Resigned to a rising river

Would the river flood their house? They had to wait and see.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/AP
A river runs through it: A driver navigated his truck down a flooded street near the Fish River in Wallagrass, Maine, on May 1.

How could I not recognize the ominous signs: a long, hard winter, a monumental snowpack in the north, and the possibility of heavy rain.

I live on the Penobscot River here in central Maine, and by the first week of April the spring thaw was in full swing. The process followed the familiar pattern: the dimpling of ice in the channel; the long, dark finger of river inserting itself like a wedge; and the final breakup of the ice into bobbing, spinning floes that sailed south on the swift current, sometimes with mallard ducks hitching a ride. As the month petered out, I started to feel that we were home free. The river would drain quickly this year.

But I had forgotten about the great wild card: torrential rains. At the beginning of May, three inches fell, and I knew it was combining with the snowpack up north. It was the kind of rain that cascaded from the roof and ran down the windows in such sheets that one had the sense of living in an aquarium.

When it ended, it was clear that the earth had had its fill: Rivulets coursed down the streets, lawns had become marshes, forgotten soccer balls had risen out of the tall grass bordering the playing fields, and the bark on the trees looked swollen.

After an ominous pause, the river began to rise: first onto the flood plain and then, slowly, inexorably, up the bank leading to my backyard. I planted wooden stakes and began to time the ascent with my watch.

My son, Anton, threw me apprehensive looks. "What if it gets to the house?" he asked.

I shrugged. "Then it will get to the house," I said. "But don't worry right now."

In truth, I didn't feel so sanguine. That water was dark and cold. Out in the channel it raced along, tossing off boiling eddies that rushed about the trunks of the silver maples.

Up on the lawn, however, the river sedately felt its way along, its leading edge creeping landward in almost dainty fashion, advancing a bit, then receding, advancing, receding. But it was making headway.

Neighbors dropped by. "So, what are you going to do?" was a repeated question. Do? What could I do? What could anyone do? I sensed that they thought I might turn to the river, lift my hands, and utter an incantation to make it go back where it came from.

"We'll see what nature decides," became my stock reply.

One brilliant, warm day, the river continued to rise more than an inch an hour. By noon it was within 10 feet of the foundation. The curious continued to stop by, the basketball court flooded, and Anton took the kayak for a spin in the backyard.

Perhaps for lack of anything else to say, some of the neighbors reminded me of the "great flood" of 1987 (before I owned the house). "The water rose over your countertops," said one woman. "That was something to see."

"I'm glad I didn't see it," I replied without looking at her. I checked my watch again. The river was still rising at the same rate.

A little girl from down the street appeared. "Can I play basketball?" she asked.

I pointed to the submerged court. "You mean over there?"

She followed my finger with her eyes and said, "Oh."

In a quiet moment when I wasn't being visited by neighbors, supervising my son's kayaking, or moderating the use of our aquatic basketball court, I found the time to consider that I wasn't worried. Resignation is an odd form of comfort, but it is comfort nonetheless.

If the water came into the house, things would get wet. The river would finally recede, and I would have to take up a few rugs, remove the mud, and dry the place out. Then spring would come in earnest, followed by summer. For everything there is a season. Why should a swollen river be the exception?

By 10 that night the river began to pour into the basement. Anton was now truly worried. "Go to bed," I told him.

"But what if the river comes into the house?" he pleaded.

"It won't," I assured him. "Look," I said, pointing to one of the wooden stakes. "It's rising only half an inch an hour now. By morning it will start to go down." And sure enough, by morning the river had reached equilibrium. Throughout the day it receded, as if it had decided to let go of me, releasing me to the custody of spring.

The flood is now past, and I am ready for what comes next: rhododendrons in bloom, shadbushes listing in a warm breeze, and a river coursing serenely off in the distance.

For everything there is a season – and, I like to think, a place.

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