Sunday, July 13, 2008

Summer utmost

I’ve spent a few summers now indulging in wilderness hiking and skinny-dipping in lush river valleys outside the city, but I think the experience yesterday was probably singular.

P-Doug picked me up at my place around 10 or so and we headed out on the 401 to the west end to ply the roads that follow the Humber, our river of choice, northwest into its still untamed upper reaches. I’m told that the Humber once, millennia ago, drained Lake Huron directly into Lake Ontario, but those days and water levels are long gone and today the Humber is a humbler river of a more manageable human scale. Where we were headed, a little pocket Eden we’ve come to refer to as “Otterwa”, for lack of a real name, the river twists and bends in a deep valley with a flood plain, alternating between runs a few inches deep over stones unfriendly to canoe bottoms and broad, silt-bottomed pools of chest-deep water.

Heading in, the forest floor, carpeted in russet pine needles, was bone dry under my bare feet. I remember thinking how little it would take, just the drop of a match or someone’s cigarette butt, to potentially send the place up. Neither one of us is a smoker, so it wouldn’t be us. The way in we take alternates several times between forest and clearing (one of which is perennially marked by the places deer have flattened sleeping) before the final forested slope down into the valley, where a brief, knee-deep marsh finally yields up the river.

P-Doug stepped into the river first and pronounced it cool, but warmer than our last visit. He also thought that it was higher. I’m dubious, myself; it seems to me that the river is higher in his estimation every time but I have yet to see pairs of animals making their way into the ark, or even water that reaches my shoulders while I’m standing in it. Still, in the absence of any empirical measure, it remains a subjective estimation, so I’m not prepared to say he was mistaken. Anyway, it seemed the same to me.

We waded to our usual landing, where I set my backpack in the ferns and stripped, wading back into the water more fully since there was now nothing to get wet but my skin. P-Doug set his things on the bank and did likewise. The water was cool, but not shocking. It really only took a few moments to get adjusted. The current runs down the landing side of the river, but on the far side (ironically, the side from which we’d actually come down), the bend and other elements have created a pool out of the current where the water moves very slowly and a number of fallen trees have created good places to sit immersed in the water. That’s how I enjoy being there. P-Doug’s strategy is more to find the courage to dunk to the neck and simply remain immersed that way.

The minnows who live in the river were uncharacteristically ravenous for the first 15 minutes or so. They always crowd in to pluck whatever it is they eat off your skin... more a kiss than a bite... but yesterday they swarmed around me in their dozens, some of them as long as my hand and as thick as two fingers, darting it to poke at my legs, my arms, my sides. Not really that much of an annoyance (unless they nibble someplace unmentionable). But it was a little unnerving and so I began sweeping them away, closing my fists quickly to suggest snapping jaws. I don't know if that was enough to dissuade them or whether they just decided there wasn't anything particularly tasty sticking to me, but they buggered off and left me alone after that.

We did what we always do while there… talk about cultural things (movies, mostly), historical moments, political trends… all while indulging in the great luxury of being bare outdoors, in the sun, among the trees, in the water. Primal and natural. At various times we each remarked how privileged we were, but when you think about it, a little over a century before it was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. It’s how things were on hot summer days. How did we come to lose that, forget that?

We were there for hours, really. Over time the water warmed noticeably until it was, in truth, verging on a temperature I really could characterize as “warm”. Around that time, I noticed a thick, broad natural plank of wood – God only knows the size of the ancient fallen tree that yielded it – poking from the bank behind me like a bunk. I cleared it off and reclined on it with my back and head pressed to the bank, a firm root system holding the earth and plants above me like a canopy. P-Doug decided it would make a good shot and retrieved his camera from the landing to record my languid pose.

The upper landing that we usually sun on to dry off has, this year, been colonized by the most annoying stinging nettles. So eventually I went exploring up river to see if there were any other landings to stretch out on. I did find a couple, clear and only dotted with ferns, but they were in the shade. Seemed like anything that had sun also had the nettles. At one spot where I came ashore, I noticed a wooden plaque nailed to a tree, with an arrow pointing to the river carved and painted onto it. It was weathered and had been there a long time, but it surprised me. It was obviously meant to mark a trail of some kind, or indicate something to someone at some point. Intriguing. Sadly, I’d set off without anything, and I didn’t have my camera with me to take a picture. It was simply, as P-Doug has referred to such technology-deficient incidents, a “Zen moment”. I stepped back into the watery highway to return and report.

When I got back to the pool and the landing, he wasn’t there. There’s a tree just downstream with a large overhang that exactly hid him from view. He’d seen me returning, though, and called out. He was at the marl bank, about a minute downstream from the pool. I waded down there and climbed up. The really active part of the marl bank is roughly the size of a bathtub, and he was laid back on it, half immersed, and covered in grey marl except for his head. I sat on the firmer bank where the marl had dried, and watched as dozens of spiders came running out, black-bodied with huge abdomens so white I thought they must have been egg sacs. They seemed to be able to skate over the wet marl with no trouble at all. After a while I started to notice the clay under my heels was getting wet and soft, and when I began to peddle my feet against the clay, within minutes it had completely transformed into the same thick soup that P-Doug was lying back in. Soon I was sitting flat with my legs buried in the stuff up the knees. It was amazing.

We’d had intermittent sun all the four hours or so we were there but by this time, somewhere about three o’clock, the overcast had been established for around an hour and we began to hear the rumble of thunder. We lingered, indulging ourselves, until prolonged rolls made it clear we were due for a downpour. We pulled out of the marl and washed in the river and began to wade back to the landing just as the first raindrops began to fall. In the minute or so it took us to get back there, the downpour was on. Since we were already wet and naked, P-Doug suggested we trek back to the road that way and spare our dry clothes as long as we could. With any luck, the rain would be over by the time we reached the road. I tucked our clothes into my backpack and we left the river, climbing up out of the valley into the woods.

The rain was really coming down. By the time we got back to the field the deer sleep in, it was coming down in buckets. And it was warm. Warmer than the water of the river. I’ll never forget the image of P-Doug, naked, wandering through a field of waist-deep grass with his arms outstretched to delight in the falling rain.

The same pine needle flooring I’d thought so dry hours before was now verging on mucky and slippery under my feet. My forest fire fears were assuaged. When we were within five yards of the road or so, we decided to dress as minimally as we could, and so we just pulled on our shorts. At least our shirts would remain dry. As we did so, I said to him that it had to have been the most ambitious nude hike we’d yet undertaken; most of a mile up and down hills through forest, brush, and field.

Bare chested, we stepped onto the road. For me it was an interesting sensation because the normally blistering summer blacktop was merely comfortably warm under my feet, cooled by the rain, steaming and extremely pleasant to walk on. Three or four cars passed us on the ten-minute walk back to the car. As we drove away, pub-bound, P-Doug observed that the thing that made the place so wonderful was the childlike freedom it bestows… to swim and wander the place naked, sit on tree limbs, play in the clay with abandon. I remarked that there was nothing like that in my own youth… that I’d had to progress well into adulthood to achieve it. Strange irony.

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