At the ripe age of 55, I have finally purchased my first boat. In My Music Man I dedicate well more than one chapter to boat memories and stories, from canoes, steamboats and our childhood boat the DeeDee to Dad’s final watercraft, the Walrus 4. While I was writing those stories, a friend said she was surprised I felt so emotionally-tied to the river: I wasn’t much of a boater, she observed. I tried to express to her how the river seeps through my soul, whether I am sitting on its banks, cycling along its shoreline, crossing a bridge or just dreaming. I’m not sure she got it. But our conversation did get me thinking. And today, as I haul my new kayak to the Willamette, I feel Dad’s smile. He would love to know I was in my own boat. Finally.
Back when I was 21 living in Missoula Montana, I learned not to choose a boyfriend to be the one to help me learn to roll a kayak. Now, all these years later, that same boyfriend, now my husband, couldn’t understand at first why I insisted on buying a boat I could load, unload and place in the river myself. But it was so clear to me – I needed, when I could find it, solo adventures to explore these riverbanks and currents. To allow the smells, sounds and scenes to seep through my soul as I traveled this waterway: past, present, future.
And what about these kayaks that are so numerous today as they are paddled along our Willamette Valley waterways? They were originally developed at least 4000 years ago by our northern neighbors, the Inuit, Yup’ik and Aleut as they hunted inland lakes, rivers and coastal waters of their neighboring oceans. Those early kayaks were made of stitched seal or other animal skins stretched over wood or whalebone frames. Nothing like today’s kayaks yielding so many choices of construction materials and technical specifications bursting from colorful webpages. No, I don’t remember ever seeing a kayak back in our earliest days on the river. Instead the water landscape was dotted with tugs, barges, motor boats and canoes.
I wonder how many of today’s Oregon boaters understand how important our river highways were back in those early days of our state, when roads were non-existent or so rough that the many hours involved in a relatively short journey might begin to intimidate even the heartiest horseback rider. Before the automobile – in those years of canoes, and eventually, tugs, barges and steamboats.
I remember decades ago as a mostly first-time kayaker nervously boating Montana’s Blackfoot River, knowing that I hadn’t yet perfected the roll in those few hours on Milltown Pond. A decade later I paddled a longer flat water kayak in the breaking waves of Puget Sound. But for me, now, kayaking the Willamette is pure meditation. Especially if I get out at the crack of dawn before the speed boats and jet skis bring their noise, wake and smells. As I explored the Willamette River’s Narrows recently I felt almost giddy. Paddling through the Narrows on either side of Rock Island and Little Rock Island natural area awakens me. The river’s cut through basalt formations has left us with small spots of rock with Madrone, Oak and Cottonwood trees, and native wildflowers. As I paddled the channel between the island and the Willamette’s west bank I was reminded that the time is now to be. Simply be. Breathe, listen to the call of heron, watch the flap of wings. About time.