Meditations on the river in summer

By Kristen Lindquist | Sep 03, 2011

A lot of creatures swim in the Megunticook River. From my parents’ house on the banks of the “mill pond,” we’ve watched beavers ply the waters with branches in their mouths, muskrats hustling from here to there with their snaking tails leaving a curving wake, families of Canada geese, and a loyal pair of loons (with a chick or two in lucky years).

From water’s edge, we’ve seen painted and snapping turtles, wriggling leeches, tough-looking dragonfly nymphs, assorted water bugs, frogs — peepers, green frogs, bull frogs — and an array of fish, from little perch to an alarmingly large bass that lurks in the shadows under the float. Ducks of all kinds ply the river year-round, hanging out through the winter in that last patch of open water below the Molyneaux Road bridge. Raccoons pry open freshwater mussels, scattering sharp, open shells throughout the shallows. And, once, a young moose ran through the yard, plunged into the water, swam to the opposite bank, and then lumbered off into the woods. Many animals enjoy immersing themselves in the river, including humans.

But rarely me. For one thing, the river is shallow, and wading out through the too-soft, algae-laced muck to reach deeper water is, well, gross, especially if you factor in the risk of leeches suckering onto your calves. Jumping off the float is a better option, though the water’s not deep enough for safe diving, though the worst that would probably happen is you’d end up stuck head-first in a foot of muck. Pond weeds grab at your legs as you swim. And climbing up the ladder to get back onto the float inevitably forces an encounter with a gigantic dock spider or two. One summer someone told me that they skitter across the surface of the water to chase their prey. These things are several inches across if you count their legs, so I avoided the float for several months after I heard that. I’ve always preferred swimming in the ocean anyway.

But occasionally, when it’s hot enough, I’ll run to the float and jump off quickly, before I have time to think about what’s lurking in or near the water. By August, the silky water feels warm as a bath. Lily pads with flowers drift in ethereal clusters on the edges of the shore — white water-lilies, yellow cow-lilies, spikes of purple pickerelweed. It’s like swimming in a Monet painting.

If you swim out to the narrow channel where the original river used to run, the water is deeper and cooler. But most of the mill pond basin, formed when the river was dammed downstream, is a tepid basin. You can actually swim out to what looks like the middle of the river and stand up. From a canoe you can see stumps that ended up underwater when the dam was first built, a small, drowned forest of twisting roots that now harbor small fish and snails.

My husband likes to put in a little kayak at my parents’ and fly-fish in little coves and shady places along the river. Once when he was drifting in a narrow inlet, he came upon a tree full of vultures. He checked to see if anything dead was lying around in there, but didn’t see or smell anything untoward. As he hung out and cast a line, he realized the vultures were coming down to the water’s edge to drink. He could see their tracks in the mud. He’d discovered the secret vulture watering hole.

In late summer, I prefer to simply sit at the water’s edge with a good book and enjoy the play of light on the water. Sometimes just the sound of splashing, moving water is enough to make me feel cooler, especially under the shade of my parents’ big, old pines. The loons drift by, and if they have a chick, the gangly, grey youngster will often drift near to shore in its attempts to learn to fish. Its parents’ intimate solicitude is touching to witness from such close range. Dragonflies with shimmering wings pause on lily pads. As the day lengthens, small kettles of turkey vultures begin to circle overhead after a day of riding thermals above the nearby mountains, getting ready to meet up at their watering hole, perhaps. Come dusk, swallows and bats flit above the pockmarked water’s surface to glean flies as numerous as raindrops. Bullfrogs croak among nearby reeds and cattails. The moon rises above the oak trees to shine on the river, illuminating the floats along the shore. For those calm moments, life feels rich and full.

Nighttime might be my favorite time for river swimming. For one thing, I can’t see the giant dock spiders in the dark. For some, that could make it worse, but for me, if I can’t see them, I’m OK. I just pretend the spiders are tucked away sleeping.

On a clear August night the water is so smooth that jumping into the reflected stars is like diving into a bowl of heaven. The sky and water are one dark, seamless swirl of stars. Warmed by weeks of summer sun, the water is indistinguishable from my own skin. I am one with the water, one with the galaxy. I swim out to the middle of the river for a clearer view of the stars. Something moves near me in the water, but I don’t panic; it’s probably just a beaver on its way to wreak havoc on someone’s landscaping. I float quietly on my back, picking out the Summer Triangle, formed by the stars Vega, Altair, and Deneb, the murky swath of the Milky Way, the constant Northern Star. Suddenly, from very close by, a loon calls — a loud, eerie tremolo. I’m startled but thrilled. I’m swimming with a loon! I try not to move, even after I hear it dive. I want this moment to last a long time.


Kristen Lindquist is a published poet who works as the development director for Coastal Mountains Land Trust in Camden.

 

 

 

 

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