And This is Where It All Begins
A peaceful camp ©Sean Prentiss
But that is not where it began. And it did not begin when Mom, my sister, my niece, and I unloaded my canoe, nicknamed Slater after the slate mined from my hometown hills 100 miles south of Hancock, New York, the headwaters of the Delaware. I slid the canoe into the water and loaded in dry bags and dry box and paddles and life jacket and food.
Sean and Slater ©Sean Prentiss
It does not begin with that first stroke, the paddle in the river I love, the river I grew up on and then left at age eighteen, nearly half a lifetime ago. At five, I first swam across the river, from New Jersey to Pennsylvania. By twelve, I was canoeing a banged up aluminum canoe across the stillwater near my home. By fifteen, I wrapped that canoe around the rocks of Foul Rift. Nineteen, the canoe had been welded and I canoed the Delaware with Bones, my first love. At twenty-six, after many break-ups and many years of not talking, Bones and I canoed again. Her fishing line dangling off the front of the canoe. Me keeping us in circling Cool Eddy. But none of those moments are where this trip begins.
Down the mighty Delaware ©Sean Prentiss
Now I’m thirty-four, with this new canoe, Slater, at the headwaters of my Delaware, a stretch I’ve never seen, and this is still not the beginning either. And really, I only know intimately the one-mile stretch from Buttermilk Rapids to the top of Foul Rift that sits in front of the house I grew up in. I know another twenty miles through a few past canoe trips, Portland, PA to Martins Creek, PA. Seeing the East Delaware blend with the West Delaware to form the main stem, that is new, but still is not the beginning. Though in another telling, I can imagine that this is where it all starts. This is where the narrative would begin to flow.
And the beginning is not my first night alone, camped way up north on the Delaware. Nor the second day when Mom joins me for a day. This could be the telling of how a mother and a son learn the river they loved. And we did. But that is not my story today. Still, at a curve in the river, we watch two deer—a doe and a fawn—swim the river. We paddle Skinner’s Falls, my book says, “One of the most severe on the Delaware River.” Mom and I see the whitewater. She goes through first so if she capsizes, I can save her, though I’m only a mediocre paddler. That’s what son’s do. Before we know it, we’re through and wondering where the big waves were.
And the beginning is not when Mom says goodbye and I have three days alone. The first two without seeing another boat, except two early morning fishermen. Nor is it when I finally hit the stretch of river that serpentines through the Delaware River National Recreation Area, with its protected water and banks. Herons on almost every corner. And that plaintive honking of geese. And, god, I’ll take that noise over anything else in the world. But that is not the beginning.
Bones keeping the fires burning
Nor on day five, almost half way through this 200 mile trip, when Mom drives Bones up the thirty-five miles to Milford, to meet me. Before this trip, Bones and I hadn’t talked in three years, after one of many big fights. But if I’m going to canoe this river, I need Bones with me. If only for a night. It’s like somewhere in the telling, Bones and the river became entwined until Bones is part of the river, and the river bleeds through Bones. Bones once said, “There are some things that even the river cannot heal.” She and I aren’t one of those things. The river will, in some way, heal us.
Day is done, time to rest
We pass Portland, PA and float in the afternoon. And this is the introduction. Not the beginning, but Bones and I are close, though neither of us knows it. Now, it’s almost dusk and we’re four miles north of the cabin. We float and tell stories. When she did this and I did that and remember the night when we went there and so and so said such and such. It’s coming back. The distance between Bones and me reduces just like the distance from the headwaters to home reduces until there is almost no space left. Then we turn a corner and we’re above Buttermilk Rapids, my favorite stretch of river. Never a boat here. A few islands and two quiet houses that I’ve always wanted to own. Maybe I’d move from Idaho if I could live in one of them.
And this, right here, after 120 miles and six days, this is where it begins. Dusk now. The river quiet, flat, still. The water the color of oil. The hills aflame with leaves of July, a deep, deep green. The sky a gray, a red, a pink, an orange. Two eagles fly above us. Ten years ago there were no eagles. Or herons. Or beaver. Or bear. They’re back. The eagles screech, and it’s not beautiful like a hawk, and fly into trees. We’ve stopped paddling. Let the river carry us.
Lady lost in thought
The river releases Slater, and Bones and I float into Buttermilk Rapid in near dark. I study the river, looking for rocks. It’s an easy Class II. We’re through. There Harold’s house on the hill. He might be on his porch watching us pass. The bend that we call Doe Hollow. Cool Eddy, where Bones and I fished eight years ago. Oliver’s Beach where we skinny-dipped so many times. Found love again after years apart. Will we again? That doesn’t matter now because we have this river together and all that history that floods past and between us. This night is enough to last forever in our story.
“I’m not. I’m home.” And it’s a cliché, but I am home. I’m still crying when we hit shore at my grandmother’s cabin. Still crying when we step into a foot of river water. Still crying when Bones comes to me and kisses me for only the second time since I’ve been home. Still crying when we pull the boat to shore, tie it up, and walk to the cabin. And this is where this river trip begins.