Mary Beth Writes

The photo is the Platte River in Nebraska. This post was a newspaper column for the Racine Journal Times in 2003.


Dark River

"I think us here to wonder."  (From "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker.)

The day was one of those glorious October days when the sun blazed through gold and crimson trees; the incense of burning leaves perfumed the air. It seemed a shame to go inside simply because night was coming on.

"Let's take the canoe out on the river tonight."

My husband looked at me with that kind of look one only really perfects after plenteous years of marriage. Maybe you know it yourself. It's where one could be sarcastic but chooses discretion instead. 

We slid our canoe into the Root just as the sun slipped below the horizon. A last blush of pink edged the trees on the far side of the river like satin binding on a blanket. We climbed into our boat, splashed our paddles into the water, and shoved off.

I wonder if the slosh of paddling oars is similar to what babies hear to before they are born. That splashing rhythm feels like a wordless lullaby we used to know.

From that first moment on the dark river, it was a different world. Trees cast black shadows. Shadows hid fallen tree snags and floating branches.

There's a place not too far above Horlick Dam that's mostly a sandbar of watery muck.  My husband and I know this because this summer we took a friend on her first canoe ride, blithely promising her that the Root River offers the tamest of rides.

We promptly got so stuck in that muck that BOTH my husband and I had to climb out (wearing shoes and jeans), to haul our canoe through the mud. Remember that scene in "African Queen" where Spencer Tracy pulls his boat and Kate Hepburn through a leech-infested river? It was like that only without the leeches. Though we weren't really sure at the time there were no leeches -- which is how you can tell you're having a real adventure and are not at an amusement park.

However, now that we know exactly where that place is, we always paddle around it. Especially after dark.

 We floated along sweeping our flashlights along the banks, peering to see animal life. I thought I saw perky little ears and was just about to mention that -- when a deafening roar rose up all around us. 

Geese do not like flashlight beams in their eyes and we'd just swept ours over several hundred of the feathery fellows. Man, do they squawk LOUD! They're hard to see as their dark bodies take off against the dark trees, but they sound like someone starting a locomotive in your hat. That was the most realistic stress test I've had in a while. 

I soon took over the task of being the canoe headlight, letting my husband become the sole paddler. It was simply too dark and too interesting to go as fast as a canoe goes when two people paddle. It's not often in modern life that one canoe with two paddles is too fast.

We began to see eyes. Bright eyes, silent and curious, like pairs of birthday candles along the riverbank.  Did you know that even if the critter hides behind a branch the light from a flashlight still makes its eyes reflect in the water?

A while later there was another enormous heart-thumper of a splash.

"Did someone just throw a baby in the river?"

We think what we encountered were a few tail-smacking beavers. We'd hear a huge splash, spin our flashlights around -- and see nothing but ripples in the water. Then another huge kerplunk would splash on the other side of us. Either those beavers were real worrywarts or we met some guys who were playing around at making fools of humans. Eight times those loud splashes reverberated along the dark river. More boisterous kerthunks followed us while as we turned around to return to civilization.

We were laughing so hard by then we'd forgotten how dark the world was. I glanced up. The moon was rising full and silver over the black lace of trees.


Just then, very, very high in the starry sky, a vee of geese appeared. The lights of our world lit their pale undercarriages, making them look like a distant constellation of stars winging its way across the cold universe.

Is there a reason why people don't canoe at night?

Well, it's cold and shivery and scary out there. Certainly, don't do it unless and until you know a river very well. But if you take precautions? 

A river at night is a place of wonder.





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Where Heritage is Found

Last week I spoke with a woman who  is working to support MayaWorks.

I sent her this writing I did back in 2006.


I stayed several days with the Sepet family, a very cash-poor Maya family that lives in the altiplano, the mountains of Guatemala.  These people were so intelligent, gracious, strong, and hospitable.  

This adventure happened during my second day with them.

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Yes, I would!

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More info about how to see it here: 

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I wrote this column in 1997 and remembered it this morning.       



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