Friday was my sister Alexa’s 20th Birthday. As much as I love and rejoice in my birthday is exactly as much as Alexa dislikes and avoids her own birthday fanfare. It’s completely puzzling to me as it’s a birthday—your one day in 365 that celebrates your entrance into this fine world. So color me perplexed as to people who don’t bask in this gift.
While my birthday this year was surely magical and full of fanfare in its own right, like fireworks going off in the distance right around 10:30 p.m.—which is the time I was actually born, well 10:13-ish specifically—it was as if the very universe was reveling with me in turning another year older, celebrating my existence and impact on this world. How else could I explain fireworks going off in my line of vision on my birthday? Coincidence?
There are no coincidences.
As usual, I digress, this is about Alexa’s birthday, but more specifically, what happened on her birthday which might have affected me most of all—a surprise three hour canoe trip down the Au Train River in Northern Michigan’s pristine forests. It would be my sisters Savannah and Alexa in one canoe, and my sister Kirstie and I in the other canoe.
Kirst and I had a bit of a rough start as she was in the back, doing the steering and right from the get-go we were zigging and zagging to and fro in no way going straight or steady as we kept hitting the river bank. My anxiety promptly startled to prickle as I tried yelling directives back to Kirstie about where to put her paddle and when, but still our boat drunkenly lunged this way and that in a haphazard fashion. After running over a log in the river and nearly capsizing while mosquitoes buzzed rapid fire near my head, I lost all patience with Kirst who was giggling in the back while I screeched like a deranged captain. We made our way to a shallow river bank so we could switch positions: Kirstie bow, myself manning the stern.
Immediately we were on course, as I navigated from the back, calling out orders for when Kirst could lift her paddle out of the water and let me steer us or when we could power the canoe together. My anxiety frissons started to melt away as I took in the surrounding landscape while paddling. Sandy ridges dipped down into the clear water. After initially passing a few cottages on the river we were immersed in what seemed to be deep forest. I scrutinized the tree line trying to spot a bear or more specifically a moose. Deep lines of trees, pines and otherwise lined both river banks, immersing us in their powerful scents. After the switch a group of kayakers had overtaken us and we were now right on their tails, so we decided to pull off to the river bank and enjoy one of our celebratory brews that we put in a cooler.
We linked our legs over the sides of the canoes to hold tight to both canoes, having paddled our way over to an area of mostly fallen down and floating logs. We bobbed on the placid river smiling and sipping. My post break-up sadness that had been nearly taking me down for days was far from my mind as I stared at each one of my radiant and incredibly different sisters in the canoes. Kirst had her platinum blonde hair in pin-up girl curls, wearing her “fancy” sandals, mini overalls and a white tank-top, while Alexa wore a pink polka dot skirt and Savannah had on leggings and a long black floral shirt. Every one of us had sunglasses donned.
After a few minutes of sipping and sitting we decided to press on, letting go of the other canoe. I was already seated but Kirst had shifted to the middle of the canoe and stood up to make her way back to the front. As she started walking, I realized she absolutely didn’t have her sea legs yet as she marched down the middle of the canoe as if she were on dry land, with no sense of balance or idea that we were floating precariously in a small vessel. As I felt the boat begin to lurch I opened my mouth to yell for her to balance herself and before I could form a single word I was flying overboard and sinking into dark cool river water.
As I burst back up to the surface still too shocked that I was no longer dry in a canoe, but drenched in the Au Train, I grasped the side of the canoe realizing I still had my beer in hand. I felt frantic, but when I saw that the canoe was indeed still upright and all our possessions including my car keys weren’t lost at the bottom of the river but were still intact in the boat, my mind eased for a moment until I looked at my surroundings. The river had been rather shallow but where I was at currently, I could not feel the bottom, but was kicking my legs to stay afloat in dark brown water and could see lots of algae covered logs nearby. Instantly I started to flail and flip out, for as adventuresome as I may be, murky water that may or may not be filled with leeches and God knows what had my body convulsing in fear. Savannah and Alexa who I hadn’t spotted yet were around the bend a little ways and were laughing and yelling for me to swim to them where it was sandy.
Kirstie who was as dry as chapped lips was looking at me as if I’d inconvenienced her and like she couldn’t understand why I was in the water. I gave her a murderous glower as I dropped the can of beer into the bottom of the canoe which now had a thin later of water floating on the bottom and quickly kicked my legs and pumped my arms across the river to where my other sisters were. I stood up on the sandy shore and once I knew I was safe and my sisters were done snapping photos of me, I began to laugh.
Okay. I was safe. No leeches had gotten me. I hadn’t been sucked under by a mysterious undertow. And best of all no seaweed had touched or even been close to touching me as that would’ve been the worst case scenario when unexpectedly flying out of a canoe.
Savannah and Alexa went ahead while I realized my paddle was caught in a floating bunch of logs that Kirstie was wildly unsuccessful at obtaining, so I mustered up my courage and swam back up river to fetch it, then back down to the sandy bank to wait for Kirst to pick me up in the canoe. We made it around the bend to see a snarl of trees blocking a lot of the river and heard Savannah and Alexa making quite a ruckus on the other side.
It seemed that Savannah had tipped in as well, trying to make it across the tangle of tree branches and shallow bottom. Kirst and I decided it wasn’t worth trying to paddle through ourselves, so we got out to pull our canoe through the mess as it was only ankle deep. Once we had transferred almost all our sopping things from one canoe to the other in order to dump out the excess water in both canoes, we were back on our way.
At this point I realized my favorite pair of large round D&G sunglasses that DC had bought for me had been on my head when I went overboard. Instantly I was sick over the loss. Losing a pair of sunglasses would mean not all that much to me normally, losing a favorite pair would probably rattle me, but because they were from DC it felt symbolically sad that the sunglasses were now at the bottom of a deep and murky part of the Au Train. I tried not to let it bother me as we paddled on, but my heart hurt for awhile feeling the loss as more than just fashionable plastic shades for my eyes, it felt like over-ness, real over-ness and I hated it. Oh how I wanted those glasses back, if only to hold onto something that could no longer be held, which in essence was DC.
The river swept this way and that and the beauty kept striking me despite my melancholy. When we came around another bend I spotted a rope swing with knots hanging high from a tall and skinny pine. My heart leapt away from the sadness of the sunken sunglasses and landed on the rope. I had always, always wanted to swing off of a rope into water and had yet to do it. I felt a little tug of nerves again as the river in this part obviously was dark and deep for there to be a swing into it and I wasn’t sure if I could find the bravery on my own to hurl into the river again. Doing it once without my knowing was one thing, but on purpose? I felt like quite the chicken.
But when the birthday girl, Alexa Belle saw the swing she yelled to Savannah to pull the canoe over so she could jump. Her confidence impressed me. We all pulled the canoes to the bank near the rope swing and Alexa climbed out, climbed up and swung out into the river in a brilliant splash. She just did it.
She did it once more for good measure. This prompted Savannah to try. Savannah went twice as well and then my courage found me.
I stepped out into the water, scrambled up the steep and rocky bank where the rope hung and grasped it. It suddenly seemed so far down and so daunting. I hung out for awhile trying to do countdowns and then go and not being able to. But finally I hurtled myself forward and let go.
I went again and this time, climbed higher and sat on one of the knots of the rope which was even more exhilarating when dropping into the brisk and refreshing river.
Kirstie didn’t want to get wet, though we tried to convince her it’d be worth it. She shook her bouncy blonde curls, no. Savvy, Alexa and I clambered back into the canoes and were off once again, another unpredicted adventure under our belts. Having let go whilst hanging from the rope swing, I decided to let go of the sunglasses too. I had no need to hold onto that anchor of sadness on this glorious river that was teaching me to be fearless and what rewards my soul reaped from my small brave acts.
I thought falling in the river and surviving a would-be leech or seaweed attack, letting go of the D&G’s which also felt like letting go of DC and flying into the air off a rope swing were ample lessons from the Au Train that day, but still the river would teach me more.
After paddling for over two hours, Kirstie and I had hit our stride and now were navigating each fallen tree branch, narrow bend in the river and rock outcropping with Lewis and Clark-like expertise, until we came upon an enormous pine tree the size of a two-story house that was lying down in the river straight ahead. The pine looked as if it had simply given up and snapped right off the side of the cliff it was living on and fell dramatically across the river, like a tired woman on a fainting chair. Its long branches snarled this way and that with mounds of green needles still stuck on.
Savvy and Alexa were ahead and canoed up to where the trunk still stuck to the edge of the tall river bank. I supposed we could just canoe right under the trunk but the girls looked back at us shaking their heads. When we came closer, I too saw that going under the trunk would not happen as there were numerous scratchy branches in every direction blocking any entrance to the other side of the river. Kirst and I backed our canoe up while Savvy and Alexa untangled themselves from some of the pine branches as they had gotten too close and Alexa had been ensnared while their canoe rocked from the jolt.
“How are we going to get around this?” I asked Kirst, not feeling frightened so much as stumped that the river was still surprising me with its obstacles.
The other side looked just as hopeless with tree branches reaching wide into shallow seaweed filled water. The seaweed alone gave me pause. I could not fall in again there. Seaweed was definitely my achilles heel. But there seemed no other way. This route, though it looked too shallow and narrow had less branches. Kirst and I slowly paddled around the fallen pine and through the thick green seaweed.
Coming out on the other side, it seemed so simple. Oh, that was all it took? It seemed another glaringly obvious metaphor for life. When there is a tree 100 times the size of me laying languidly across the river I am on, blocking what seems to be the only way to the end, what is there to be done? Stop and set up camp on the river bank admitting defeat? Turn and go back two hours upstream? Of course not. Find another way. Get around it somehow and keep going.
Huh? Interesting. Very, very interesting. I hear ya God and I am listening.
The Au Train though hardly a rapids, or even what I would deem a level 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, still was not effortless. It required much attention, navigation and fluidity from all of us. There were still times we had to push our paddles down hard into the water to slow down our speed so we wouldn’t careen into a fallen log, times when we had to tread slowly and surely through passages full of branches and rocks and more times still that the river split and we simply had to go with our intuition on which split felt like the right one to lead us home.
And through all of this my mind awakened with not only the healing powers of nature, but what a river could stand to teach me about being fearless in the face of adversity, not just in the present moments but in what surely might be troubling times ahead.
I cannot know how many downed tree branches are ahead in my river—my story. I can’t know if they are enormous—seemingly blocking my entire path. Or if they are easily bypassed. Or how much stamina I may need to get around them. Or if I will get wet or lose things, even a part of myself in the process. But I do know that God created rivers so that only so much is visible at any one time. If I knew everything that lay ahead for me on the Au Train, I may not have even gotten in the canoe, but because I saw each winding bend—obstacles and all—a moment at a time, everything felt manageable.
And I get it. I get it all. I fell in the water and I didn’t drown. I lost something and that something really was someone that wasn’t just important to me, but was a part of me, still I press on. I flew and I didn’t get hurt. I saw no way around. But yet…
Three hours from where we started we pulled our canoes out of the Au Train where my car was parked, which was really only a few miles away. We had a package of soaked cookies, cans of beer that were mostly filled with river water, were missing two pairs of sunglasses that now rested at various sandy bottoms of the Au Train, we smelled like Off bug spray and sun-tan lotion and river and we were all still mostly wet with patches of dry (aside from Kirstie).
And just like that we made it to the other side.