Autumn Leaves

We pull the green canoe off John’s diesel pick-up, slide it down the weeds and sand into the Rockfish River. It’s packed with fishing gear, snacks, water, paddles, and two life jackets. John wears khakis, a forest green turtleneck, and a heavy khaki shirt. I also wear khakis with a black round-neck tee, turquoise sweater, and his black waterproof jacket. It’s about noon, the sun is overhead with a clear blue sky as background. On this last day of October, the recent wet, chilly days have transformed this day into a predicted 70 degree day. We can feel that warmth approaching. It is an exquisite day.
I sit in front holding my paddle and getting acclimated to how to use it as John paddles from the rear. I’ve never been in a canoe on a river before and as I see waves, rocks, and currents before me, I suddenly realize there are skills needed that I do not know. John is long experienced though and I trust him as he quickly begins to tell me the elementary things I need to know: how to hold and use the paddle and what to watch for as we approach barriers and what to consider as we decide how to traverse them without incident. I know we may get wet, may spill, may get stuck and have to step in the river to get free, yet I know this is all part of this sport.
The water moves us gently forward as we begin a five mile river journey back to John’s home. I’m entranced by what I see in the water and I want to quickly and well learn how to be a good canoe mate. As John calmly and gently tells me from behind how we’ll navigate, I follow his words with some initial awkwardness. We pass easily between two rocks and then the water ahead is clear of barriers for awhile.
Filled with a complete contentment and awe that comes from being present in this utterly pristine, peaceful place with this dear man, I begin to open to the beauty of my surroundings and pull it deeply into my soul. I hear nothing more than sweet, soft sounds of nature: always the sound of the moving water, and occasionally the flapping of a bird’s wings as he leaves his resting place, or his song—and nothing else. Except John’s soft voice from time to time.
What is remarkably absent is any sound whatsoever of civilization. and I find that fact so soothing and freeing that I know I could survive in this setting for a very long time. Today I feel like I never want this journey to end.
I gaze at the river banks, at dark, thick-trunked, leafless trees leaning dangerously close, yet with strength and sturdiness, to the water while others stand tall and upright and still retain some gold or rust or orange leaves. Some fallen leaves float gently alongside us in the water, others cover the banks that parallel our journey, and yet others cover fallen trees or other natural debris in the water, clearly marking a canoe obstruction. Dried grasses line the bank with graceful sway while other plants show me with their brown and brittle leaves that they have passed their season. Yet always, amidst the decay this season brings that surrounds us, the water flows, so alive, brilliantly sparkling with sunlit diamonds, powerful, ever-changing, and timeless.
The air is clean and clear, light and sweet. The sun increasingly warms us as we flow through calm and then occasional rushing waters, until I feel so warmed I take John’s jacket off, lay it behind me, and feel the blessed heat enter my body.
“Can we paddle slowly and make this trip last as long as possible?” I ask him. “We sure can,” he replies and I know from the way he says his words that he is feeling as I do about these moments, and probably more deeply than I. He’s been canoeing on rivers for thirty years and I cannot begin to comprehend the depth and breadth of memories he carries with him on this day, as I enter into my novice experience that I already know—hours before our trip is completed—that I will ache to do again. And again. And. Again.
John carefully extricates his fishing rod from beneath the seat and I watch with admiration as his skilled cast flings his lure toward the dark shade beneath a tree at river’s edge. “I know there’s one waiting for me right there,” he states with quiet confidence and humor. I smile with amusement and wait to see if that’s so. But, if the fish is there, he eludes the tease of that lifelike pale green lure. As does the one beneath the next tree. And the next.
In time though John’s line goes taut and he reels in a respectable-sized fish. I turn and watch as quickly, competently, and yet gently he grasps the fish and works to ease out the hook, which has burrowed deep behind a gill and proves difficult to remove. Finally he frees the hook and then, with compassion and reverence for this fish’s life, John leans over the canoe’s side, gently holds the fish beneath the water for a few moments, and then opens his hand. I share his deep respect for nature and the life of all living things.
“Will he be okay?” I ask, acknowledging precious extra moments used to disengage the stubborn hook.
John shakes his head. “I don’t know,” he says quietly. “He’s had a lot of trauma getting out that hook.” I look at the place in the water where the fish regained his freedom and send my silent hope, “Be well. Please be okay, small fish, and have a long, good journey through life.”
An hour passes. Then another. We approach new challenges, mostly small (small for John, that is!) yet a few larger, to traverse every several minutes and I find I am slowly learning to “read the river,” as John had told me early on and as his skills with each new river challenge have shown me.
I try out the fishing pole he’s brought for me and accept that my first casts are awkward. I keep trying as he says brief words that encourage and finally decide I’ll try using my non-preferred, right hand. Wow. It works much better and I finally can cast out farther, closer to shore beneath those trees that are surely harboring fish. I catch nothing but that is, of course, perfectly okay. If I did, I would do just what John did with his fish.
Three hours later, we approached John’s landing, and I feel the conflicting emotions of deep peace and strong reluctance to end this trip. But I’m a big girl now and I well know that there’s a beginning and ending to everything, as every part of Nature has clearly shown us this day.
My maiden river voyage has ended, but I sense there will be another and hopefully others. Yet, whatever tomorrow brings, today I still possess the gift of John’s friendship.


About Mary Jo Doig

At the turn of the millennium, I arrived at a cross-road that brought me to a splendid, if unforeseen place, almost as if I were a traveler on Robert Frost's The Road Less Traveled. I was single again, my three children were grown and building their lives, I'd experienced a health issue and was working on an improved lifestyle. I also ached to do two other things: (1) change my long human services career in upstate New York's Catskill Mountains, where winter seemed to be at least seven months out of every year, and (2) move to a warmer place in the universe. My decision: did I want to continue on the path I'd been following pretty much all my life, or could I gather my then-fragile courage and start life brand new somewhere else? These were scary thoughts for a single woman in her late 50s. Five hundred miles away, though, I fell in love with a new mountain range, Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, where I knew not a soul except my daughter who was attending college in the Shenandoah Valley, and I moved. I rented a tiny cabin on a mountain in the woods and lived there in solitude for two years, working in a new career by day and, when home, communing with the incredible natural beauty that surrounded me. There I also began to write my life stories, which were aching for release. I joined the Story Circle Network in early 2001, a rich place in cyberspace for women life writers, where I strengthened my written voice and began sharing my stories. I found so many opportunities to grow: 10 year facilitator for an online writing circle of women writers across the country; thirteen year editor of the "True Words from Real Women" section of the quarterly Journal; a reader and reviewer of women's memoirs for the SCN Book Review site; program chair for two Stories from the Heart national conferences in Austin, T. Presently I'm teaching Women's Life-Writing and Older Women's Legacy workshops in my part of the world in Central Virginia and facilitating the ongoing Circle of Memories Writing Circle (formerly an OWL workshop that continued on) at the Crozet Public Library. I am blessed with three wonderful children, a son and two daughters; a small, huge-hearted family; dear friends; my beagle Addie and cat Button. My hobbies include reading, writing, editing, cooking, gardening, quilting, knitting, biking, and simply being with the profound beauty of the mountains that embrace my small two acres in the Blue Ridge. The life stories I began writing in 2001 have grown deeper with time, re-writes, and personal growth. All these years later, I'm scheduled to publish my memoir, Stitching a Patchwork Life, in 2018.
This entry was posted in Friendship, Gratitude, Kindness, Mother Nature, Simplicity. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Autumn Leaves

  1. susanideus says:

    MJ, I closed my eyes and glided down that river with you. Your descriptions are that beautifully evocative. I’ve always wanted to learn to canoe. This was just lovely.


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