A Thousand Island Lullaby
It is always easy going and very pleasant with a light tail wind, and if you look behind your board, you will see a v-shaped plume rippling over water grooved like elephant hide. The stand-up paddleboard is a biblical vessel — postured, princely, weightless; its glide is cosmic, with elements of the immortal, the Venetian serenade, and shades of Charon crossing the river Styx. It is the nearest you will ever get to walking on water, and by far the finest, most tranquil way to enjoy the beauty of our river.
When I was still quite young, my uncle, Doctor Truth, and I would launch our old canoe into alligator blackwaters in search of wonderment and adventure. We coasted along cracked and rust-dripped seawalls and through corrugated storm tunnels, imagining our paddles as interdimensional instruments capable of pushing the very sun through the sky. Had we stopped rowing, time itself might have frozen still, and so we called them "ors" (instead of oars) because, in our innocence, they represented to us a singular control over our collective destiny.
One shining morning, the good Doctor offered up this mental exercise: “Envision a world controlled by thought alone,” he told me, “where the future flows from your perception, like water from a hose. My dear lad, it would be a nearly impossible trick of quantum physics to distinguish this world from the real one.”
I was nine-years-old at the time, and his words flew high over my head, into the cloudless sky, without touching me. But he spoke them well enough, and somehow I was able to store their lilting melody in reserve. Today, drifting past the weed-thatched point into the warm, syrupy waters of the channel, I recalled them. Recalled them as I pushed out into the open shallows and the sun fell behind purple cloud -- like a phoenix egg dropped onto a downy bedspread -- to spray bright tangerine haze over the mangroves. The under-light was transcendental, and though I racked my brain for the correct words to describe it, the only phrase that came to mind was “City of Gold,” which did not do the picture justice at all.
A manatee bubbled up and rolled free about twenty feet ahead — gray, grizzled, its pelt like a mossy boulder, one heavy black fin slapping the water. The herd was lolling over the sandbar in twos and threes... was it my imagination, or were they laughing? Drowsy, drunk from long, hot hours of mating, probably. I respectfully veered south and skirted the post-coital beasts.
What words best describe that feeling you get on a glassy morning, when you first paddle out into the ocean and the light is all slow and pooled on the faces of the waves so that they have that look of wet leather, and the whole of the world is rolling out before you? It is the same taste as afternoon on the Banana River, with the wind dying sweetly and the pinks and ambers melting from sky to cloud to water, and the manatees laughing at you from the beneath the molten, silver skin of the universe.
I was on the brink of some epiphany just then, but my thoughts were interrupted by two dorsal fins, oil-black against the City of Gold, cutting gentle lines toward me. They slid against the paint-splashed backdrop — dolphins, in all their mermaid grace and power — and surfaced with smiling eyes as they passed me by, headed north somewhere. A dolphin encounter is sometimes only a momentary soaring of the heart, an inspired breath, and then it is gone.
At last the searing orange disc dropped beneath the flame-rimmed clouds, into that sweet spot between sky and land, to set the river sparkling... words are hopeless, somehow, to describe the dark, sensual outline of mangroves and the color of the under-lit mist behind. Was it peach? Saffron? Only Monet could say it properly, or Rick Piper, possibly. I aimed my board west, held the paddle slack, and drifted for a while. The sun freed itself from the blanket now, and after a while I had to turn my eyes away to blink at a distant fisherman with the blinding circle imprinted in my lids.
Near the tip of West Point stands a strange blonde castle, a tall, kinked and narrow house that lurches over the open water as if on stilts. I aimed now for this castle, with the sky growing darker and bluer in the east. Before the mouth of the Edwards Bay I circled back to take in the final gilt and roselight flourishes of the sunset, with the low clouds swirling in distant, smoky figurines on the reddening horizon. Again the words were insufficient — prairie sun, flaming horsemen, charcoal ghosts, bloody sky, Navajo moon — none of these could capture the essence of this sunset.
Paddling home now, the low sun like a comet’s head, its tail spread out over the water, sparkling and beaming with fire, I saw the clouds with such clarity, knew them in their seven-mile distance, could physically feel the sun bending onward, radiating over another City of Gold down the line, and I felt sure that science was wrong, that really the sun was tracing a glowing hoop around the earth, which was the center of all things.
And then the sunlight dripped into the mangroves, and I could look directly at it, and the words finally came to me. They were perfect... the thin-fingered clouds banding the sun with layers of color looked exactly like the old logo of the Comfort Inn hotels. Comfort Inn. It was uncanny.
Then it was gone for good and the world was diminished somehow, as if in the crisp blueness of dusk everything were lifted from a spell... the low, drifting clouds seemed so close now, tangible, as if I could lift a finger and touch the coolness inside... the river, pale silver, pink, powder blue like liquid mirrorglass, was no more dense than the air itself. Two ducks, stiff as wooden dolls, streaked overhead, also aiming north. Behind them, an airplane, gnat-tiny upon the white clouds. The distant western clouds, drained of color, looked like mangroves themselves.
I turned homeward; a flock of pelicans soared in the eastern sky, rose over ocean and muted canvas of low plum, lemonade, and high periwinkle, and climbed higher without a single flap of wings. I came into the lee waters of the bay with that familiar feeling of a session ended, of walking up the beach but still longing for more…
Now, among the fringed and burnt coconut palms (dead, all dead from the freeze), my thoughts grew darker… The day-to-day struggles crept back in, the tiny fights, the worries and pains and concessions of life on land, like some strange oil pumping into my mind. I had a mad revelation then, to turn back, to paddle into the night and the forever stars, but in my moment of hesitation the water before me frothed up... manatees, spooked from their slumbers, churned up the shoal waters, blasting and throttling.
I cast a final glance westward, at the vanishing wisps of smoke and light, left there by some magician, and I paddled onward, into the violence.
In the gray, shallow dusk I saw my house, my backyard, the sad palm trees… I thought of my wife, my children, and finally of those words — “Comfort Inn.” The madness subsided and I pushed on... on through the thrashing of the manatees, into the safety of the deep cut, and finally, home, home, home.