|Sue Leaf in May 2013 at the Minnesota River Valley National
Wildlife Refuge. “On a river, roads seem not to exist and only
the clear and sparkling water serves as a passage through the world,”
writes Leaf. Photograph by Tom Leaf.
BY SUE LEAF
When I was a child, I was given the gift of a canoe. The gift was not the watercraft itself—I would wait many years for that—but rather, a sure intuition that such a craft might offer me a new way of seeing, a new way of living in the world. The glimpse of that first canoe awakened a feeling so deep within me that the naturalist Sigurd Olson might have called it a genetic memory, traces of an ancestral past.
It took many years of holding a paddle in my hands, and of actually being on the water, to reconnect with the feeling that first came to me in childhood. Much of that intervening time was spent, as intervening time usually is, in details: learning to pack a food box for a canoe trip; making sure that my children had appropriate clothing for a paddle; figuring out how to keep everyone happy under spare and sometimes challenging circumstances. But when enough time had passed, and when I had grown old enough to be less preoccupied with the mundane, I realized that canoeing had indeed opened up to me an inner eye.
Sometimes drivers on a road trip eschew freeways and choose secondary roads to reach their destinations. They discover that the countryside looks very different traveling a two-lane highway. The freeway seems not to exist and suddenly they see silos and corncribs, the rare dairy herd in pasture. They slow to enter a small town and see grocery stores and post offices with American flags, white frame churches and bars lit with neon signs.
The same disappearing act occurs in canoe travel, only on a different order of magnitude. On a river, roads seem not to exist and only the clear and sparkling water serves as a passage through the world. River banks are invariably rife with greenery—willows, box elder, emergent plants like arrow weed and bulrushes. Even in a heavily cultivated region such as southern Minnesota or the Red River Valley, a narrow river valley serves as a slender oasis for birds and mammals, a refuge from the stranglehold of human beings.
Rivers were the means by which Native Americans, and later, early explorers and French voyageurs, moved cross-country. Lacking horses, but adept at living in the north woods with its many waters, they built canoes and paddled up and down rivers. They carried the exceptionally lightweight boats across the land to get from one river to another. This opened up vast possibilities for travel. Minnesota’s rivers flow into three major bodies of water: rivers in the northwest flow into the Red River of the North, which eventually empties into Hudson’s Bay; rivers entering Lake Superior flow east through the other Great Lakes and end up in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the north Atlantic Ocean; and tributary rivers of the Father of Waters, the Mississippi River, flow into the Gulf of Mexico.
A path between rivers can quickly take a traveler from one watershed to another. Certain paths—portages—became historic links and they are commemorated still today in names: Portage, Wisconsin: the link between the Fox River flowing into Lake Michigan, and the Wisconsin River, joining with the Mississippi; Savannah Portage State Park: the link between Lake Superior and the Mississippi; Grand Portage, Minnesota: connecting the chain of lakes on the northern border with Lake Superior. Ancient portages have not gone away. They criss-cross the Boundary Waters and some live on as hiking paths. Riverine thoroughfares have not gone away, either. They just got eclipsed first by corduroy roads, then by gravel roads, and finally by asphalt roads that did not follow a natural course, but a human desire for speed and ease.
But for me, the waterways rise again to stream through my imagination. On a quiet, verdant river, with the trappings of human civilization hidden from view, I think of how effortlessly we get from Point A to Point B. I imagine the various people who have preceded me down this stream. On rivers that were historical trade routes, like Wisconsin’s Brule River (leading via portage from the St. Croix River to Lake Superior) I imagine the Ojibwe families who moved between villages; the explorers, like Henry Schoolcraft, for whom it was the final segment of his journey home from Lake Itasca; the French-Canadian Voyageurs, carrying furs to trading points farther north and east. I think of the various languages that have called out warnings of big rocks, or significant rapids, or rang with greetings as people met going upstream or down.
I think of a world before roads, of how rivers made it far more cosmopolitan than people today could have imagined. The river murmurs to me: I was here first. Let me carry you into the heart of things.
Hungry for more? We kicked off a holiday recipe spectacular week with Eric Dregni’s gravet laks and Betsy Bowen’s bird-feeding tradition at midnight on Christmas Eve.