The Genesee, my first river, was shallow but strong willed at Kishketuck, not many miles above a series of plunges into Letchworth gorge. Once Charlie had to shout awake a placid boatload riding the flow toward the “Grand Canyon of the East.” But the current was manageable, if you paid attention and the water wasn’t too high, like it must have been the day it gouged out half of Otis Smith Road south of Charlie’s unassuming cabin— “Kishketuck House”—meaning in some unspecified indigenous language “house by the river.”
From Fillmore, the dirt road named for Smith—no one seemed to know who he was—wound along the Genesee, then clambered over a hill and down past Charlie’s brother’s place and, later, the modern-day homestead where Don Outterson raised his varnished walls, threatened Thoreau-like to catch and eat the neighborhood woodchuck, and concocted his elaborate homebrews, snaking hops up power poles, mixing in mayapple for “mandrake mead.” A wooded ridge—hickory, maple, beech—the haunt of grouse and whitetails, maybe a fisher or two, backed off the valley floor, rising steadily behind the makeshift settlement. Across the river, sycamores screened a cornfield. The bottomland farms were small enough to be unobtrusive, though once in a while the river’s voice had to compete with the putt and clang of an unseen tractor or the whine of a distant chainsaw.
On moonlit winter nights, my friends and I hiked through snow to ridgetop railroad tracks, and sometimes on summer weekends we scrambled up tributary waterfalls or just sprawled like Ozark postcard hillbillies in front of the house, watching things happen on the river, an osprey drifting by, say, or swallows of various species zipping back and forth, or someone getting sunburned in a rowboat to the subliminal music of toads. On early summer evenings, mayflies whirled in eddies at the surface as the blue opposite the sunset deepened. Then nighthawks spun patterns here and there across the water, a silent net broken only by their occasional Tuvan buzz.
The same Genesee pawed into Rochester, my hometown, as a heavy trunk stream, passing squatters’ cabins at the Ballantine Bridge, then slipping between abandoned mills and dropping through three falls into its second “bonus” gorge, emerging broader, deeper still at its mouth, dredged first for shipping, later for marina traffic. I would zigzag out the Charlotte pier from side to side—now the lake, now the river, finally the foghorn, where the river’s journey ends, or where it joins the bigger, slower drift that tends northeast toward the Saint Lawrence.
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When we spilled out of the tightly twisting valley of Témiscuata or the parallel cleft occupied by Lake Pohenegamook, home to a legendary monster, the Saint Lawrence lowland was sudden and spacious, filled with a diffuse northern light. At Rivière-du-loup, translated as “river of seals” or “the place where The Wolf was wrecked,” the banks had already begun to break apart, the river taking on the nature of la mer. Scraps of sponge and kelp fringed coves, and barnacles marked the waterline of piers, but despite the marine life, the Bas-Saint-Laurent was an inland waterway; there was still another side, the mountainous horizon of the Saguenay.
Tom was in middle school when we lived for a few years in the “crown” of northernmost Maine. Each summer we crossed the New Brunswick Panhandle into La Belle Province and made our way to Rivière-du-loup for whale watching in Quebec’s Saguenay–Saint Lawrence Marine Park. Nervously granting a wide berth to the hundred-car ferry with which it shared harbor space, the intimately small Cavalier des mers would bump across the waves toward the center of the estuary. Sometimes a parasitic jaeger terrorized the gulls accompanying the vessel, or a pair of razorbills buzzed across the bow headed for one of the rocky Pèlerins scattered over the river. It was a lucky cruise that brought a pod of belugas close to the boat. The ship’s naturalist would explain, first in French and then, if necessary, in uncomfortable but efficient English, that whale-watchers were bound ethically and legally not to approach these “sea canaries,” endangered by genetic isolation and chemical pollutants; of course, no human rules could prevent belugas from investigating us. As we drew closer to the Saguenay side, the dunes around Tadoussac gleamed white against indigo Laurentian cliffs. In the deep water the big whales rose—minkes and fins, once in a while, it was said, a blue. When fog lowered we heard them blow, close by, though we couldn’t see the slow rise of their backs, the “footprint” gradually dissipating as if a pool of light oil had been dolloped on the surface.
Despite his susceptibility to seasickness, Tom sometimes went out twice, we adults taking turns ashore with Rita the dog. While Cara and Tom were whale-watching, I’d head downstream a short distance to Cacouna, sanctuary for a contemplative community at le cénacle and apparently for wildlife far from home—a southern snowy egret working a shallow channel, an even more surprising bevy of Old World whooper swans preening in the marshes. Sunsets from the headland at Cacouna were a red blare crossed by sharp silhouettes of eiders and gannets. Belugas sometimes hung near enough to shore that you could see the white spyhumps gradually blacken in the declining light. On an August evening when the Saint Lawrence was already slipping into autumn, I watched a minke surface several times, momentarily following Champlain’s ships west into the continent.
Four hundred miles upstream, the Saint Lawrence is fresh but just as broad, the gouged channel of the Seaway weaving a path through islands— here Canada, there New York State. The archipelago is both spacious and enclosed, big river vistas tucked paradoxically between freshwater skerries, a rock and two trees enough to define an isle. Long before I ever saw Rivière-du-loup, my Rochester friend Dave owned a cottage, complete with Victorian gingerbread flourishes, at Thousand Islands Park. During the 1970s, Abbie Hoffman, on the lam from drug charges, found the islands an ideal out-of-the-way hideout where a stranger was just another tourist and countless waterways led to Canada. One of my friends swore he saw Hoffman, aka Barry Freed, nodding knowingly from a pier. It could be. The islands did harbor secrets. One summer night, spiders quivering in floodlit boathouse corners, a distant song grew into a skiff. When he tied up at the TIP dock, we asked the lone boatman about the tune, which he said was “something we sing around here,” a distinct folk music of the islands.
Aside from solemn tankers and freighters going about their humorless business, most Thousand Islands boats were pleasure craft—old varnishgrained woodies, cabin cruisers. We used red fiberglass canoes, light but broad enough to float relatively stable in the big river, even when rushed by thrill-dispensing speedboats. It was such a canoe that carried me, with Dave and his brother-in-law, to Boldt Castle one October when the fall colors were so high the wooded islands seemed almost inaccessible to normal human sight. The castle was constructed as a Valentine’s Day gift from hotel mogul George Boldt to his wife, Louise, whose sudden death had left the structure unfinished. Heartbroken, Boldt abandoned his summer palace to a tourist-trap future only marginally less tragic than its past, the family’s tale of loss recited countless times each summer for paying customers, including, ironically, wedding parties. That October, the “attraction” closed for the season, we ate leftover chicken while a late phoebe claimed the parapets and the Saint Lawrence swept seaward everything that could no longer fit in the Great Lakes.
© 2017. Reprinted by permission of Oregon State University Press