Down the Saco
By: Christopher Johnson
“God, it’s cold!” he bellowed. He felt as though he had immersed his feet and ankles into a bucket of ice water.
Skeeter just laughed. “Pick it up, Dad! You’ll get used to it!”
Skeeter, being 12 years old at the time, and Alan Mallinckrodt, being 39 years old on that splendid day in 1987, were about to embark on a journey by canoe down the Saco River, which was born in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, flowed into Maine, and, after twisting and turning its way for some 130 miles, emptied its mountain waters into the Atlantic Ocean.
After that bracing introduction to the river, they stepped into their canoe while the long-haired, tattooed young man who worked for the outfitter held their vessel steady. They had pushed the canoe into the water at the entry point, near Conway Center, New Hampshire. They were to paddle their way downstream for 13 miles, just short of a portage at Swan’s Falls, in Maine, and there they would wait for the outfitter to retrieve them.
They began to paddle, and the water gleamed as glass. Alan could see the bottom of the river, strewn with countless stones and pebbles–some dark brown, some light brown, some gray, some black. The sun was blindingly brilliant, the sky stretched over them like a gigantic blue dome, and the river reflected the brilliant chlorophyll colors of the trees that lined the banks.
Skeeter sat in front and Alan, in back. They were amateur canoeists, yet they progressed steadily and let the water carry them along. Although the depths of the river ranged from a foot to more than six feet, they could constantly see the bottom, with its blend of sand and boulders. The varying currents of the water formed sand bars, which they studiously paddled away from. The river’s current and their paddling carried them past the landscape of Maine—trees and flowers and grasses lining the banks of the river in an embrace of green and yellow and brown. They peered ahead for sand bars, and Skeeter proved to be agile and attentive, steering them away from one bar and then another. Alan smeared sunscreen on his arms and shoulders and face and legs to fend off the sun flaming its arrows toward them.
Yet, as they were surrounded by this perfect landscape on this perfect day, something held Alan back from total immersion in the moment. He watched Skeeter, who dipped her paddle skillfully into the water, pulled on the paddle to propel them forward, and lifted her paddle from the water with nary a drip of water. Her hair was almost as red as beets. He thought of her as someone who had emerged from the earth, with her beet-red hair and lily skin. She had always had an intuition for things—had always known what she wanted. Other children—boys, girls—they were drawn to her, like planets to a sun. He didn’t fully understand it.
She kept a little garden—peas, beans, lettuce. She carefully built a wire-mesh fence to keep out the rabbits and the squirrels. When she worked her little garden, she meshed with the soil. She harvested the vegetables and then sold them at a little sidewalk booth she built. She earned money for next year’s seeds and even a little profit—maybe $200. Her eyes blazed blue the color of a cloudless Arizona sky. The eyes were windows to her feelings, and she poured all those feelings into the soil when she worked her garden.
Alan? He felt awkward in his paddling–unbalanced, as if he would tip over the canoe. The fact is that he was distracted, going over and over a comment he’d heard the other day at the book publisher’s office where he was an editor. A colleague with a sharp wit had remarked, almost in an offhanded fashion, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” It was a throwaway line, intended for irony rather than instruction. Yet despite Alan’s awareness of the irony, the words had scraped open some inadequacy he felt. Every morning, he drove from the modest townhouse in blue-collar south Framingham to the office, in upper-middle-class Lexington, and he passed through upscale Wayland, Sudbury, and Lincoln, following a route studded with spacious colonials. Despite every effort he made to deny the feeling, he felt jealous of the inhabitants of those colonials and dissatisfied with himself. It was as if the Saco’s waters reflected a visage of himself that he would prefer not to see.
Alan watched Skeeter paddle in front of him. Her fair skin had gradually turning earthen from a summer in the sun, and long eyelashes hooded her eyes. She took naturally to the front of the canoe, paddling with the confidence of a backwoods guide. She said, “I want to go to a Red Sox game when we get back.”
“Sure. Let’s see Clemens pitch.”
“Right. I was thinking that, too.”
When Skeeter was at home and was not able to work her garden because of the weather, she knocked around the house with electric and sometimes aimless energy, jiggling her feet while watching TV, shape-shifting as she pored over her homework. But the Saco seemed to soothe her, mellow her. She lifted the paddle, stroked downward as if the paddle were a feather, slid it into the water.
“Too bad about the other night,” Alan said.
Skeeter dug her paddle into the Saco with greater force. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
The river moved forward with gentle but insistent force, carrying them into a sharp bend and diverting Alan momentarily from his dark reverie. They knew that the water would run powerfully to the outer bend, and they steered toward the inner part of the bend, where the water ran more calmly. Yet the current kept pushing them out. Without exchanging words, they knew instinctively to double-down on their paddling and steer the canoe as best they could to stay on the inside of the bend. “Paddle!” Alan ordered, and Skeeter leaned harder into her blade. They maintained their course.
Having come safely out of the bend, they floated close to the bank, and Alan could see more clearly the trees that lined the Saco—the maples, the oaks, a weeping willow with its tendrils dancing close to the water. The light from the sun was sharp and distinct, and the trees swayed in the soft breeze, and the shadows cast by the trees tiptoed on the surface of the water. They passed a bed of reeds, and the reeds swayed to the music of the earth and the water.
The scene was of almost overpowering beauty, yet he continued to feel distant from that beauty and from himself. As they had embarked on their drive to the north country, they had passed Natick Mall, which sprawled like a giant concrete fabrication on Route 9, which was the main shopping avenue for Boston’s western suburbs. The road was little more than a pile of chain stores named Dunkin Donuts McDonald’s Sears Burger King Midas Muffler Star Market, all with cookie-cutter designs and garish signs pulsating with the blaring colors of neon. When he drove up and down Route 9, he felt one-dimensioned into a demographic, Mr. Middle-Aged Consumer Man. He tried to stop such thoughts, told himself that this line of thinking was pointless. You are very fortunate in life, he told himself. Quit feeling sorry for yourself. Yet the thoughts coiled as tightly as a trapped snake.
He remembered something that Samantha had told him recently. She had studied and then embraced Native American cultures and had come to know descendants of the Wampanoags and other native groups in eastern Massachusetts. She told him about a conversation that she’d recently had with one of the Wampanoag descendants. “What is wealth?” he’d asked.
“Sometimes I’m not sure,” she’d answered.
“We have much in our lives—much to be thankful for. But do we have wealth?” His words, she told Alan, were followed by silence.
Turbulence in the river jolted Alan back to the present. Not the chaos of whitewater, but close. “Watch yourself, Skeeter!” he warned.
“All right,” she said. “All right.” Alan knew that she thought that he was overreacting.
“Over there!” he said, pointing to the right. “Let’s go that way.”
“OK, OK.” Skeeter was annoyed with him–he could tell. She wanted to continue through the turbulence. But to their right, the river offered calm water, and Alan wanted to let the river carry them into quietude. They paddled close to the bank, to an area where a number of trees had been downed and lay prostrate, half in, half out of the river. They floated into the midst of the trees, and dead branches and twigs seemed to reach for them, trying to entangle them. A blue jay flew into the thicket of trees and then disappeared. The water was black. The branches of the trees were dried and desiccated. Here, even the air was dead. Alan stared into the middle of the thicket, and he could not help feeling that the demise of these trees had something tragic about it. Skeeter and Alan aimed leftward and slowly escaped from the confusion of dead trees, heading back toward the middle of the Saco. Skeeter was absorbed by the paddling and by the flow of the river. So was Alan. The current of the river pushed them forward.
High noon, and they stopped for lunch. They saw a beach, paddled toward it, catapulted out, pulled their canoe out of the water and onto the sand, sat down, opened their backpacks, took out their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and devoured them. Skeeter ate silently and stared ahead with eyes that were impenetrable. Something was troubling her, and Alan thought he knew what it was. “Still bothering you, isn’t it?” he said.
She nodded. She was a good baseball player—had overcome all the odds to win a spot on Framingham’s traveling all-star team. It was fun—she’d played in games throughout eastern Massachusetts, from Cape Cod to Hopkinton. The other night, Framingham was losing by one run going into the ninth inning. She came up with a runner on second and two outs—the classic situation that every baseball-playing kid dreams about. She swung at the first pitch and sent a fly ball deep, deep, deep–but not deep enough. The ball nestled into the left fielder’s glove.
Now, as they sat on the sand and digested their lunch, she murmured, “Yeah, it was tough. I let them down.”
Alan wanted to scream, “You did the best you could!” He did not scream, though. In fact, he said nothing. His gaze fell once more upon the Saco. The sun sparkled and danced upon the water, transforming the river’s surface into crystals, breathtaking in their brilliance. The river flowed incessantly by them, unifying all that stood before them: the beach upon which they were sitting, the distant banks, the woodland on the far side of the river.
“It was a tough break,” Alan said. “You almost hit the ball out of there.”
He thought of every cliché in the books—when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Take ‘em one day at a time. He rejected them all. He looked at her. She looked glum.
“Skeeter,” he finally said, “even Ted Williams, who had a lifetime average of .345, failed two out of three times.”
“That’s true,” she murmured.
“Listen,” he said, working against his instinct to protect his own secrets from her. “I worked on a couple of books that were just dogs. I mean, they just turned out . . . shitty.” She laughed at his unaccustomed profanity. “They just really sucked.” She laughed again. “You learn from it and move on.”
They threw the wraps for their sandwiches into their backpacks, got up, dusted the sand off ourselves, and nestled the canoe back into the river. Soon after, they paddled too close to a sand bar and ran aground. “Damn!” Alan muttered. The persistent pressure of the river turned the canoe sideways. They cantilevered out of the canoe and onto the sand bar. Without saying a word, they knew what they had to do to remedy this catastrophe. They worked together to turn the canoe and dislodge it from the bar. The canoe started to move, and they jumped back in and started to paddle.
He watched Skeeter, and she deftly dipped the paddle into the water, brought the paddle back smoothly, adjusted to the currents in the river, steered them away from more sand bars, occasionally looked to the bank of the Saco to point out a deer or a woodpecker, dipped a hand in the water and brought her hand up to cool her warm brow, and spied a fish and identified it correctly as a bass. Alan watched her, transfixed.
In unison with Skeeter, Alan began to paddle more smoothly and efficiently than he had at the beginning of their journey. He felt stronger, felt a velvet synchronicity with the rhythm of the Saco. They paddled together and observed the currents of the river and adjusted to them. He found himself reading the river without having to think or analyze, as if part of him now flowed with the river and understood where it was guiding him.
Finally he was feeling at one with the river—at one with the paddle. He stroked intuitively. He read the currents, which ranged from gentle to swirling. He leaned over the water as he paddled and felt the water beckoning to him. He felt consumed by the ripples and flows of the sleek and sensual river. Skeeter paddled on one side, and he on the other. They knew without thinking when to change sides paddling to keep the canoe steering straight ahead. Gentle ripples rocked the canoe, and he felt the sway of the canoe in his bones. The river was alive—he could feel that now. It embraced them, guided them, led them.
They reached a stretch where the river deepened, and they could no longer see the bottom. Here the river kept her secrets, and Alan suddenly felt an urge to dive from the canoe and into the river—to dive deep into the river, to delve into her mysteries, her secrets—the mysteries that lay at the heart of this magnificent river. He imagined himself swimming down, down, the darkness thickening as he swam deep and searched for something hidden far below the surface of the river, something beyond understanding that he felt sure was concealed in the depths of the river. But then he felt a fear as he followed his imagination deeper and deeper into the river. What if there was nothing? What if that was the secret at the heart of the river? The fear froze him—the fear that there would be nothing at the heart of the river. He looked up, shook his head to free himself of this black daydream, and he looked at the river with a new sadness that nearly overwhelmed him. He struggled to regain his stroke with Skeeter—with this intuitive daughter of his, who continued following the curves and currents of the surface of the river, and after a few strokes, he was back in unison with her, and they propelled themselves powerfully forward, father and daughter, not talking yet in harmony in their progress through the river.
They concluded their journey, reaching the point above Swan’s Falls where the outfitters would pick them up. They hopped out of the canoe, and once again he felt the cold water against his feet, ankles, and shins. They pulled the canoe onto the beach and lay down in the grass to await the arrival of the outfitter. They lay on the grass and stared up at the infinite blue sky and into the universe, and they lost themselves beyond time. The feeling surrounded Alan like a halo—the river and the grass and the willow tree that stood a little behind them with its elegant sharp leaves leaning toward the earth, and the sky that was a gateway to heaven, and the poplar and ash trees that ennobled the woods just a short distance away, and the ant that tickled his bare toe. This—this was the something that he had felt so briefly during his reverie deep into the river. Yes, there was something—right here. He stared up at the neverending sky, which yawned like a gigantic tent that sheltered them. He heard Skeeter’s regular breathing. They waited, together. The Saco River murmured as it streamed past them and flowed toward its destination in the great ocean.