Note: Written in 2013 at the beginning of an 80-plus mile thru-paddle of the Ocklawaha River.
Sunlight breaks into shards of shattered glass, shining spotlights under the bridge. Haynes Creek, a slow-moving river in central Florida, ripples beneath the light.
A damselfly rests upon a lily-pad, its shadow pulled downstream.
A Great Blue Heron stands in the shade of the bridge, amidst the flowing water, its thin legs piercing the surface. I walk below the bridge and the heron pops its head up, twisting around on a long, serpentine neck. The heron ruffles its feathers, spreads its wings, and presses up, away from the earth. It squacks in discontent, a sound as ancient as the river itself, a sound more dinosaur than bird, more screech than chirp. Its wings roll in long, slow strides, and the bird bobs over the river, dropping down to rest on an outstretched branch.
“This’ll work!” I shout, and the engine shuts off on a small car beside the bridge. Two kayaks, longer than the car itself, are strapped tight to a rack, projecting off the roof. My dad steps out of the vehicle, followed by Ryan, who begins working at the boats on the roof. It’s only a matter of minutes and we have the boats unloaded. Fingers work deftly at straps. Muscles snap into action to lift and move. Feet step lightly as the vessels are walked to the water’s edge.
“Oh yeah, lotsa parties used to take place here,” my dad says, continuing a conversation that’s been waiting decades to begin. The bridge was a party spot, an “old haunt” as Dad called it. His memories are scrubbed clean as he recalls his youth, only to be washed away by this new one taking place right now.
Ryan unloads the last of the gear from the car trunk, and walks it down to the kayaks. A pile sprawls out next to each boat. A week’s worth of food is buried somewhere in the pile, beneath mosquito repellant and tents, cameras and sun screen, dry bags and water containers, life vests and paddles.
“Alright,” my dad says, “have a safe trip.” He steps forward, arms spreading wide for a hug. I lean in to return the hug, and his foot comes down on top of my toe, bare in a sandal. My dad is mid-embrace, kissing me on the cheek. The flash of pain mixes with a fond and familiar warmth and I thank him for coming. For driving us to this piece of river under a bridge, and seeing us off on the start of some new adventure.
All set, my dad drives off, leaving me and Ryan alone beneath the bridge, with our kayaks and our gear. The world slows down, and our senses heighten. The sounds of the bridge drift down to us. The current slips around the pilings, a gentle whispering from the water. Cars whoosh across the bridge. One of those is Dad, I think.
With all our gear loaded, we slide the kayaks into the river. I step off the bank, my foot sinking slowly into the soft muck. The water is cool, not cold. I sit down inside the cockpit of the kayak, slipping my legs through the narrow keyhole opening. Sitting down like this lends to the stability and speed of the boat. We merge into one vessel. The boat becomes my skin, and I feel the current flowing around me, curling off in little eddies, urging me downstream. I lean to one side and the boat leans with me. I lean to the other side and it bows in that direction. My arms are the propellers, my paddle, the blades.
The stern of the boat rubs away from the shoreline, carving a v-shaped rut through tiny pebbles and black muck. That is the mark of the paddler, left behind but never before. It is the scratch of departure from hard packed earth, and the message that somewhere, downstream, you will be paddling.
Ryan and I float out, away from the bridge. It is still morning, but the Florida sun is keen, narrowing its focus on our exposed skin, multiplying its range by bouncing rays off the water’s surface. I dip my paddle and push my boat forward. My body relapses into muscle memory – left shoulder forward, left blade down. Up at the hip. Right shoulder forward, right blade down. Beads of water trickle down the blade of each paddle, condensing along my knuckles, and then dripping onto the boat and into the river.
The river is brown and murky. Light tries to filter through, percolating at ripples, kissing air bubbles with starbursts. But it loses itself in the murk, and the darkness hides its death, dissipation by disappearance.
Our own disappearance is little noted, under the bridge. We have left our mark upon the sand, but only those with the eyes of a paddler will see. As Ryan and I drift around the first bend, the world behind us vanishes. The trees close in. Large oaks sweep across the river. Cypress knees thrust up beside the water’s edge. Osprey cry out from bare branches, searching for their next meal. Time has lost its hold here. It could be 1978 again, my dad laughing beneath that bridge with friends. He might even be standing by the water, absent-mindedly scuffing up a v-shaped mark rutted in coarse pebble and black muck.