Similarly, the loss of someone unexpectedly always rattles me. So many mixed emotions churn in my heart and questions swirl in my mind. I bounced lightly over the first set of small falls and spun several rotations. Shirtless and feeling chilled in a few ways, I began stroking with my arms just to get my blood flowing. It felt good to release the pent up confused energy that had built up within me since hearing the news that morning. I continued until my arms were worn out. Finally I let the current carry me.
Unexpectedly, and for the first time in all these weeks of floating, someone appeared on the far horizon behind me, approaching. Despite the cold, and her thin frame, she was wearing a two piece suit, and standing upright on a paddle board. Within a few minutes she was beside me. I welcomed her, and enjoyed taking in her sunny smile. She also seemed happy to encounter another who took joy in this simple passion of being on the river. She asked how often I floated and where. She took to the water in the spring and was on it “as much as possible” — like me, very much in love with it. We exchanged names, then talked about tubes, patching holes, how she hauled her board on her bike, where to put in and take out. We then friended each other on FB, and had to end our pleasant chat as we approached the next set of falls. As the river is at a very low level, the larger issue being the many protruding rocks. By aiming for an opening and relinquishing control I spun through unscathed and watched her. She crouched low, deftly shifted to the left, and then adroitly stood and paddled to the nearby pull out.
I expressed my admiration for her skill and wished her well until we next meet as she veered to the bank. I drifted beneath the Vic Thomas Park Bridge, and a few smaller rocky areas. When I reached a calm section, I noticed I’d just passed the green heron I routinely see, fishing on the bank to my right. For the past few weeks I’ve taken to “talking” to the different species of herons, announcing myself as I float past with a certain clicking birdlike sound. To my delight, on this evening, he did not fly away. I was intrigued. He/she seemed to be as well. I paddled hard in reverse, against the river’s flow, and it took a few steps, and watched me. I worked my tube upriver beyond it, came nearer, and still it did not flee. We were engaged eye to eye the whole time, and I was closer than ever on all these weeks of floating. Somehow this simple encounter, as with Sheneika Leemkuil, the paddler, lightened my heart.
Refreshed, I let the current carry me forward again and bid the heron adieu. A short while later, at another small rapids, I was facing forward and needed to paddle to avoid the rocks, splashing loudly. To my surprise, on my left, tucked in a lull just after the falls and in front of a submerged log was a great blue heron. These wise birds are extra cautious around humans. I generally see one on my float, (I truly don’t know if I’m seeing alternate halves of a pair) and it usually takes flight several hundred yards before I reach it. Tonight, this one also held it’s place, watching me. Like a guest at a dinner, it felt rude to pull out my phone to snap photos. I came within 30 feet, again “announcing myself” as I allowed the current to pull me past. To my amazement, it still stood, turned its head, eyes following me as I drifted, and then as I chattered while passing, it nodded its head and mysteriously, silently opened its mouth and closed it twice (something I’ve never seen one do)! I floated on, feeling “accepted,” recognized, even strangely embraced.
Further along I encountered a third familiar feathered friend, a black-crowned night heron. Continuing the ritual, I chatted. It watched. I stopped my tube drifting by clutching underwater rocks. It waited. I kept talking and softly maneuvered toward it. It extended its neck for a better view, and, turned its head this way and that, as if each eye needed to take me in, but it too did not fly off nor move away! Once again, I was able to get far closer than ever. I managed to pull out my phone and it allowed a few shots as I let go and floated forward.
I could not help wonder if these birds had sensed my disrupted and sensitized heart...? My friend had not been forgotten, but my troubled mind had been eased. Due to the warm encounters with each of these beings I had entirely ceased noticing the cold water and the chilly September evening air. I reached the take out, and as I clambered onto the rocks, directly in my path was a two-foot long, perfectly intact snake skin. A symbol recognized in most every culture across the globe as representing renewal and rebirth.
As I began the walk home a young lady excitedly approached and asked if I had “just come from tubing in the river?!” She said it was something she’d always wanted to do. “For me there’s nothing like it,” I said, “it’s become my therapy and more. It’s everything I need right now.”