My little light has grown dim. It has retreated deep inside me to shelter from the wind. My dear canoe Edna hasn’t touched water since we travelled together for 4 and a half months last year. She was the closest thing I’ve had to a home since, and now she’s been sitting in a shed collecting leaves. Meanwhile, I transitioned from a sun-bronzed river rat to a caretaker and patient. But this Saturday, my canoe and I were reunited and the little light that is my spirit glowed. I touched the cold aluminum of that canoe and she remembered me like an old trusted horse. This boat has a soul, and the more water that passes underneath her, the more alive she becomes. I touched my canoe and felt a weight come off of me. For the first time in too long, a small smile showed itself on my face. A small one, but a real one. Today, we were going on the water.
I had a to-do list the size of my arm – emails to send, paperwork to fill out, accounting to record, research to do…the list never, ever ends. But I justified taking the canoe out because that was also on my to-do list. On top of everything I’m already doing, I’m also training for a race called the MR340, a 340 mile nonstop canoe and kayak race on the Missouri River from Kansas City to St. Louis. The race is in the end of July, so I’ve got some time – but in long-distance racing, starting early is key. I needed to get out on the water to see how my body would hold up after the setbacks of the last few months.
After I got off the water in October of last year – having rowed 2,700 miles straight – I promptly dislocated my shoulder playing softball. I’ve never played softball in my life and I never want to again. I’ve had problems with that shoulder before, and it’s well known that once you dislocate a shoulder, it’s prone to do it again. That would be the fourth time it’s happened in my life, and I cannot describe the pain. It happens quick quick, but you know instantly something is terribly wrong. I threw that softball and the rest of my arm tried to follow the ball. One dull click and I knew it was out. I was brought to my knees and tried immediately to put my arm back in. Since this is the fourth time it’s happened, I sort of know what to do. The first time it happened, a doctor put it back in for me, but the last two I did it by myself. For me, I have to straighten my back and throw my shoulders back and down – which are all motions that you really, really don’t want to do because they cause blinding pain. There’s always a moment of panic when the motion doesn’t work the first few times. You look at your shoulder and it’s protruding at an unnatural angle. The pain is so bad you’ll do anything to get it back in.
My mom was on the field, and since she’s had to put dad’s shoulders back in place for him too, she knew what to do. I guess dad was the one who gave me these weak shoulders. It’s always better to have someone help you, especially someone who knows what they’re doing. In the time it took her to run over to me, I had tried my tricks a couple of times but they hadn’t worked yet. Mom grabbed my arm and pulled it away from my body and that gave the ball of the shoulder some room. I tried my tricks again and after a few more writing motions, we both heard a loud pop and my shoulder was back in. Instant, instant relief. I looked up. Both softball teams were looking concernedly over at me and mom while my brother assured them “this happens all the time.” No, we don’t need to call an ambulance, he said. She’s fine. Embarrassed now that the immediate pain was gone, I got off the field and made a makeshift sling out of my sweatshirt. The game resumed. My arm has been in rehab ever since.
In addition to the shoulder situation, I’ve also had two procedures to remove those kidney stones and wore a stent in my ureter the entire month of December. The doctor told me to remove the stent myself and left a little string coming out of my pee-pee hole. “Just give it a gentle pull,” she said. My eyes boggled. Oh, sure. My uncle told me a story about how a family member also had to do the same thing, remove his own stent. He said he had taken off his pants and strapped on his cowboy boots. Then he squatted down, stepped on the end of that string…and stood up! I’m going to tell my urologist that story when I see her for my follow-up.
My mom again also helped me and the day after Christmas, I took a shot of limoncello and we set me up on the bathroom floor. My mom, bless her, found that little string and after I spent 10 minutes on the floor being a big wimp, I finally took a deep breath and told her to just do it. The stent went from my kidney to my pee-pee hole, and I had no idea how long that distance was. Removing it didn’t necessarily hurt, but it was definitely one of the top three strangest sensations of my life. Don’t ask me what the other two are.
So now you’re updated on the graphic details of my life. I hope I didn’t put you off your Saturday morning breakfast. I could have just said, “I got to row again after a shoulder dislocation and a kidney stone removal,” and called it a day, but what would be the fun in that? Now you understand exactly why rowing again this week was such a big deal for me…after going through those things. So I had my day off, and my canoe Edna and I hit the water.
Pápá was at my mom’s house for the weekend, and for the first time in a long time I was alone. I very much like being alone. I’m one of those introverted extroverts. I loaded up my canoe Edna into the back of my truck and we drove to the Bayou Teche. The Teche is a sacred body of water to me. All water is sacred, but the Teche is where my Cajun heritage flows the deepest. In the mid to late 1700’s, the first group of Acadians arrived from Canada and settled in what is now known as “Acadiana,” a specific area of south Louisiana, with the Bayou Teche running right through its heart. The Cajun side of my family was actually not a part of those particular Acadians – my ancestors were stationed here by the Canadian government. But they all came here at the same time from the same place, and everyone called them the Acadians, which eventually morphed into the word “Cajuns.” Anyone who isn’t familiar with south Louisiana will often lump New Orleans into the Cajun culture, but that is actually a different culture – New Orleans is Creole. A subtle difference to the untrained eye, but a big difference to us; they talk weird and put tomatoes in their gumbo! I do, however, have deep and twisted roots in New Orleans as well, but that’s another story for another time.
The Bayou Teche used to be frequented by the Cajuns, and the waterway provided transport and commerce straight to their doorsteps. A lot of the property along the Teche is still oriented to the “long lot” system, a common style of land ownership among the French in the 1700’s. The long lot system gives owners a small piece of property that touches the waterway, and then extends the property away from the water in a long but narrow section. This allows more people to have access to the water, and coincidentally I find it makes for great emergency landing fields for the airplane. So a lot of the property along the Teche is just people’s backyards. There are some areas of wooded forest, and where I put in at Leonville I knew there would be wooded stretches upstream.
This was only the second time I had been on the Teche before. The first time I had paddled with a friend from Lafayette to Henderson, an 11 day journey that took us from the Vermillion River, through the Evangeline Canal to the Bayou Teche, upstream on the Teche to Bayou Courtableau, then east over the levee into the Atchafalaya Basin, where we made our way south through the swamp to Henderson. The entire time we lugged a car battery and did our classes online – this was right after Covid sent college online, so we moved our classroom to a canoe. But again, another story for another day. But once I paddle a body of water, I never forget it, and now, nearly a year later, I still recognized every bend.
There was nobody at the boat ramp in Leonville. I backed by truck down the long ramp and unloaded Edna, pretending not to notice the eyes watching me from the gas station across the bayou. Everyone always stares at me when I’m alone with Edna. She’s a 17 foot aluminum canoe with two 9 foot oars – people look at all 105 pounds of me and wonder how that math is going to work. But Edna and I have travelled together for thousands of miles – I can muscle that boat around any day. I unloaded and was a little nervous to drive my truck back up the steep ramp. I have a stick shift and was afraid of rolling into the bayou! But I told myself I’m a pilot, so I can do this, and let go of the brake, gunned the throttle and released the clutch. I made it up the ramp and felt pretty proud of myself. Not many young women unload their 17 foot canoes by themselves into the Teche, then drive a stick shift up the ramp. In fact, not many people are out here doing any of this, men or women, by themselves or with others.
I put my day pack into the canoe and pushed off into the milk chocolate water. I hadn’t touched my oars in 3 months. I undocked them, put my feet into the straps, and started rowing like I hadn’t taken a day off. I rowed nonstop for a full hour, just so relieved to be rowing again. The sound of the sliding seat, the water flowing around the bow, the motion of rowing and the resistance of the water…I had missed all of it terribly. I eventually stopped to drink some water and eat a little, but resumed rowing again immediately. I didn’t want to stop, ever. After another couple of hours, I pulled over in a shady spot to eat the sandwich I had brought. The day was perfect. Not a cloud in the sky, cool in the shade but not hot in the sun. I was eating my sandwich when I heard the unmistakable sound of a hawk very close. I looked into the woods next to me and saw a pair of hawks in a dead tree no more than twenty feet away. They flapped their wings and stared at each other, talking in their raucous tongue. I stared in awe, sandwich paused halfway to my mouth. The two hawks stayed there for another few minutes while I watched in solemn silence. Then they flew off inland, together. I felt blessed. I undocked my oars and continued on.
Now that I was starting to get back into the rhythm of rowing, my mind started to wander. I thought about my Pápá, and his life growing up here on a farm near the Teche. He spoke French and they grew crops and raised animals. His first year of school the school bus was a horse and buggy. The family was poor, but they didn’t need much. His father would go into the forest and shoot one squirrel a day. His mother had yams or couche-couche ready for her kids when they got home from school. The little community all knew each other and most everyone was related. Their life was hard but simple. I thought about Pápá’s life now, eighty years later. How things have changed. What must it be like to see all that change happen. To go from working on a farm with mules pulling the plow, to living in a world of highways, machinery, fast cars and confusing phones. What must it be like to live an entire life. I, at the age of 25, have only just begun.
My phone rang, jarring me out of my reverie. I usually put my phone on airplane mode whilst rowing, but I was using it today to track my average speed for training purposes. It was Pápá calling me. “I was just thinking about you.” I said when I answered the phone, which was true. “Well I was thinking about you!” he replied. I told him where I was on the Teche and he was excited to relay the information to my mom and dad. He didn’t need anything, was just calling to check in. “Je t’aime.” I said. “Je t’aime aussi, ma petite fille.” he replied, and we hung up. I started up rowing again, now with my heart tender. The Teche flowed, and I rowed, and I felt that muddy water pump through my veins all the way back to my grandfather’s grandfathers, all the way back to the 1700’s. Not many people pay attention to the Bayou Teche anymore. But that day, someone did. The pair of hawks I had seen earlier and the phone call from Pápá just then and the beautiful day and the muddy water all made my little light shine. I felt the land of my Cajun heritage see me, and I saw it. I felt good to say hello. I know that once my Pápá passes into the next life, here on the Bayou Teche is where I will always be able to visit him again.
Go say hello to that water that connects you to someone who has passed. Say hello to that forest, to that land, to that mountain or stretch of sea. You know where they are – they didn’t go far from this world. The people that have died, it is only their bodies that have died. They are still alive in the water, in the trees, in the earth and in your heart. This I believe, and this I see. In a pair of hawks, in the muddy water, in the infinite depths of you and me.
I had someone donate to my expedition whom I have never met. Attached to the donation was this message. It is the perfect example of finding that place, that place you always know those that have passed will be. The person requested they remain anonymous, but said I may share their words with you all:
Donor: “Don was my friend .. which is a pathetic excuse to describe my experience with him. This says it better: ‘Because of you, I learned I was bruised, not broken. Because of you, I felt small in an immense desert, but not lost. It was you who showed me the Milky Way, Lizard Rock, Painted Canyon and the blue water of the Pecos. And the not-so-blue Brazos and Colorado.. Because of you, I slept alone and unafraid ‘neath clear, full moons beside silver rivers. I skinny dipped, I bathed in cattle troughs, I laid in the cool waters of Cibolo Creek, because of you. Love’s Truck Stop. Stillwell’s Store. Lajitas, Terlingua, Ojinaga, Acuna. The Ring Around The Moon. Because of you, my wounds healed, I got tougher and stronger. I started to remember who I was before, only I was smarter. Because of you I laughed long and loud. Because of you I crossed 2/3 of the 60 miles of the Pecos. And because of you, I did it two more times. I saw rock art, and petroglyphs, and cave dwellings, and sunsets and sunrises, all because of you. Because of you, I found someone else who loved rivers and rock art and moonlit canyons and, surprisingly, me! And when I stop and think of all the things that made my life richer, I am so grateful for every single experience I had .. because of you.’ I owe him a lot. This is a tiny way to honor him.”
Me: “I wish I could give you a hug. What you wrote in honor of Don got to my soul. I am so heartened to hear of what times you had with him, and heartbroken to see that he has passed from this world. Though, it seems he lived a life of love and awe, and shared that with you. It’s funny, I find that those that have passed are the ones that give us the most life. The death of my brother has fueled everything I’ve done on the rivers – in his death, he gave me life. My heart goes out to you and your continued grief. It never goes away, it will never be okay, we can only look around us and live and love and be grateful each and every day. That is all I have found I can do. Just thinking about my brother now while writing this brings a knot to my throat, but knowing that others have grief of a thousand rivers makes me feel stronger in my own sorrow. Thank you for sharing, and thank you for honoring Don in this way. I will carry a little piece of this story with me across the oceans of our planet.”