Sunday afternoon, a day of muggy heat and distant clouds, building and rising, and a chance, hours off, of storm. We turned our backs on work that should be done; it would wait, tasks and “To Do” lists, they can always wait. We loaded canoes, stowed paddles and PFDs, drove the dark blacktop to the landing. Made ready to paddle.
Sally’s canoe is a wisp of a boat, built of a dark lamination and on the water it floats like a raven’s feather. A touch of irony: The near-black canoe is named Trillium; the pure white flower of spring. My canoe, longer and sleek, muted yellow-green tint of Kevlar; named Magic.
We put boats to water, pushed off, paddled against the light current, the breeze at our backs. Paddles rose and fell in an easy rhythm like a metronome marking the song of our paddles, measuring the pulse of the effort.
To our left the land rose steep to a ridge and on the ridge were trees, thick and green; underneath them, dark shadows. High above the ridge clouds lifted up, white and not-white, transition clouds moving to gray, building and towering. Below, in the valley of the river, we could see very little of the cloud; the horizon was closed down by the lift of jagged tree line and most all we could see was overhead. The sun was yielding to the cloud, giving ground in the battle of light against shadow.
Eagle flew overhead, wings strong, flight direct. Mergansers and wood ducks lifted from the shallows, high tempo wing beat in the heavy air weighted by humidity. The trailing breeze rose and dropped, uncertain in purpose. It was a pleasant afternoon to paddle.
We paddled upstream for half an hour, maybe 45 minutes; time was not important on this day. Then we drifted, paddles spanning the rails of the canoes, decided to turn back.
The clouds now owned the sky, layers of gray built up as washes of watercolor paints on paper; a light wash of gray, another, one more and again until the thin layers accumulated to heavy and dark and, all of a sudden, slightly ominous. In the distance a roll of thunder, faint, indistinct. Or was it truck, rolling on the highway, rumbling and groaning, too distant to describe with certainty?
We paddled into the breeze, gentle enough not to be a hindrance.
The sun was now gone to cloud and cloud going to darkness. Now the sound of thunder is coming on, unmistakable. The roll of distant thunder bears a comfort in the warning it gives; far off thunder gives notice of intent, one has time to prepare. The rumble of thunder closing in is a different story altogether; a warning of impending storm.
The metronome of our paddle song lifted, quicker turnover, higher tempo, upbeat rhythm. The canoes lifted and moved as birds on the wind.
We paddled with a sense of purpose now, edging toward urgency. No time to dawdle; there was storm rising, unseen to the west, unseen for us in the valley of the river where the trees angled to the sky and we could not see to the horizon from where the power and the storm gathered and advanced toward us.
Thunder; closer now, a fundamental sound carried in the roll of thunder. There are few sounds in nature more evocative than thunder, there at the dawning of time; there, likely at the end.
Behind us, upriver toward Rhinelander, fist-shaped clouds rose one atop the other. Downriver, to the landing, the sky was a mottled study of gray, dark and not-so-dark gray, layered and jumbled but gray, all gray and darkening and filled with the threat – no, with the promise now of storm.
Thunder again, the percussive backbeat of power and storm, sounding as the sound of rock tumbling and crashing, of avalanche, of landslide, of power and fury.
The landing was just ahead, around the corner. A few minutes more.
There came a stillness. The water went flat. We had 300 yards to paddle.
A lightning bolt hit on the other side of the ridge; a cannon shot of thunder at nearly the same instant: Flash! Bang! Thunder cracked like a vault door slammed shut, the sound of finality. The tree tops were in sudden turmoil of twisting and swaying, wildly tossed like wild swans in a mad rush to take flight, an explosion of wildness and fury, chaos and confusion and through it all the demon’s roar of wind that matched the wild beast of your worst nightmare.
The wind hit us like a collision and the canoes were suddenly out of control as if spinning on ice, pushed toward shore, the paddle near torn from my hands. Then rain, torrents of it, sheets of it, heavy and strong, falling straight down as curtain falls, a steel curtain, gray-white and slashing down.
We were pushed to shore, canoes now flotsam, powerless to the storm. Canoes ran aground. We left them, ran for shelter under an old white pine. The storm raged. It was dark as sundown.
I cannot say how long it lasted, cannot guess at the term of the storm’s anger. But in time it passed, the sky lightened and the sound of the storm was gone. With it, the rain and wind.
I walked to the canoe, to the Magic; paddled the three minutes to the landing. So close.
Suddenly very tired, I leaned on my paddle. To the west, a glimmer of sun. To the east, black of the storm was moving away, a lumbering beast taking leave. Arched across the sky, vivid color against the dark clouds a long arching rainbow.