Past Cane Island, the river widens along a beautiful stretch of form and color. No words from either science or poetry, reason or romance, can do justice to the natural world around us. The sound is still – nothing but the rippling, bubbling current.
Suddenly, the burble becomes a loud ovation as rapids quickly approach.
Katie is stern with a concentrated look on her face.
“Okay, baby boy,” she cautions Eli, “we can do hard things.”
A bend in the river speeds up our flow as the first rapids hit. Eli is tucked into his mom like a caterpillar to a cocoon as she paddles away. I furiously paddle myself, and desperately work my kayak along, to no avail. I topple over seconds after cutting into the steeper gradient. The splatter is sudden, but the water is still refreshing. Immediately, I grab the kayak and coast along. Katie handles the current and she and the boy cheer as they round the bend.
Sounds of relief and joy fill the sweet and lucid air, and I cheer right along with them. Another gentle roll greets us as we round the riverbend. In the distance, we already see our next challenge. A significantly long stretch of rapids appears on the horizon. The region’s limestone is a soft rock, while the metamorphic rocks here are much harder to degrade.
Up ahead, a prolonged, but gradual downhill descent shows the true power of water. As the Hiawassee glides over the limestones, these soft sedimentary rocks erode at a higher rate than their metamorphic neighbors. This differential erosion causes a decent variance in water level and velocity. Flowing over these mixed areas, the river crashes with high speed into the less eroded metamorphic rocks, while moving in slower current above the limestone.
“Here comes a long one, family!” I steady my kayak and shout over the rapids as the run begins.
Moving across the current, I sigh with relief. The water appears shallow with no plunges or falls. Nothing but the rapid’s coursing ovation passes through my ears. I get snagged by rocks a few times, stuck in the current, but, with shoulder work and a good deal of pushing with my oar, I am able to wiggle myself free. The rapid run is long with intermittent pools of frothy, deep water among the sharp and jagged metamorphic rocks. This section takes a good deal of time, but I finally break free of the rapids and enter tranquil blue waters again. I can’t believe I didn’t flip. I’m happy to have the section done and turn backward to catch a glimpse of my family – what I see instead is an empty kayak stuck and banging against hard stone.
“I don’t like this, Momma!” Eli cries with his arms and legs wrapped around his mom . “I don’t want to do this anymore. Mom, I don’t like this!”
The two had fallen toward the top of the rapids. With Eli in her arms and lap, Katie is carefully, slowly, and painfully crawling through the shallow waters and jagged rocks with one free hand and her feet. They’ve a long, tedious job ahead of them.
“Screw this,” I say to myself as I turn to paddle up stream.
Impossible – I am not skilled enough to navigate my vessel against the shallow, fast moving current. I eyeball a very small island in the calm water and paddle to its shores to tie up my kayak.
As I try and think of a plan to help, Katie works with Eli, saying,
“Okay, baby boy, I know you don’t like this. You know what? I don’t like this. But here’s the thing, we are safe, but I am really scared. So can you please calm down and let me think through this?”
Katie has a way of speaking with the boy. He really listens to her, and, in this moment, understands this situation is serious. He works to support his mother and turns into her cheerleader.
“Mom, you can do this! We can do hard things.” Eli comforts Katie as he cheers her on. “When you get us out of this, you can have all the rest days you want!” Katie laughs at this last comment.
At this point, I’ve tied up the kayak and swim across the calm waters to the shallow rapids. I stand up and navigate across the rocks toward them. I also notice we’ve gathered a crowd. Folks are running the rapids and stopping in the pool below to watch the dramedy unfold. I look up and can slightly hear Katie yelling to me.
“Go back!” She calls.
“What? Why?” I holler to her.
“Just get the kayak and go back! There’s nothing you can do!”
As if on cue, her kayak is wiggled free from the rocks and coasts downstream out of the rapids. I hop back into the water and swim after it. I quickly learn how incredibly wonderful river people are.
A man canoeing with his daughter, both dressed in Grateful Dead tees (my kind of people) block off the loose kayak and pull it over to me.
“Hold on to the canoe,” the bearded man with long hair instructs. “I’ll tug you on over.”
“First time on the Hiwassee?” His daughter asks with a big smile.
With a chuckle I crack, “Can’t yah tell?”
When Katie crosses the threshold to still water, a number of boaters greet her and Elijah. She lost her bag and water bottle in the fall. Folks gather her belongings and paddle the boy, my wife, and all their gear to the small island.
The bearded Dead fan pipes when Katie arrives, “Long crawl!”
Eli is shivering so we dig into our waterproof bags, cover him in a couple of towels, and give him a sandwich. Another boater offers a candy bar, which he graciously accepts.
“So, I believe we’ve made a mistake,” I say, scratching my beard. I look to the surrounding environment. “Any way I can hop off this river and get back to town?”
The Dead fan looks me dead in the eye and says,
“That’s not a good idea. Don’t do it. It’ll take you forever to walk that road and get back, much longer than just finishing the run.”
He then turns his attention to my son. “Say, boy, what’s your name?”
Eli is shy but responds with a very quiet, “Elijah Rainier.”
“Rainier!” Our guy hoots. “Golly that’s a good name. Say, it’s beautiful out here, isn’t it?”
Eli responds with a coy nod.
“Your parents and you are on a giant adventure, aren’t you?”
Again, Eli responds with a nod.
“You got food, more towels, and dry clothes. Water ain’t too bad. I’m going to give your folks some advice, but just pay attention to how beautiful it is out here, and I bet they’ll get the hang of it by the time this is all over. Plus, you’ll have a fun and crazy story to tell, okay?”
“Okay, and when we get home, I can watch TV!” The boy has finally warmed up to the man wearing the “dancing bears” tie-dye shirt.
“That’s great!” He exclaims, then turns his attention to Katie and me. “Little rock Island is coming up. It’s a series of rapids. Stay to the right. When you get to the next big bend in the river, you’ll cross another series of rapids at Big Island and then again at Woody Island.”
He leans in, pointing his finger and gazing down river. “At this point you’ll be on a straight shot to Reliance.”
He turns and fixes his eyes on Katie and me, then continues,
“Now, after the next big bend ahead, stay left. The water will pull and tug and do everything it can to take you to the right – stay left.”
With the visit done, and Eli fed and calmed, we continue. Eli sticks with Katie, but all of us take another spill next to Little Rock Island. The splash isn’t too bad, and Eli handles the chaos in good spirits. I fall out on my own a couple more times, but Katie and Eli manage their kayak well. Our ordeals reverse, though, as we approach the last big bend in the river. Katie and Eli topple over two more times, but I manage to navigate the currents. I don’t know how, but I’ve found a rhythm.
“Come on Grant,” I say to myself. “You can do this!”
“You can do it, Dad!” After their last few spills, Eli figured he’d give his old dad a try again.
My boy leans into my chest as I work furiously to get us to the left side of Big Island. If I can make it, according to our river pals, we should have an easy coast the last hour or so of our day. The pull of the Hiwassee is strong, however; my oar rips and tears into the water as I try and guide the boat. The break in the island is coming on the horizon, looming as either salvation or damnation.
Eli and I find ourselves right on the edge of the island.
“I am right here with you, Eli. I promise I am doing the best I can. I will not let you go”
“I know, Dad. We will make it.”
Thankfully, my frantic paddling pays off as I’m able to dig into the current and drag us to the left.
“Oh man, oh man, Buster Bean, we did it!”
Now, all that travels before us is a relaxing ride along the Hiwassee. The past three or so hours out here have been a mix of calm, tranquil moments, periods of fear and anger, and for Katie and me, remorse. Now, though, we can relax in the sun with smiles on our faces. The next hour is like a golden film – blue water babbles us along as tiny ripples in still water cross the reeds and river grasses. The mountains, still green in summer vegetation, glow bright against the big blue sky. Eli even stands to dance on the kayak, and, to our surprise, decides to jump into the Hiwassee to swim a spell before joining me in the boat again.
As our time ticks by among the pulses of this river, one can imagine its broader passage – slow in days but fleeting in years. The changes in natural systems and in our own lives blend into something we can perhaps recall like a distant memory of childhood. When I was born in April 1984, the carbon dioxide composition of the atmosphere was 344 parts-per-million (ppm). When my son was born in 2014, carbon dioxide concentration was 398 ppm. Now in 2020, the carbon concentration has reached a staggering 415 ppm. These numbers tell us our planet is vulnerable and isolated. Our planetary home is not limitless, and we are running towards the edge of material existence. Our species, like all others, are products of deep time – we evolved from, and are dependent upon, our planet’s finite biodiversity.
Our day has turned to early evening. I’m smiling. Eli is cuddling with me on our kayak. The sun seems to touch the mountains on the horizon, casting an orange blossom glow across a blue sky cushioned with puffy, pink clouds . A group of ducks, called a paddling, for obvious reasons, glides across the calm waters. The boy and I giggle as we pass these descendants of the Mesozoic. Katie is up ahead, leaning back and simply relaxing in the current. A hard day’s labor has paid off under the late summer sun. A September breeze moves through tired, aged leaves.
**Featured image by Vitaliy Zamedyanskiy on Unsplash, cropped to fit