And This is Where It All Begins

A peaceful camp
A peaceful camp ©Sean Prentiss
This moment, above Buttermilk Rapids on the sixth day of an eleven-day trip, is where my Delaware River canoe trip begins. It doesn’t begin with the flight from Idaho, where I live and teach, to Pennsylvania, where I grew up, when for the first time in my life I saw my river below, 30,000 feet…the Delaware. Like Mom used to say, “And I flew right over it. I saw the bridge, the island, even the Hurryback.” And just like Mom, who grew up on this river, whose family has lived along the Delaware since the 1740s, I looked out the plane window and saw the Delaware meandering beside the Kittatinny Mountains. And then the Belvidere Bridge. There’s McElany Island. Oliver’s Beach. Yes, the Hurryback.

But that is not where it began. And it did not begin when Mom, my sister, my niece, and I unloaded my canoe, nicknamed Slater after the slate mined from my hometown hills 100 miles south of Hancock, New York, the headwaters of the Delaware. I slid the canoe into the water and loaded in dry bags and dry box and paddles and life jacket and food.

Sean and Slater ©Sean Prentiss

It does not begin with that first stroke, the paddle in the river I love, the river I grew up on and then left at age eighteen, nearly half a lifetime ago. At five, I first swam across the river, from New Jersey to Pennsylvania. By twelve, I was canoeing a banged up aluminum canoe across the stillwater near my home. By fifteen, I wrapped that canoe around the rocks of Foul Rift. Nineteen, the canoe had been welded and I canoed the Delaware with Bones, my first love. At twenty-six, after many break-ups and many years of not talking, Bones and I canoed again. Her fishing line dangling off the front of the canoe. Me keeping us in circling Cool Eddy. But none of those moments are where this trip begins.

 

Down the mighty Delaware
Down the mighty Delaware ©Sean Prentiss

Now I’m thirty-four, with this new canoe, Slater, at the headwaters of my Delaware, a stretch I’ve never seen, and this is still not the beginning either. And really, I only know intimately the one-mile stretch from Buttermilk Rapids to the top of Foul Rift that sits in front of the house I grew up in. I know another twenty miles through a few past canoe trips, Portland, PA to Martins Creek, PA. Seeing the East Delaware blend with the West Delaware to form the main stem, that is new, but still is not the beginning. Though in another telling, I can imagine that this is where it all starts. This is where the narrative would begin to flow.

And the beginning is not my first night alone, camped way up north on the Delaware. Nor the second day when Mom joins me for a day. This could be the telling of how a mother and a son learn the river they loved. And we did. But that is not my story today. Still, at a curve in the river, we watch two deer—a doe and a fawn—swim the river. We paddle Skinner’s Falls, my book says, “One of the most severe on the Delaware River.” Mom and I see the whitewater. She goes through first so if she capsizes, I can save her, though I’m only a mediocre paddler. That’s what son’s do. Before we know it, we’re through and wondering where the big waves were.

And the beginning is not when Mom says goodbye and I have three days alone. The first two without seeing another boat, except two early morning fishermen. Nor is it when I finally hit the stretch of river that serpentines through the Delaware River National Recreation Area, with its protected water and banks. Herons on almost every corner. And that plaintive honking of geese. And, god, I’ll take that noise over anything else in the world. But that is not the beginning.

Bones keeping the fires burning
Bones keeping the fires burning
©Sean Prentiss

Nor on day five, almost half way through this 200 mile trip, when Mom drives Bones up the thirty-five miles to Milford, to meet me. Before this trip, Bones and I hadn’t talked in three years, after one of many big fights. But if I’m going to canoe this river, I need Bones with me. If only for a night. It’s like somewhere in the telling, Bones and the river became entwined until Bones is part of the river, and the river bleeds through Bones. Bones once said, “There are some things that even the river cannot heal.” She and I aren’t one of those things. The river will, in some way, heal us.
 
When Bones gets in the canoe, in the stern, even though she can’t steer, that is not the beginning. She canoes us in three circles, with Mom on shore laughing, until we need to pull over and switch spots. We canoe all day, catching up on those years of silence. Swim in 104-degree heat. Set up camp at the Ox Bow. A rainstorm. Thunder. A fire. Her tent. My bivvy sack. I want to be with her. But this is not the beginning. Though it could be if I wanted to tell this story another way.
  Because this is a story about returning home. And I am not yet there. I am twenty miles north. In the morning, Bones and I paddle downriver. We’ll be home tonight to my grandmother’s green cabin, which sits one hundred yards north of Mom’s house. Bones and I paddle through the cool morning. Past the dense deciduous forests. Bald eagles and herons and ducks and geese. A deer and a small waterfall. By noon, we are hot and into the Water Gap, a 1,600-foot high cleave through the rock. This is nearly my stretch. Memories.

Day is done, time to rest
Day is done, time to rest
©Sean Prentiss

We pass Portland, PA and float in the afternoon. And this is the introduction. Not the beginning, but Bones and I are close, though neither of us knows it. Now, it’s almost dusk and we’re four miles north of the cabin. We float and tell stories. When she did this and I did that and remember the night when we went there and so and so said such and such. It’s coming back. The distance between Bones and me reduces just like the distance from the headwaters to home reduces until there is almost no space left. Then we turn a corner and we’re above Buttermilk Rapids, my favorite stretch of river. Never a boat here. A few islands and two quiet houses that I’ve always wanted to own. Maybe I’d move from Idaho if I could live in one of them.

And this, right here, after 120 miles and six days, this is where it begins. Dusk now. The river quiet, flat, still. The water the color of oil. The hills aflame with leaves of July, a deep, deep green. The sky a gray, a red, a pink, an orange. Two eagles fly above us. Ten years ago there were no eagles. Or herons. Or beaver. Or bear. They’re back. The eagles screech, and it’s not beautiful like a hawk, and fly into trees. We’ve stopped paddling. Let the river carry us.

We talk in whispers until we both hush because we realize that we’ve stopped moving. Not just the forward progress of a current. But moving at all. Not forward, not backward or sideways of an eddy. Completely stopped. A minute. Two. Three. Maybe five. Unmoving. Like the river is holding us, holding me, back. It knows I’ll be home, if I paddle, in twenty minutes. So it says, Remember me. Study me. I do. A heron jumps from the banks. Squawks. Pulls her neck in. Flies upriver.

Lady lost in thought
Lady lost in thought
©Sean Prentiss

The river releases Slater, and Bones and I float into Buttermilk Rapid in near dark. I study the river, looking for rocks. It’s an easy Class II. We’re through. There Harold’s house on the hill. He might be on his porch watching us pass. The bend that we call Doe Hollow. Cool Eddy, where Bones and I fished eight years ago. Oliver’s Beach where we skinny-dipped so many times. Found love again after years apart. Will we again? That doesn’t matter now because we have this river together and all that history that floods past and between us. This night is enough to last forever in our story.
I am a quarter of a mile north of my grandmother’s cabin on the stretch of river that I’ve spent at least parts of thirty-four years. Memories, like whitecaps, wash over me. I stare at Bones’ sinewy shoulders as she paddles, damn, she’s actually learning how after ten years of on and off lessons. And after thirty-four years, of dreaming of doing this trip, I realize that I’m only halfway done on my journey to tidal water. But I’m almost home.
  I stare at the hills of shale and elms and rich loam and see Bones, Oliver’s, the rope swing. History upon history piles up in the canoe. And I never want to hit shore. I always want to be almost home.

I hold on to the stupid idea that men should be tough and silent so I try to stifle what I am feeling—even though it is beautiful and full of love and happiness—but it is born into this world through tears. I try to stop them once they begin. I cannot. I cry and cry. Bones says, “Why are you sad? Don’t be sad.”

“I’m not. I’m home.” And it’s a cliché, but I am home. I’m still crying when we hit shore at my grandmother’s cabin. Still crying when we step into a foot of river water. Still crying when Bones comes to me and kisses me for only the second time since I’ve been home. Still crying when we pull the boat to shore, tie it up, and walk to the cabin. And this is where this river trip begins.
 
Sean Prentiss
Moscow, Idaho