Afternoon River Journey: Downstream

This land was made for you and me” – Woody Guthrie

Final of two parts.

I saw above me that endless skyway. And far above me in that impossibly blue sky I watched through the bare tops of the silver maples and sycamores the most graceful creature drifting on currents of air.

How long til its wings would actually flap? I watched and waited, gazing through the treetops.

It circled high in the sky in broad lazy spirals. Still no flapping.

One of the Sangamon’s bald eagles? I tried to make out the tell-tale white tail feathers and the tips of the wings.

No white tail feathers, and then I made out the finger-like wing tips that said ‘turkey vulture’. Disappointment settled in. Big whoop. Just another hideously ugly carrion-eating turkey vulture, I thought. But still, no flapping.

And I got my mind back to kayaking the Sangamon.

And yet, poor turkey vulture. Such a graceful aerodynamic creature from a distance with such unfortunate looks up close. I wonder what girl turkey vultures think of guy turkey vultures? Or guys of the girls? They manage to survive and thrive, so they must like each other on some level. Hmm. I should write a column about that.

That’s when I looked down at my Timex Expedition wristwatch and noticed that 34 minutes and 41 seconds has already passed. Oops. Back on track.

I had lots of stuff to-do today, so this was just supposed to be a brief afternoon river journey.  20 minutes up, at which point I’d turn around and head downstream for (presumably) less than 20 minutes down and get on with the day. 40 minutes tops.

But as usual, the experience of the river drew me in.

It is said (hi, Mom!) that my Dad could stare into a hill of fire ants for hours fixated on their frenetic comings and goings. So fascinated he was by the small things of nature.

Especially when there were chores to do. Such as poison the fire ant hill before the ants attacked us kids.

I think I inherited that.

Anyway, now it’s time to head back downstream.

When I stopped paddling to pick up a discarded plastic bottle of water from the water (in “eco-friendly” plastic packaging) and turned to head downstream, I was surprised that I really started moving, without even paddling a stroke.

As I watched the shore zip by I realized that, heck, I was probably cruising along downstream at 2 or 3 mph at least without even dipping the paddle in the water! Pure Sangamon River excitement!

Then I started paddling. Kicking it in harder and harder, I started really clipping along, throwing up a nice wake and watching the trees along the shore positively whiz by. I swear I even started to feel the wind blowing through my hair (as if I have much hair to blow). I may have even been going 6 or 7!

Then I took a break from that. Might as well enjoy it. Even though I’m already running behind, as usual.

I go around a sharp southern bend and notice a huge new log pile blocking a river back-channel where it’s been trying to carve a shortcut around the bend.

When the river is up, there’s a little hill of a deserted island here, perfect for a Gilligan’s Island-type adventure. True, coming in at slightly over 200 feet long, it’s not much of an island.

But still, an island is an island; all of them exotic and potentially populated by farm girls, red-headed movie stars and millionaires.

Up ahead a log bobs up and down repetitively in the rivers’ current. Too heavy to float but too light to sink and somehow held permanently in place, it’s trapped in a netherworld where from a distance it looks like a weird living creature bobbing in the shallows.

And there on another log is an actual living creature: a cute little muskrat with wet brown fur. I usually spot them swimming across the river but now it’s just perched there, perhaps drying off. It quickly plops down into the river, safe from my gaze.

Unfortunately, as always happens when I see one of these little guys, I’ll now have Captain and Tenille’s ridiculous “Muskrat Love” stuck in my head for the rest of the trip (and if you’re about my age, it’s now probably stuck in yours too – my apologies).

Too soon, my concrete steps leading down to the river come into view and I realize that the end of my little excursion is drawing nigh.

The beauty of the Sangamon can be quite subtle. It’s certainly no Grand Canyon, no Yellowstone and there are no beautiful waterfalls like in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But like my Dad, I can easily become transfixed by nature’s subtle beauty.

Paraphrasing Woody Guthrie, this river – running right through the heart of our little Village -was made for you and me.

What the Grand Canyon doesn’t offer (at least to us here in Central Illinois) is the possibility of a short afternoon river journey, throwing a kayak in and paddling upstream and back, experiencing the awe-inspiring beauty of nature in its own way and on its own terms.

For more information on how you can get out there on our river, public access points and plenty of free float trip opportunities, keep looking around on this website.  Also, mark your calendars for Saturday April 23 at the Izaak Walton cabin at Lake of the Woods when you can learn all about the river, the USRC and maybe even get the opportunity for your own afternoon river journey.

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, March 24, 2016, by Scott Hays

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