My son and I paddle the Penobscot, one last time

Here in central Maine, I live on a sidearm of the Penobscot River that invariably freezes over by the end of November.

I have never seen any freezing take place by the light of day; but the night brings a completely different world, cold and dark, so that by morning the river has grabbed hold of the land with fingers of wafer-thin ice.

It is the beginning.

Truth to tell, in November the river does not need a lot of encouragement to freeze over. Even in October, there is a certain lingering warmth that allows me to set a hand down in the water as I paddle along in my canoe. But come November, there is a precipitous drop in the water temperature, so that when I dip a hand in around Thanksgiving time I am chilled to the marrow and can stand it for only a matter of seconds.

One cannot appreciate how terribly cold a river can become until one has fallen in. This is what happened to me one November some years ago.

Every morning for several days I had awakened to icy river edges; but the day's progression under a low autumnal sun always melted it away. I took this as tacit license to shove the canoe in, because it's so difficult to let go of summer. As I paddled along, I made a sloppy stroke to avoid a floating log, and suddenly the canoe was rolling over. I went under and bobbed up, but in those few seconds the breath had been flushed from me by the frigid draw of the water. My septuagenarian neighbor, Earl, came down the bank and threw me a line.

"Cold, ain't it?" he said by way of Yankee understatement as he hauled me in.

After a few days, perhaps a week, of freezing and melting along the fringes, the river begins to "make ice" in earnest. I can hear it at night as I lie in my bed. It's a sort of yawning and cracking, rather other-worldly, emanating from some deep place. Day by day the ice thickens, while the river ebbs and swells beneath it, as if resisting the setting down of a lid upon its normal activities. The result is new ice, but it is scarred with long, sometimes deep, fissures: the marks of an unrelenting struggle between forming ice and the river that continues to course beneath it.

Before things get this far, I continue to ply the river in my canoe. I enjoy the subtly defiant act of crashing through the thin bank ice. But it becomes increasingly difficult to get my 7-year-old son, Anton, to come along. He is a child of summer, when the river is like a warm bath, its banks lined with the pendulous branches of silver maples in full leaf, and dense flats of cattails and sedge.

All of this harbors animal activity, which gives the landscape life and interest: the meandering of muskrats, the dry rattle of the kingfisher, the raucous quack of ducks (goldeneye and mallard), and the audible loft of the great blue heron as it rises from its hiding places. What more could a young boy ask for?

Thinking of these things, I understand why Anton resists the river in late autumn. Except for the few stubborn mallards, it is a forbidding sight: the reeds and sedges have died back beneath the surface of the water; the denuded maples are positively skeletal; and the water itself is dark, moody, and, yes, so cold. When I look out on this scene one poem springs to mind: the somber opening strophe of Edgar Allen Poe's "Ulalume":

The skies they were ashen and sober;

The leaves they were crisped and sere

- The leaves they were withering and sere;

It was night, in the lonesome October

Of my most immemorial year ...

Anton is reluctant, but the fact of my adulthood allows me to take a longer view. The cold months of autumn and winter set the stage for what the river will become in spring and summer. The ice that holds the waters back will itself become water, and a raging torrent at that, awesome to behold. The cold allows the accumulation of nutrients, which, when released in spring, will permit the rapid greening of the river's banks - which in turn will invite back the shorebirds. And the general bleakness of the entire scene will allow one to appreciate the return of color once the sun has returned to greater heights.

I cannot explain these guarantees to Anton in any cogent way, but I can tell him that there are still things to experience and even discover on a river in late autumn.

This time of year, every day that allows passage is a gift, for we never know when, at last, we will wake up to real ice and the end of our forays for several months.

And so we set off on the cold, roiling waters of the Penobscot, one last time perhaps, the preliminary layer of ice crisping as the bow of the canoe noses its way through, and my son poking his own holes in the ice with his paddle.

"Full speed ahead!" he whoops as we enter open water. "Full speed ahead!"

Aye, he's got the spirit. Full speed ahead, for the river that was, and for the river that, after autumn and winter's sleep, is once again to be.

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