The River

This is “A Dramatic Talk” I gave for a Toastmasters project in late 2010.

I have been down many rivers in my life, and daydream about them. I have woven those dreams together with the braids of the rivers and streams themselves into the fabric of a journey:

All winter I have been preparing. All winter long I have been working, preparing and tanning the pelts. The bundles are now ready for the voyage.

All winter I have been building my canoe. It is good. I have used the best wood for the keel, ribs, and thwarts. I have used only the finest birch bark for the skin, carefully sewn onto the ribs, carefully sealed with the clearest pitch. It is the best canoe I have made.

I have all my supplies ready for the long voyage down the streams and rivers, the long voyage to the sea where I will trade my pelts. Then sailors will take them on ships across the ocean, where fine ladies and gentlemen will enjoy their softness and warmth.

I will fish and forage and trade on my journey – I can live off the land. I am a hunter, and the land is rich with game. I can barter some of my pelts as I go. I am skilled with my heavily loaded canoe. I have great strength in my arms and my paddle is strong and sound. I am excited and hardly sleep.

The old woman up the valley, the trapper’s Indian widow, looks and doesn’t say anything.

This morning I gently push off into the tiny stream, carefully negotiating the rocks and shallows.

Today I passed through the narrows at the end of the valley with great difficulty – it’s been several days of struggle. I fear there is more damage than I expected.

The stream now plunges off the slopes of the Mayacamas, and joins the upper reaches of Santa Rosa Creek. It is full with the spring rains. Even in the backyards there are egrets and night herons. I camp for a few days at the confluence of Brush Creek, and think about the old ones who danced here, on the big flat rocks. In a dream I join them in the round house, singing the old songs. It gets smoky, then I awake, douse the fire, and move on.

The stream goes underground, in endless long dark tunnels. Overhead, storm drains rumble with traffic. I start to see visions in the dark – the old trapper’s wife, or maybe my own grandmother. I can’t tell if paddling makes any difference or not.

I am in daylight again. I cross the still waters and rapids below Santa Rosa Avenue.

As the day draws towards evening I find a place to pull my canoe ashore, hiding it in the bushes, and make camp. Tonight I go into town. I spend some of my cargo of pelts for a few drinks, then get into a fight. Maybe it was more than a few. I don’t remember. I must have lost some more pelts – I can’t find them, but I get back to camp and try to sleep. A woman with a shopping cart camped nearby is hollering all night long, and my head hurts. She reminds me of the trapper’s widow, only louder.

These days I think I’m starting to hear the surf. I hear it in the early morning when I’m waking from my dreams. I hear it when I’m paddling in the quiet reaches. No, it’s getting louder too quickly. Too soon to hear the surf.

Today I reach Stony Point Road. The rapids are roaring, and I fear for my tiny canoe in such big water. A woman came into my dream last night, and told me I needed to keep to the right when I came to the rapids, and I’d probably make it. Suddenly it’s too late to pull out and portage around the falls. I keep to the right. I plunge through the thick brown turbulence. I make it. I realize I’ve lost another of my bundles of pelts. I search all day and don’t find it. Not much left.

I awake, not sure what time it is. My campfire has gone out. It is very dark, but I become aware of large forms passing slowly overhead, silhouetted against filtered starlight. I look around – I don’t see my canoe or my camp, only gently rolling white sand. It is as though I am on the seabed, looking up through a hundred feet of clear midnight water, seeing the circle of starlight through gently rolling waves.

There are forms, dark forms, moving between me and the light. They are seals – hundreds of them, their fins like little wings. They are undulating slowly, all slowly moving towards the west, a primordial migration. They ignore me – maybe I am not even here. Maybe this is a vision of the distant past, maybe a vision of the distant future, maybe a dream. I fall into wondrous sleep.

In the morning my campfire is cold. I break camp quickly, and enter the slow waters of the Laguna. There is not much time.

I dream more now. My dreams at night are vivid, and I begin to dream during the day too, as I paddle. I dream of the sea, where I see a woman, like the trapper’s wife, watching me, peering at me from under her thick gray locks. I am afraid of the surf, that violent barrier that separates my river from the sea. It is still and deep in the sea. Like the clear night sky.

After many tiring days of paddling, of dead ends, of thick summer weeds and slow waters, I reach the Russian River. There are otters playing in the water, osprey patrolling the sky. Now I travel by night and stay hidden by day. There are willow thickets to camp in. I sleep while it’s light, aware of insects and frogs. I dream more, of the still dark depths, and the woman, who has become my grandmother. She looks younger now, with dark locks, gently smiling.

These nights it’s usually foggy when I’m travelling, but I know what way to go. I’m dreaming more, and my canoe is fragile and leaky. I am tired. My hands and arms are thin. I can’t tell if any of my cargo is intact or not – my eyes have gone funny.

I see the first seal. I know I’m near the sea. When the seal swims under my frail canoe, it looks like a strange dark angel. The waters are quiet, deep, and dark. I really do hear the surf now – it rises and falls. Now there are more seals, more visits from the dark angels.

An early autumn storm has raised the river, and it flows stronger. Today I reach the last stretch. I sure I’m in the lagoon behind the dunes. My mind is full of the roar of the ocean, calling and drawing me. I can’t tell if I’m dreaming any more or not. Under the gray dense fog of dawn, I line my canoe up with the channel that crosses the bar, into the blinding surf. There are seals all around. The water accelerates me down across the long wide beach, into the white maelstrom of the surf.

Suddenly it is still. I’m surrounded by darkness, and stars. I reach out and touch a hand. A strong, young hand.

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