Finding My Way to the Water


There's a scene in my mind, that of my first experience on the water, that exists in a space between fantasy and memory.  I could only guess at how old I was- perhaps six or seven?- and my mind grasps for clear images to help define it. It's not one of those stories that get told repeatedly at family gatherings, though it occurs to me I might ask my parents about it and gain some insight. Still, from somewhere deep in my mind, there is a memory of being in a small boat rowed by my grandfather. I imagine I sat motionless in the boat, for fear of plunging us all into what could only be a fathomless lake, no doubt with all sorts of sea monsters lurking in the twilight zone where the sun fades quickly.

The fear must have subsided only slightly as we approached a strip of low lying sand, rising-miraculously to my wonderfully innocent eyes- from the middle of the lake.  With his back to the sand bar, Grandpa expertly nosed the boat onto the loose sand, tiny grains giving way just enough to make a small cradle for the sharply curved bow. Hesitantly I must have stepped over the gunwales of the boat, not fully trusting that there could be solid ground when just moments before there was only a boat to keep us from sinking straight to the bottom, if in fact there was a bottom.  How amazing it must have been, once both feet were on the ground, to spin in a slow circle and take in the panorama of water surrounding us. If I was older, I'm certain "Water, water everywhere" would have drifted through my mind as I explored my first ever island. 

I've recently wondered at the lasting effect this experience had on me. Did this earliest experience plant a seed that would later grow into the love of being on the water that now so often defines me? Or did the recent passing of my grandfather lead me to attach more significance to the memory, as often happens when we lose someone close to us? On top of that, the whole scene could, of course, be so far from what actually happened that it might as well be fiction.

Yet when I look past the vague pictures in my mind to the emotions associated with the memory, it all seems so real. These same emotions permeate my favorite memories from later in life, in whose validity I can feel more confident, and many of my experiences on the water are reminiscent of this first scene. Islands are more often than not the destination for my paddling, when there is a destination. The larger islands are exciting in their own right, but as they gain in size, they diminish in their islandness, and so it is the small ones that I prefer: 

Small rocky ones that get covered twice a day by the tide, and are perhaps so small and undesired that they exist unnamed, or have names, but are known to few;

A shifting sandbar, whose existence lasts only until a strong current erodes it away in a small storm of swirling sediment;

Islands of floating sea ice, far too small to call icebergs, and large enough only to hold myself, one hand steady on the bow, as they float down river and out to open water, where they'll eventually melt back into the sea. These ephemeral islands, on whose fleeting structure I am the only person that has ever and will ever set foot, are my favorite. Standing on these islands, the sense of wonder at the impossibility of it all echoes the same wonder I must have felt standing at the sand bar so many years ago. 

Or perhaps I've reached too far. Perhaps rather than that earliest scene affecting me today, my more recent experiences and sense of nostalgia reach back through time and manipulate my memories, the way a wave refracting off a seawall sharpens incoming waves into something more significant than they otherwise would have become. Maybe it's a feedback cycle, the original memory encouraging a sense of happiness on the water, which reaches back and embellishes the memory, which then reaches forward again to further strengthen the happiness I feel on the water. Perhaps I've waxed too philosophical on a cold January day when I long to be on the water.   

Still, I'll hold onto this memory, or fantasy, or, more likely, an amalgam of the two. For while it may not reflect events as they happened, it reflects perfectly the sense of wonder that I will always have for this watery world on which we're so fortunate to live. 

Happy Paddling! 




Aaron Mearns