Yes, it’s chilly. And yes the ground is brown, the leaves long gone. You might say it’s desolate, even depressing. Death it seems is all-surrounding and conspiring against you. It’s taken over the air, the ground, the sun and the trees. The birds have flown off somewhere sensible, and the hunting season dictates that just about anything on four legs flee for dear life away from the awful crack of a rifle – deer especially. This is the entrance to the outdoor world, a kingdom that basically looks like the ruins of something since abandoned.
That’s one way to look at it, for sure. But such a stance is stained with summertime bias. Of course a late-November paddle will not be as nudged with self-indulgence as a golden day in June – bare feet kicked up, sunscreen on, and the notion of nighttime not til nine or ten o’clock. Summer is unsurpassable. But it would be a shame to forfeit the very essence of paddling by associating it only with summery warmth. Whitewater paddlers know better and carpe their diem soon as the snow melts in March and the rivers rage in ringing song again. One would do well to so adopt a similar attitude for late autumn and adapt to the climate.
I am not so romantic or melancholy to compare a springtime paddle with an autumn one as being equivalent. (Actually, I am more than romantic and melancholy enough, but that’s another matter.) The world awash in wildflowers – trees abuzz with returning bud and birds, trout running like a free-for-all, all basked in a shower of sunshine that positively energizes every pore of your skin through to your soul – is a whole lot better than cold, dank days of fading gray, desiccated husks of once-was, anemic branches like Giacometti figurines, or the cold shadows of sun-shrouding clouds reminding you of winter’s indiscriminate oblivion soon to come. Spring and summer is a Monet impression of vernally lush lilies overflowing with soft blooming hues; autumn’s a German Expressionist take on a landscape all angry angles, barren and bleak, stark and black. It would be a fool’s errand to equate the two, and I’ve got enough going on without bothering myself with such a pointless task. But to hang up the boat now like a curmudgeon begrudging the unforgiving winter would be a pity.
Is “California Dreaming’” a great song because it makes us think about summer or because it’s beautifully wistful and bittersweet? There’s no cotton candy or boardwalk galore in the song, no Beach Boys nonsense. It’s pick up your collar to the stiff wind and hunker down. But the bluster is positively haunting.
It would be a type of fair-weather pornography, a selective fetish, to appreciate the beauty of something only at its most becoming. We don’t admire our pets only when they are at their most kittenish cute or puppiest romp any more than seeing our children only at their adolescence (although we may be forgiven to just as soon eliminate the terrible twos, pimples, and puberty). For that matter, no one really looks forward to turning 40 or 50 or 60 or so forth. But we don’t just throw in the towel and bide our time in the sepia tint of past remembrances. No, we make do with what’s around and embrace it as it is, see the beauty not at its best, but warts and all. Am I enamored more by my lover in her Sunday best like a belle at the ball or when she’s snoozing on the couch in her PJ bottoms and Morrissey T on a Tuesday night after eating takeout? (Probably best to leave that question rhetorical.) The point is not being selective or differential; to love is to accept – warts, farts, shitty weather and all – like taking in that nephew who you know means well but can sometimes be such a sonofabitch.
Lest I give off the impression that late autumn is full of nothing but warts and farts, there is beauty incarnate in the season, merely a different eminence of the overall inherent beauty in anything. I like to think of the landscape as naked, the fallen leaves a frippery of castoff clothing. A headshot of a good-looking actor without the makeup. There are no more allures or enticements, and the time for charming flattery has long since past. Bare, but not barren, it is a study of honesty and humility.
I bought my first kayak the day after Thanksgiving in 2008. The following morning I schlepped the boat to a lake a block away from which I lived. This was my third time ever being in a kayak. A thin perimeter of ice had begun to form near the shore already, but it was delicate yet, a crystalline beginning to what would become a coup d’etat of cold weather and wintry landscape in a month more. About midway through the lake my eye was drawn to an oddity of white beads along the bow and sides of the boat. They looked like daubs of dried up glue or caulk. Had I not noticed these before at the store? Were these nautical features leading to the belly of the kayak’s hull below? No, moron, they were beads of water dripped off the paddle that froze onto the boat almost immediately. It was that cold. (Fortunately, I had been advised previously by a wise friend to invest in a spray skirt, which neoprene covering kept the cold water away from my lap and potentially rendering me sterile forevermore.) And it was also this cold: I would not be able to reach the other side of the shore as sheaths of impassable ice barricaded me like a boarded-up shop closed for the season. Already? It wasn’t even December!
Yet it was exhilarating. Without a doubt nippy, but all the more real because of that slight inconvenience. And maybe “inconvenience” is precisely the wrong word – inconvenient compared to what? Summer, I guess. Being warm blooded? Perhaps. But the experience was exquisite; there is nothing so holy about solitude than when one is immersed within a cold, pure, still winter. Maybe it’s my Nordic genes, but I absolutely love the absolute raw of winter, when plumes of smoky mist lift from the unforgiving gray of the water, making an otherwise wide and open lake a passage of mysterious intimacy, intrigue. My boyhood self, that immortal explorer, was alive and thriving.
But my boyhood self never cared much for the ember glow of warmth that comes from a healthy sip of scotch in a flask in my boat.
Last week I ventured out the day after Thanksgiving again, opting for a choice creek half an hour’s drive south from my home instead of the lake. No ice but for a scrim of rime along the shore here and there, something surely to burn off in immaculate sublimation before the sun; but the almost imperceptible sound of little wavelets caused by my paddling brushing up against the papier-mâché ice was something unique and unprecedented, a tingle of a tone more blissfully delicate than any orchestra’s triangle or C key all the way on the right of a piano.
The eye beholds the land as it is, hidden by no showy costuming of leaves, fruit, or blooms. It’s a little like seeing your father as an old man needing a hand to bathe: naked and no longer invincible, there’s something both touchingly pitiful and beatifically tragic about this turn of events. And here you are, blessed to be able to take it all in, to be present and witness to this cyclical vigil. Like the fadeout of your favorite song, when all that’s audible is the acoustic guitar or bass line that’s been there all the long while but crowded out by the more obvious sounds, here is the plain land laid out before you, rolling, curving, rising, falling, sculpted by way of water and wind’s whim, shaved by Time with a capital t.
Such sojourns are by no means without chance encounters of sentient beings. Arousing a posse of grounded grouse that clamber like crazy-legged fools up the hill, or rounding a bend to find a straggler of a blue heron, still as skittish as ever, or finding this one weird goose that came as close as geese can to looking like some circus clown – sloppy plumage with totally mismatching markers and clashing colors that didn’t make a lick of sense, either laughably absurd or grotesquely askew – who viewed me from a fallen tree with cautious curiosity, the both of us more or less wondering what the heck the other was still doing out there. In summer we’re a dime a dozen all of us, whether boater or bird; the happening-upon, while always pleasant, always welcome, is kind of predictable, a not unreasonable expectation. But this late in the season, all bets are off.
Or we spy from afar one of our own species, a fellow member of a lost tribe, a tacit soulmate on the water in this unlikeliest of moments. And however separated we may be by language or gender, culture or religion, politics or poetry, these distinctions dissolve soon as a summer morning’s fog in the sun by this one thing so vital in common: we two commune of the same plate and palate, pilgrims with paddles seeking nothing specific so much as absorption of experience, the divine already surrounding us in sight as plain as the very land itself.
So bundle up and abandon yourself not as you would wish, but as you must, as the dying of the light and dropping of degrees demand. The experience is like no other. And what headlong hedonism will be forfeited for something Spartan and sparse will be rewarded in untold dividends of essentialism and sensational simplicity, being there and then at the very hinge of time and tide. Plus your friends will, while mocking you, admire you the more for your craziness. That and the odds are damn good that you won’t be suffering through some motor boat’s obnoxious blare of girlie club music, Leonard Skynyrd, or “Come Sail Away” for the billionth time. That alone is worth wearing a sweater for.
(Photo credit: Manon Paquet, courtesy of Paddling.net)