1. Summer Storm
The river has turned into a boiling brown force, a creature hulking above the banks, the rocks, the old bleached logs stacked for years along the shore. In the night, it roared through a nearby campground, giving people barely enough time to wake and flee their tents before it absorbed what was left--cameras, sleeping bags, stoves, wallets, clothing, food. It churned across roads, carried away culverts, and roughed up the footings of the bridges and trestles.
The gates at all the dams have been opened, and the boards meant to break away from the dam tops are gone. The upper reservoirs hold much of the excess, which keeps the towns themselves from being flooded, but below them nothing can slow all that water cascading through the valleys.
At Gardners Falls, just below our house, the river runs at 19,000 cubic feet per second, or about twenty-seven times its normal speed. It wrenches free the orange barrels, which warn boaters of the upcoming dam, and flings them downriver like corks.
Three towns declare a state of emergency. Sudden gullies bisect roads, cutting off access to several homes, with no one able to drive in or out until the holes are patched. Road crews redirect traffic with cones and barricades, creating detours over narrowed ground still able to support the weight of cars. Meanwhile, on the river itself, rescuers scurry to pick kids out of trees, collect people and their inner tubes off islands, and ferry back the family that set out in canoes before the waters turned dark, not realizing how fast the river was rising.
Despite the close calls, no one dies and no one is seriously hurt, due to a series of fast actions--the man who lay on his car horn to wake sleeping campers; the man who raced from tent to tent, slitting doorways open with a knife; the passerby who spotted two girls trapped on an island and placed the 911 call; the rafting guides who plucked a naked man from a tree, where he had clung since the wild current tore off his shorts.
There had been no coordinated alarm, announcing the rising waters, no town crier carrying the warning downstream, nobody keeping others from launching a boat, an inner tube, a whitewater raft. Just neighbors and rescue workers and whitewater guides trained and living in this area, loving and knowing and always wary of the river, and then a heavy rain, way too much rain, and all those people reacting as the river churned brown, scouring the banks, the rocks, the small islands.
Everywhere we travel in this valley, on each ridge and slope, there’s evidence of the rivers’ drain. It’s in the air we breathe, in the shapes of the towns, and in the sounds that enter our houses at night. A river’s tug is also in the stories I have loved, of John Wesley Powell, paddling one-armed on the Colorado, of William Bartram on the St. John’ s, Mark Twain on the Mississippi, and Kathleen Dean Moore on so many rivers of the northwest. And, of course, Thoreau on the Concord and Merrimack in Massachusetts, on the 151 Allagash and East Branch in Maine, and alongside a small pond for two years, forever linking a body of water with a way of inhabiting a life.
I imagine rivers shaping our very beings, until we’re like salmon that have adapted to their natal waterways, wiry and strong where it’s shallow and rocky, and bigger and slower in more languid streams. Though a person may have to remain in place for decades before it happens, I can already hear the river in the vernacular of friends, particularly those loathe to attend events that take place outside their watershed.
In a hunt for more clues about the effects of the Deerfield, I wander through southern Vermont, searching for its origin. The going isn’t easy; there is no bankside trail, no steady opening in the underbrush. There are the few access roads that crisscross this part of the Green Mountain National Forest, and occasionally there are moose paths, with signs of heavy browse and antler-scarred trees. But mostly I push through thick brush and unmarked areas, keeping close to the increasingly narrow waterway. In shaded areas the rocks are green with algae and moss, while the dark pools of water swirl with red and yellow leaves.
Soon the stream is so narrow, water striders cross it in several easy sweeps. A short distance beyond, I reach a level area of land, a small pond made by beavers in its middle. Balancing across a tangle of branches, I walk the perimeter, and find but a dozen dead trees, a silent pair of wood ducks, and a thick muddy trough that a moose has dug, and into which it has peed--or so the smell says--as part of its claim to this place.
The lack of feeder stream means that somewhere inside this body of water, a spring percolates out of the ground--the northernmost source of what will become the Deerfield, a river that drops roughly 2200’ in elevation on its journey from here to the Connecticut. It feels like reaching the story’s first chapter at last, which up to now I had been reading out of sequence. It’s like that moment years ago, when I stood on the New Hampshire-Canada border and fit all of what would become the Connecticut into the cup of my hand, and then turned around, settled into a canoe and paddled its length to Long Island Sound.
I’m not sure how far I’ll travel from here but decide to trust my instincts, bushwhacking through the woods in the direction of my car. I don’ t have a compass, and the sky has become too overcast for shadows. Still, I want to trust my sense of direction, as though I could follow my notion of east. An access road is relatively close, and if I veer too far to the north or west, I’ ll eventually meet the well-marked Appalachian Trail, though that could take more time than I have food or water to do easily. But striking out like this seems worth the risk, there’s plenty of sign of deer and ruffed grouse, and the hobblebush berries have begun turning red.
It doesn’ t take too long before I can’ t tell where I’ m going; I can’ t see far enough in any direction to know if I’ m pursuing a straight line, and there’ s no height of land to afford perspective in these thick woods. There’ s just a light area in the distance that may or may not indicate the cut of the road.
And then I see the stream ahead, a place I passed earlier in the day. The rocks look familiar, as does the spill of current over a long flat stone. I have walked in a big half circle, as though my body were pulled by a gravitational force rather than a magnetic one, and it moved downhill like water, as in that pre-dawn hour when Holly and I hauled our sleeping bags to the meadow to watch the best meteor display in recent history, hundreds of light streaks parting black sky. Two of us, cocooned in fat bags, awed and silent and sliding slowly toward the brook at the bottom of the field. It was the slipperiness of our sleeping bags. It was gravity’ s pull. And it was the draw of water, which our bodies couldn’ t resist.