Fall weather with winter light on the Penobscot

The chill hadn’t yet arrived, so I got out my canoe again.

In all my years in Maine I have never experienced a winter like this. Where there should be snow, there is green grass. When I should be bundled to the hilt, I am outside in shirtsleeves. And where the river behind my house should be frozen from bank to bank, it runs freely.

I took what I thought was my last canoe ride in October, when the bordering woods were embroidered with reds and golds and the cool air still bore a hint of warmth when the breeze died down. Reaching over the gunwale, I dipped my hand into the water and one thought occurred to me: “swimmable.” But I resisted temptation and, with November’s advent, put the canoe up for the season.

As it turned out, I was premature. These early winter days have been nothing short of gracious, perhaps an attempt by nature to reset the balance by rewarding us for what we endured last winter, when snow fell upon snow until there was no place for the plows to put it.

And so, seizing the moment late last month, I untarped the canoe, grabbed my paddles and life jacket, slipped the old girl into the water, and set out.

Having paddled the Penobscot only during the warmer, more cooperative seasons, I was immediately struck by how different this winter world on the river was. In summer the trees are full of leaves and the banks thick with sedge, forming soft borders that give me a sense of embrace. Winter is different. The abrupt leaf-fall of autumn was like a curtain rising, exposing actors – trees – stripped to their bare bones, giving the woods a transparency that made me feel connected to a much wider world. How could I not think of Robert Frost’s iconic poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” with my canoe the steed and I the observer? The woods are lovely, dark and deep....

I paddled on. My strokes were sure and smooth, but every so often, when I’d get mesmerized by the sheer silence and the gift of having the river all to myself, the paddle blade would slap the water and throw spray up onto my hand. I felt the chill from a river that, by all rights, should have been frozen solid by now. In fact, the cold told me that it was willing to freeze, if only the temperature would dip and give it a chance.

I paddled on, and two of my neighbors, a couple, strolled down to the riverbank. “Good for you!” the man called, waving, as if cheering a heroic deed. And farther down, an unanticipated moment – another canoeist, plying his languid way upriver. We drew close and grabbed hold of each other’s gunwales, a fraternal clasp peculiar to canoeists. 

“Isn’t this something?” he remarked as we bobbed under a slate-gray sky. “We won’t see many more opportunities like this,” I replied. 

It was idle banter, but heartfelt, and appropriate, for what more could be said? We let go and the river separated us again.

The rest of my ride was solitary. The river was moving so slowly that it was more like a lake on which I felt I could commit myself to a good, long stay. I checked the time and realized that I needed to meet a class at the university where I teach. But then again, if I didn’t go, would my students protest?  And, the next day, given the excuse that I didn’t come to class because the day was so beautiful and I just had to be on the river, would they understand? 

I reached over the side of the canoe, ran my hand through the water, and thought: The river’s lovely, dark and deep, but I have a promise to keep.... 

And so I put in to shore, pulled the canoe onto the bank, and turned it over, its slick, wet belly shiny in the weak light of a winter day. I ran my hand over it, as if lulling it to sleep. This had surely been my last opportunity for a canoe ride until spring.

But then, again, who knows?

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