Big River

The river widened without my noticing. It was clear green water hugged by high banks all the way to Carmacks, but it’s silty and enormous now.

It takes real work to get from one bank to the other. The land opens out on either side into rolling mountainscapes, spruce and birch above gravel banks and basalt cliffs. Clouds roll overhead.

No wonder the wind whips stronger here. Across the open space of the Yukon River, you can see blasts and puffs of air shoot towards you. Every wind is a headwind, prevailing from the north.

In the calm moments, we sigh to feel the paddle slip smoothly. But most of the time, we dig the paddles in to fight the air.

Waves chop up around the hull, and though we see the bushes on shore slide by (proof of current, of progress), the time it takes to travel distance stretches.

Paddling is a meditative state. I count strokes, one to two hundred forty, switch sides. I think of form: legs crossed onto the kneepads, I brace against my seat.

Rotate the torso. Hold the paddle lightly, plant, pull with a dancer’s frame. The motion swings from the hips and spine. I twist with my lower abs, lift my elbow, keep this pliable, firm empty space.

My elbows barely bend; it is the small muscles against the spine that carry the load. Upper hand brace, lower hand pull. Lift and feather swing. Plant. Pull.

It’s hard into the wind, but I relish it. Sitting still is cold, but worse, it’s self-indulgent. I travel to become invulnerable. I prove to myself, over and over: I am strong. I must be, to do this. If I can physically fight, always working, in training, something is right, and I can handle whatever else.

The wind whips up. It’s a slow, deep dig. Even feathered, the wind wants to blow my paddle back. I swing it forward. Plant. Feel the bunching muscles of my upper back, the twisting of the spine with every stroke. Lift, swing.

The corners of my mouth twitch up. My mind ranges, and I count, pull, swing. This is what I’m here for.

Previous: Towards the Arctic | Next: Island Camp