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Shoulder Season At Home

Jan 17, 2016
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My house was built a number of years ago, like 152 years ago, and sometimes it feels like it’s falling down around me, like it’s finally moved somehow into the autumn of its existence. I’ve got two hundred projects I’m not doing, and I’m really not one for yard work or gutter maintenance, which doesn’t bode well for clapboard siding and hidden gutters and grassy lots with big maples. I should care more than I do, but the older I get the less I care. Not that I’m old, but something must be horribly wrong with me: investments and shit. I keep thinking the next season will be the one. Next season.

But we’ve got the mighty James River, one of the great Virginia Rivers, a river with deep historic import, flowing majestic and serene some half mile away from the house, at the bottom of the hill. Every direction you turn in Lynchburg you’re looking either uphill or down. But the James River, being one of Virginia’s great rivers, is polluted and dirty—getting better, yes, but polluted and dirty—and if I’m working on rolling or dunking my head, I wear nose plugs, ear plugs, goggles. Most of the time when I paddle downtown I work on my forward stroke and try not to flip the boat over. But it’s kind of nice to know I can walk my boat four or five city blocks, drop it in the river, and paddle 152 some odd miles to Richmond, another Virginia City with some great historic import. Earlier this spring when the Virginias were trapped under this weird vortex of rain and storm, a fellow paddler from town hopped on the river one Friday, paddled to Richmond, and made it back for work on Monday morning.

The office from which I work is one mile from where I live and the bar I frequent is a couple blocks from the house, overlooking the river. El Jefe is mostly a tequila bar built out of a long brick automotive garage, and while I’m not necessarily a fan of tequila, they keep a couple good beers on tap and in the shoulder seasons—autumn and spring—they throw the front doors open to the air and serve pints of seasonal IPA for three bucks. Autumn can be a special time in the Virginias, with the colors reflecting colors off things, cooler temperatures, promise of wet weather.

I often sneak down to the river during lunch and make a quick lap around the lower section of Daniel’s Island. It gives me an upstream paddle on the island’s narrow river right side, Griffin Pipe on my left, to the old Scott’s Mill Dam and then a downstream float riding the current from the dam back to the boat ramp for a loop of about one mile. Men sit in the shade below the dam and fish, drinking Icehouse and smoking cigarettes. Some of them fish for dinner. Sometimes they wave or nod, but mostly they just stare across the water until I look away. There’s a sandy beach on the riverside of the island where roughnecks from across the tracks like to set up camp and drink beer. During the winter, the river is mostly empty. During the summer, if the river has any water, I’ll leave work in the late afternoon and paddle ten miles down to Joshua Falls Boat Ramp and catch a ride with my wife when she gets off work. It’s mostly quiet water but the river glides over rocks and the banks are lined with leaning Sycamore and River Birch and Maple and once you drop below the city and water treatment plant, you paddle through hills and pasture and enter the general good natured quality of Central Virginia’s Piedmont. A pair of bald eagles often hunts the river below the city, and they’ll watch you warily as you float by.

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Of course the time change messes with my equilibrium, and it takes me a few weeks to adjust balance. I feel jet lagged for a while. Sunday I struck out for Joshua Falls around two o’clock, after performing a rare sweep of the yard with the lawn mower to blow some leaves around. Then I spent a little too much time goofing off in the low head dam beside the old Foundry. Then I spent a little more time working on what kayakers call a back “deck” roll off Buzzard’s Beach (which I don’t think is ever really going to work in a canoe, and, in fact, I may rip my arms off). And then I realized as I got to Six-Mile Island that the water was really low and I was moving rather slowly and the sun was already setting behind the hills. So but then it was going to be dark around five and it sort of struck me that summer is officially over. The time had come to let summer go. My toes got cold.

So but then today the weather is cold enough for a jacket and this morning I could see my breath. All of which are okay. I mean, I enjoy the cold, enjoy paddling in the cold, but there is something special about paddling in warm weather, paddling till nine o’clock in the evening wearing naught but a pair of shorts and flip flops, warm under a full moon, gliding away from the town where you live and the men smoking on the river banks waiting on catfish, making small fires to warm their beans, knowing your wife of some twenty-five years will be picking you up at the other end of the line, happy to see you, and you her, as if there were something of eternal value in the simple routines, the comings and goings, the sliding sideways on the water, the day to day pleasures of life in the physical world, which of course we all imagine there to be.

And then I’ll get all adjusted to this ridiculous and arbitrary turning of the clock and I’ll remember that here in the east, here in the Virginias, we paddle all year. There is no off-season, not really. And I’ll 303 the gaskets on the drysuit and pull out the skull cap and the pogies and get on the river earlier and the colors on the hills will turn brown and the leaves will drop and the draws and ridges will show through the branches and the waters will follow, returning to the creeks and rivers, finally, after a span of time that feels shorter every year, the span of time till the next season, and the next.

It was one of those shoulder season days in November.
Oct 16, 2016
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Bancroft, Ontario, SE Algonquin
Nice piece of writing, Uncle Skwid... I've never spent any long periods of time on the US east coast so walking a mile in your shoes, or paddling several in your canoe, makes for some great reading.