River Time

Beach combing on the Yukon River
Beach combing on the Yukon River

My father’s voice is a low drone over the abrasive hiss of silt-laden water as it moves against the body of the boat. He is reading the poems of Robert Service, whose The Cremation of Sam McGee I can still recite by heart:

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold…”

I am lulled by these two sounds – the silt and my father’s voice. I am in a canoe in the middle of the vast Yukon River. I am fourteen years old.

We are in the middle of a 10 day float trip that began on the Forty Mile River, a fresh water tributary that winds back and forth across the Alaska Canada border before feeding into the muddy Yukon. At the moment, our canoe is being carried by that enormous, snaking, braided body of water toward our eventual take out point at Eagle, Alaska.

I have many clear memories of that trip, but what I return to the most is not a particular moment. It is, rather, a recollection of a rhythm I found in those ten days. It was the first time in a long time that I stopped trying to be something and remembered how to just be.

At fourteen, on the verge of starting high school, I was ripe for this discovery. And now, all these years later, I am there again. It is ironic how, nearing forty, I can still commiserate so thoroughly with my fourteen year old self. I am again standing on the edge of something new and intimidating. Namely, reviving a professional life after almost a decade of keeping a timid toe in the water, while dedicating most of my time and energy to staying home with my kids. I am anxious. The world is surely a more complicated place now. I look at my children and wonder how I will gracefully shepherd them through those shifty years with this new, insidious layer of social nuance in play that we call social media. At least my formative years were free of that particular complication.

The author on the Yukon River, 1991
The author on the Yukon River, 1991

Over the years I have developed a love/hate relationship with social media, and I imagine I’m not alone. It is an easy way to stay casually connected, a ready diversion, and a steady source of inspiration. But more often than not, as I scroll through my Facebook feed or peruse Instagram, I don’t feel good. I feel left behind. Just like when I was fourteen, I often feel like the girl who helps everyone with their homework but never gets asked to the dance. This relentless virtual world is often not kind to us introverts. We just aren’t loud enough.

I recognize that social media is a curated fantasyland in many respects. It’s a razzle-dazzle of apps, filters and shots framed just so. The people who excel in that world have some mad skills, and deserve admiration. It’s just that it all reminds me way too much of junior high. There are the cool kids, adept at trumpeting their virtues and making it all look effortless and chic. Then there are the rest of us, hoping we aren’t too messy and awkward as we feel our way through the fog.

I have long soothed myself with the idea that by the time I was forty I would no longer be the victim of crippling insecurity. But let’s be real. The disappointments are different now, but they erode my self worth just the same. I still struggle to understand why appearance so often drowns out substance.

Hauling up on the shore of the Yukon

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way time moves differently when traveling through wild places. The solace that emerges from the daily routines of camp life: the making and breaking of camp; the basic chores of hauling, cooking and hanging up damp things to dry over the camp fire; the simple pleasures of exploring that unfold within the idle moments. The clock does not matter. The present moment is all that exists. And with all that, the feeling that the constraints we bind so harshly around our own minds and hearts are loosened a bit. A very primal sense of connection emerges. These places remind us that the earth is big and so very old. That maybe we are not as caged as we think.

For now, I close my eyes and return to the sound of silt against a canoe. I daydream about beach combing on the Yukon River. I spent a lot of time on those shores gathering rocks – wonderful, variegated, time etched rocks. I still have some in my garage. Sometimes I pull them out and hold them, smooth, cold and solid in my hands. I try to remember what it is to just be – to be alive and breathing in that wild air. It saved me once, a long time ago. It saves me everyday.

River Time