Hot and dry and smoky. A summer of science fiction come true, movies made real.
Despite the smoke, I paddle upriver two miles against the limp current. The longer the view, the more the smoke is visible. Stretches of the St. Croix where I can see a mile or more, the distant bluffs are shadows in the cloud.
Fires raging far away have sent this sooty air, the ash of a distant forest falling back to Earth, drifting over the river. It robs the world of color and contrast, everything is muted and faded. Over the course of several hours afloat, I think again and again that the scenery is very strange. A familiar landscape rendered alien.
Underneath it, the river flows unperturbed, though still plagued by low water. It still has enough power to work my shoulders, but the biggest challenge is finding a channel with enough water to float and pull a paddle. I weave across a side channel seeking six inches of water or a foot if I’m lucky.
I paddle and paddle up the river. If I stop, I start going back downstream, erasing progress, so I don’t stop. My mouth is dry from the smoke, and I finally duck into a slough out of the current, where I guzzle water.
In the middle of a shallow channel, three women sit in the water, smiling. They are slowly working their way down the channel, soaking it all in. Farther up, a man sits on the beach next to his boat, a line extended in the water, hoping for catfish. He has sunglasses on, and when I say hello, I fear that I woke him up.
When I reach the end of my upstream journey, I turn into a back channel where the water is calm and the quiet is profound. An osprey cries and I look up just in time to see it leave its perch in a tree, a fish grasped in its talons. It flies across the river and I apologize for disturbing its lunch.
The calm waters of the slough are a good place to rest and see what is happening in the natural world. I have a snack and some more water and don’t do much except quietly watch my surroundings for some unmeasured amount of time.
There is cardinal flower and smooth ironweed are all over on the banks. The bright red and the deep purple pair nicely. Swallowtail butterflies flutter around the ironweed, but I don’t see any of the hummingbirds that primarily pollinate cardinal flower.
Back in the slough, where the water is too shallow for me to get, sandhill cranes send up a cacophony of cries. I don’t know what is causing the drama, but the echoing croaking calls are endlessly interesting.
I’m ostensibly on a fishing expedition. My plan is to drift back down the two miles, hooking hefty smallmouth bass with my fly rod. So I start casting and get a couple fish who seem to bump the fly with their nose, or spit it out, but I simply cannot seem to set the hook. It’s enough to get my heart racing, but I’d sure like to actually feel a fish pulling on my line.
The whole way back down the river, I cast toward the bank, certain this one will be it. But I never bring a fish to hand, and it just makes me wonder when I can get back out here to try again.
I’ve put my fishing rod away and I’m slowly drifting down the river when I run aground on a sandbar. Just past it are big snags in deeper water against the bank, and I think it looks good for fishing. I climb out of the kayak into the shallow water and tie a rope to my life jacket so the boat doesn’t drift away while I fish.
Casting the little popper, stripping line to jerk it through the water, I hope it looks like an injured minnow, an easy and tasty meal, like a free hamburger for a fish, I think. They continue to ignore my efforts.
As the afternoon slides into evening, the smoke somehow seems to get thicker. Only objects within a couple hundred yards are discernible. From the middle of the river, it seems like I’m a sharp mass of color and lines, while the banks and bluffs are blurred.
By the time I’m headed back to the landing, my throat and lungs faintly ache. I fantasize about the filtered air coming through my car’s vents. I can see in my mind the image of the fish teasing my fly, and I think again about when I can try to even the score.