Paddling with Darren Bush
A few years ago I needed to find a place to sit and think. Pooh would call it his thotful spot, a place he went to think.
I have half-a-dozen thotful spots, but one of my favorites is a small sandbar on the Lower Wisconsin. It’s barely big enough for a tent and a small one at that. But it has a high bank behind it and several large cottonwoods that have been down so long they’re free of bark.
I don’t camp there, it’s too close to a put-in, but I can paddle upstream from the landing and be there in an hour or so, depending on the current. I take a kayak, since it’s a large, wide, sandy-bottomed river, and paddling against a three-mph current is not much fun in a boat that likes to go 3.5. It’s a treadmill, not a trip.
It was cold the last time I went there, late in the fall, but a very sunny day. As I came around the downstream point of the island, I was grateful for the cool day, as I wasn’t sweating like a dyslexic bingo caller. I hit the beach, my kayak bow sliding up the beach with a soft kiss.
The wind started to come up a bit, so I turned my kayak on its side against the big cottonwood, creating a small windbreak, and lay down on my belly in the sun, which was warm in the absence of wind. It wasn’t the heat that comes from a fierce August sun, but it was still warm, powered by a nuclear reaction 93 million miles away.
The top inch of sand was toasty, but under that it was already cool and moving toward cold. I scraped the warm sand into a pile and stuck my fingers in it like I was dipping them in a finger bowl at a fancy-schmancy dinner in Edwardian England. It was delicious.
I had my tiny little notebook with waterproof paper and started writing and doodling a little. The wind picked up more, blowing upstream, which mean that my advantage of having current was being erased. Someone reversed my treadmill.
I pulled out the Svea 123 and lit it up in a conflagration that always accompanies the lighting of a vintage self-pressurizing stove. Priming starts the process, but as the little brass tank figures out its equilibrium between heat, air, and fuel, it sputters to life, its jet blue flame spreading like a crocus flower. Once it settled down, I started making some tea.
Back on my belly again, I watched a small beetle walk across my notebook. I had no idea what would bring a little iridescent beetle out to see me; maybe I plopped down on top of him. That was more likely. It took him several minutes to walk across my page. I followed his path with my pencil until he crawled back onto the sand and was off to his next adventure.
The tea was too hot, but the wind cooled it quickly, so I drank it greedily, grateful for the warmth. I ate a bagel for ballast as much as calories, and thought about moving, but turned over and stayed there on my back until the feeling passed. I put my hood up to keep the sand out of my hair, and listened to the grains of sand hit my hood. I realized that if I stayed there for a few decades the sand would eventually blast away my hood, and if I stayed longer, my head.
I snoozed a little, I think, but eventually the call of the world told me I needed to paddle back to the truck to get home for dinner. I loaded up, took a last look at the thotful spot and launched, paddling into the teeth of the wind. I turned the truck on and cranked the heater while I loaded the kayak, and headed home, fingers alternating in front of the vents on the dashboard, the other hand on the wheel.
The following year, spring flood had washed over the big cottonwood, pushing it downstream a few yards, enough to eliminate the eddy that had created the sandbar, and the flood scoured the area down to nothing. There was no structure behind it to catch the sand, so it flowed downstream and settled on the bottom of the riverbed.
My thotful spot was gone. I could recognize where it had been, thanks to the shifted-but-still-present cottonwood, but that was it. I would have to be thoughtful somewhere else.
The beautiful thing about a river is its transience. I mourned my thotful spot for about ten seconds, realizing that the only thotful spot is between your ears; the place was only a catalyst.
The next time I paddled in that area I found that the currents had shifted a little, a tree branch had bent toward the water, and a baby sandbar had started to form. Willows were encroaching on the edge of it where organic matter had been trapped, and it looked like in a couple of years, floodwaters willing, there would be a new thotful spot for me.