The sky is clear and the air is clear and the air smells clean. So clean. The wilderness of northern Wisconsin is still very wild. Evergreens clog the air. It’s perfect, this time of summer. Glory defined, with a high of 75. And it’s a perfect time to ride the Brule River, which snakes through the thick woods all the way to Lake Superior.
I’m in a yellow kayak, the kayak eroded by age and water, sliding smoothly down the river. It was so clear I could see the bottom. If only there were mountains peeking over those tall evergreens. My paddle takes another dip, leaving a tiny tornado in its wake. I round another wide bend, avoiding a felled tree protruding from the shrub-choked shore. The steady current gently pushes me along, like a raindrop on a window. I lean back in my kayak and close my eyes and smell the air ambling by. Surely there is nothing better than this.
I open my eyes and the treetops are looking back at me. A lone cloud follows me down the river. I sit up and paddle some more. Another bend approaches. On my right in an opening to the woods, a doe’s head shoots up. Her ears twitch. I pass slowly, admiring her grace, as two fawns emerge from the woods and flank their mom. The family’s out for a walk.
The bend nears. I maneuver around a portly boulder. From farther away it seemed slight, but now I see how deep it extends. My very own summer iceberg. The rocks closer to the surface scrape the bottom of my kayak. Around the bend, a cliff of rocks and weeds looms over a sandy shore. Two ducks meander, nibbling just below the surface for snacks. Past the sand, the river straightened back out into a crystalline path.
I think of Colorado. On vacation with my family two years before, we had rafted down the Colorado River, where the whitewaters made you work hard to stay afloat. We had drifted through a serene sandstone canyon and fought through feral rapids. We had driven ATVs deep into the Great Divide, a vast stretch of mountains and plains that unites a continent. And I had ridden bicycles with my dad down a mountain, zipping back and forth across its face, trying not to careen off the path. I saw the views at the end of each of those adventures. Views I told myself I would see again someday.
A small rapid beckons me ahead. Only a few turns. I paddle hard. Approaching the brink, I start paddling one way but the rapid pulls me the other. My kayak slams one rock and bounces over another. I stab my paddle into the cold water between two rocks and pull myself past the boulders. My kayak continues on, steady and smooth. The battle over, I rest my paddle across my lap, smile and lay back.
I think about life on the river. Taking one of those week-long canoe trips where survival means a good paddle and the need for adventure. I could do something like that. I need to do something like that. It’s a test, really. A test of the limits of your courage. A lot of people take it. Kayaking rivers, biking down mountains, hiking hidden paths—conquering the unconquerable. When you venture miles into untamed land you feel untamed yourself. When you risk death to take on a raging river you feel alive. When you finally flee civilization and safety and risk losing something, you return to the best of yourself. Nature is funny that way.
I round another bend and see the rest of my group gathering at the load-in dock. Some are wading in the shallows, waiting for the stragglers. A girl jumps off a wood ledge and floats downstream for a few seconds before pulling herself back up. For those few seconds she had floated on her back and saw the same treetops I had seen. She was a dreamer.