on objective evidence; it just looked right.
Along with this relatively good news came an experience that made me think for a moment that my senses had gone berserk. We began to hear a very loud sound of falls. Yet however earnestly I gazed ahead, the fact was that there were no falls in sight. Yet the water noise was drawing closer and closer. We both were on tenterhooks trying to figure out why we couldn't see what we were hearing. Then the solution came: It was a minifalls pouring into the river from along the shore. It had nothing at all to do with us.
Finally we did round the right bend and see the mill we had checked out earlier. We were in a smooth stretch, and I was paddling hard in an effort to get home before dark. Suddenly, we ground to a complete halt. A submerged rock had caught hold of the canoe and, as hard as we tried, we couldn't get off. Tired as I was, I had to laugh as I envisioned how we must have looked to an observer: two very dirty women rocking the canoe and frantically pushing against the water (actually the rock) with their paddl es in the midst of a perfectly calm river. Then, just as quickly as it had caught us, the rock let us go. Within short order, we were at shore.
Despite its all too deceptive charms, the river still has an impressive allure for me. It is, perhaps, what C. S. Lewis was pointing out in his "Chronicles of Narnia" when he spoke of Aslan as not being a "tame" lion. Facing something that's not tame or predictable draws on resources that we don't know were there and perhaps gives us a clearer sense of our completeness. Afterward - sometimes long afterward - there is also the inner smile of satisfaction and of knowing that however rough the day may be, m ost of us at least will not be sharing it with those frisky woodland spiders.