|Summer on the North River at Couch Beach.|
It’s my favorite time of year on the river. The salt marsh is fully green. The grass has grown long enough that, in even the slightest breeze, it appears to be dancing. On an afternoon in late June, when the sky is bright blue, and fluffy wisps of cloud neither threaten rain nor temper the warmth of the sun, when the wind blows just right, and the light plays on the water, it is possible to lose all sense of time. The river, in all its splendor, is captivating, even magical.
If I had to explain to someone, without words, the essence of what the North River means to me, I would bring him out on the river in my canoe, on one such afternoon. Bringing him there would say something about the river, but it would say something about me as well. The river centers me and reminds me of all that I am, and all that is possible. Showing someone the river would reveal the real me. That’s exactly what I set out to do.
It was a perfect river day. The tides were strong and precisely in favor for the trip I had planned — to canoe up the North River with a certain young man. If you were to ask me then I would have said that we were friends, but the truth of the matter was that I was in love with him — in love with the idea of him anyway.
It had been months since I’d been on the water. Going to the river felt like going home. I was nearing the end of a long, troubled relationship, and although I never would have admitted it, I was searching for a way out. Part of me knew that the months to come would be difficult, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to endure it. But being on the river would let me leave all that behind for a few hours, — to escape, in a sense, and gather my strength.
I had been looking forward to this day for weeks. I may have thought otherwise at the time, but my companion was not someone I knew well. He was an acquaintance — a regular customer at the small store where I worked — but one with whom I had grown close, with years of increasingly meaningful conversation. I’d only just begun to consider him a friend. This would be the first time we’d spend together outside the store.
It was he who suggested the river trip. We set out from the Union Street Landing on a Sunday afternoon, riding the rising tide upstream. It was awkward at first, but after we got our bearings in the boat and cleared the rapids at the first bend in the river, we settled into an easy rapport.
It wasn’t long before I began talking about the relationship I was in and the problems my boyfriend and I were having. I was extremely unhappy and yet I viewed the romance as something that was ending but not over. My companion asked me to tell the story from the beginning, and as I did, certain patterns began to stand out to me. The story took on a different meaning when told aloud. The love had died, I realized, but I had yet to admit it both to my boyfriend and to myself.
Regarding my canoeing companion, when I say I was in love with the idea of him, I mean that he represented to me all that was lacking in my love life at that time. He appealed to me primarily because he seemed to provide what my boyfriend could not. The fact that I really didn’t know him well didn’t stand in my way: I just filled in the blanks for myself. He traveled a lot for work — there were months at a time when I did not see him — and that made it easy for me to imagine him as the perfect partner.
“The river can be a magical place but it can also play tricks on you” — words I have spoken more than once since the day of the canoe trip. But it’s not true. The river is nothing but straightforward. But you can play tricks on yourself, especially — perhaps — on the river, because when the day is as perfect as it was that afternoon in June, it’s easy to think that there’s magic involved.
On the river, time reinvents itself, stretching some hours into weeks and shortening others to mere minutes. The end of a day sneaks up from behind and you realize that despite what you’ve begun to think, the sun will not shine forever. The day must end. Night must follow. Those lazy hours before the sunset can be enchanting, brimming with illusions of eternity. No wonder it is so easy to fall in love out there.
I finished telling the story of my failing relationship just as my companion and I reached a straightway — one of the most beautiful stretches of the North River. Looking out over the vivid green expanse of marsh, I felt an unprecedented sense of freedom and wholeness. I had never felt so at peace with myself.
“What’s that creek over there?” my companion asked.
“Let’s check it out.”
Marsh creeks are like mazes. The channels are narrow and shallow, and top-heavy reeds bend down over your head. The banks have a habit of collapsing upon themselves, bending and twisting so that you could be paddling in circles for hours and not notice it. It takes a practiced eye to differentiate one meander from another. Thick green grasses obscure the view. If you think you know where you are, you feel safely enclosed, but if you get lost you feel hopelessly trapped. The only way out it to exit the boat, climb onto the marsh and look for landmarks.
But we found our way out without incident. The rest of the day passed quickly: a picnic lunch, another hour or two of steady paddling in a slow race against the setting sun. We arrived at the landing at dusk. It had been a full day on the river and a good one, and it was time to go home.
Driving back to my house in Marshfield, we talked about how much we’d enjoyed each other’s company. In parting, we pledged to take another canoe trip sometime, perhaps exploring a different section of the river. It felt good to have a new friend.
But I awoke the next morning tangled tight in a web of illusion. I felt better than I had in a long time, and I concluded that such positive energy could only be attributed to my companion from the day before. I thought I had found the man with whom I would spend the rest of my life.
The rest of the story is long, sad, and messy. In the days that followed, everything fell apart. Two years have passed and yet fragments, sharp and jagged, remain unresolved. My failing relationship ended almost immediately, but the new one I thought was beginning never even got off the ground. Instead, there was confusion, anger, bitterness. Not only did I lose a potential partner, I lost a friend.
But I found my escape. Not a true escape, for life’s not like that, but even a momentary respite can give us the strength we need. I owe it all to the river.
One afternoon in June, the river slowed down time so that I could talk about my problems. It spun its magic, giving me a sense of peace, and — does one exist without the other? — a strong dose of illusion. But I found the strength for what I needed to do. After the smoke cleared, that peace I felt while on the river remained, protecting and guiding me.
That day on the river was a wake-up call. My canoeing companion provided an unexpected solution to my problems. I thought he was my savior, but instead he showed me that I had to save myself. He opened my eyes, helped me remember who I was, and then walked away, leaving me to prove to myself that the answers would never be found in other people — only in myself. It was painful, yes, but suffering and pain exist for a reason. We endure, we grow, we learn. And slowly, . . . slowly we move on.
by Kezia Bacon, Special to the Mariner
Kezia Bacon’s articles are provided by the North and South Rivers Watershed Association.