I have said good-bye to Settlement Canyon and my seven-mile mountain bike ride. I knew every rock and root of the Dark Trail, every low tree limb and snagging wild rose. How I loved that trail. I rode that trail with Hannah and my sons Brian, John, Caleb, and Hyrum during the exile years. I have ridden in snow and mud and scorching heat. I have ridden past meadows of sego lily, taper tip onion, and glacier lily. I have ridden with pronking deer and flustered turkey and migrating tarantulas. And there was that day I startled a merlin with its taloned prey still dripping blood. The Dell in Sandy is close to my new home, but its deep sand sucks at my tires and the river cobbles buck me off. Dad used to run in the Dell, a nature area with deep sandy ravines and a small stream. He knew well a family of red fox, which he adored and once fed with rotisserie chickens from Smith’s. He also rode for miles and years on the 50-mile Jordan River Parkway, as have I, catching frequent glimpses of the slow river with its great blue herons and its beavers. But today I gathered my courage to explore, and ventured into Corner Canyon, an area of steep gambel oak gullies in the Wasatch foothills. The Draper Cycle Park proved an excellent place to warm up, with its short training flow trails and pump trails. Then I rode three miles up the Corner Canyon trail. Having thus relished two delightful hours, I flew down a blue-level flow trail named “Limelight,” the last 2.5 miles of the Rush trail—very fast, moguled, banked, and flowing (all the more fun for the names of the song and the band). I felt very happy as I drove home, hosed off and stowed the bike, and greeted Mom and Dad. “Tell me all about it,” Mom enthused, having worried the whole morning that I would crash (again) and hurt myself (again). “I’m done going crazy fast and drifting and jumping,” I reassured her. But it was impossible not to enjoy the speed.
Learning to Speak Goose
Kayaking for the two-dozenth time on the same stretch of the Jordan River, a natural phenomenon new to me showed itself as I paddled along upstream. The river is full of such surprises, which it gives me the honor of witnessing, a few at a time, so as not to overwhelm my feelings of wonder, and not to dull my sense of the miraculous. A gander, a Canada Goose, led a small pre-fledged gaggle of goslings upriver, the mama goose in the place of caboose. I approached them carefully, paddling slowly against the current, to say hello. And they responded by gathering speed and flicking their beaked heads nervously this way and that. Though of course I had no intention of hurting them or frightening them, or even teasing them, nature dictated that they fear me. And rightly so, for I am sure I seemed to them a giant malevolent alien goose-hunting weapon-wielding creature, easily capable of ending their lives. The gander knew I was gliding faster than he could ever swim, and abandoned his effort to outpace me. Switching strategies, he prepared for flight—a smart plan, with a good chance of success, since he could fly infinitely faster and higher than I could fly, though I wondered about his abandonment. But he could not seem to launch, instead flapping his wings loudly and frantically on the water, as if hurt.
That Mr. Gander sure tricked me. He fooled me good. His antics made focusing on him irresistible. Finally yanking my attention away from the frantic papa goose, I looked back to the mama goose and goslings to see how they fared, but saw only fading ripples. They were gone, disappeared, and did not reappear while I sat and drifted, befuddled. Resuming my upstream slog, I almost failed to notice the same number of goslings of the same age and fuzziness ensconced safely behind a leafy branch hanging low over the bank, some one hundred feet from the dive: clearly the same goslings who gave me the slip while I focused on the feigning father. That gander had drawn my whole attention to him, for the sake and safety of his little ones, his progeny, and his mated partner. I had failed to understand that by slapping his wings on the water he was signaling his objection to my invasion of family space, and warning me to keep away. I had ignored his clear Goose-speak (I really need to learn Goose), and he had water-slapped away, not abandoning his family (of course), but protecting his family. I will keep my distance next time the wings beat on the water, and respect the family space. The Jordan is goose home, after all, and I am just a curious occasional uninformed rather rudely interloping human, who doesn’t know the language.
(The Jordan River, named by 1840s Mormon pioneers fleeing to Utah from religious persecution in the frontier United States, flows north from the freshwater Utah Lake into the vast fishless Great Salt Lake, reminding the refugees of the homeland of their God Jesus.)
Jordan River Cantor
Tonight I kayaked on the Jordan hoping to see a beaver, for lately I have noticed bits of beaver sign, like newly-gnawed box elder bark, and willow stems sheered with a single toothy slice. Porter’s Landing offers a rubber launching mat, a picnic table pavilion, and a merciful portable toilet: I put in there. I paddled hard upstream, tense and anxious for wanting to arrive, to see a beaver. But I regrouped and reminded: when I want to see wildlife, I must release my need to see wildlife. One cannot ever coerce an encounter: one must allow to happen whatever wishes to happen. Soon I settled into a smooth rhythmic stride.
Garish orange-black orioles chittered at me from the treetops. Goldfinch on an eye-level branch watched me paddle by. Great blue heron glided slowly in, dangling long gangly landing gear. Cormorant, oil-black, rounded a bend low over the river then veered sharply away. Kingfisher kept a hundred feet upstream, scolding with each irritated launch. Canada Goose parents with six fuzzy new goslings paddled single file, an adult fore and aft. Wild iris sprouted in clumps near the bank boasting delicate butter-cream flowers. The river was calm and beautiful and slack and dark as the sun began to sink.
One hour upstream would see me back just before dark. And at that one-hour mark a willow switch swam slowly against the current and stopped at a grass-hidden bank. I glided slowly by, and there sat a beaver, upright on her haunches in the shallows munching. A beaver! Alive and real and close and wondrous – two famous enormous buck teeth, long tawny whiskers, tiny black-bead eyes, little round ears, rust-red fingers holding the branch just like I would hold a branch. She chewed quickly and loudly and contentedly, completely unaware of my ogling. But when she heard me she straightened and turned slowly and dove, nonchalant, and as she dove she raised her tail lazily and slapped the water with a cross crack.
My encounter with the beaver felt beautiful and personal and honorific and close. I will take Hannah tomorrow. We will ride our bicycles on the riverside trail, and I will show her where I saw the beaver. We will sit on the trail above the bank and munch our sandwiches and whisper to each other until she comes.
I hope to see you soon. Love always,
One Night in Maine
Don’t snap it.
Sweep a smooth long figure 8 and gently lay down the leader.
Your mayfly will hover then rest on the water, the last of the length to touch.
If you snap, you will break your knot and lose your fly.
Imagine 600 feet per second.
That’s it. That’s better.
Lakeside grass is smashed here where bear sat munching meager blueberries in morning’s mist.
You may pick a few for tomorrow’s pancakes, but leave the rest for our friend.
The lake glows burning amber with the sun behind the pines, our water glowing and still, and mayflies dance and bob, and aquatic creatures leap and slap and leap and slap.
A silhouetted loon swims low in a patch of smoldering amber and sings the saddest haunting song laced with hues of joy and reconciliation.
They Fell from the Sky
Hundreds of them. Eared Grebes. The birds precipitated from inside crystalline clouds where the sunlight flashed in an infinity of ice atoms swirling and refracting in a frozen explosion of brilliance, as if the sun raged coldly right there inside the clouds. The birds became utterly hopelessly disoriented in the icy intensity, blind, not knowing up from down. Hundreds of grebes dropped from the mists to bounce into buildings, cars, trees, yards, and parking lots. And there she stood, unmoving, in my parking space, her olive-brown feet stuck frozen to the ice. My office key made a crude chisel for chopping around her toes – they bled and flaked skin already. I wrapped her in my coat and sat her in a box by my desk, with cracker crumbs and a bowl of water.
The children begged to open the box and see what was scratching inside, and exhaled exclamations of wonder when they saw. What IS it? She’s an Eared Grebe. Look at her pointy black beak, her long flaring golden feathers that look like ears, and her crimson eyes. Do you know what you call a group of grebes? A Water Dance! Can’t you just picture the family flapping and paddling and splashing their delighted dance on the lake?
What are we going to do with her? Can we fill the bath tub? Our grebe paddled around with obvious enthusiasm. What are we going to feed her? How about fish! Tub-side with a bag of goldfish, the children clamored for the privilege of feeding their bird. Our compromise: eight hands held the bloated bag and poured. She darted after the fish in a flash of black and gold and red, a little paddling package of magnificence. Look at her feet – no webbing. Look at how her toes unhinge with little retractable paddles. Wow! came in whispers.
That needling question of what to do with the bird in the bathtub? We would try a nearby pond, and hope for the best. The children watched her swim away and they looked sad and happy and I sensed how singular a blessing to have welcomed that bit of living feathered grace into our human home, to release her willfully, to be moved by her wildness and beauty. And I hoped a small sliver of that exquisiteness would stay behind in memories of hinged toes and golden ears and red red eyes, and of creatures that dance on the water.
This was his modus operandi:
arriving at a mountain lake and settling the family with picnic baskets and chairs and tackle boxes and poles, our father walked the perimeter, heading off on a trail if there was a trail, through bushes and over-and-around tree trunks if there wasn’t, to scout the best fishing and to gather perspective of lake and forest and meadow and bog and picnicking family from every vantage point to find what he could find. He looked small on the opposite shore Continue reading
Merlins and Holy Ground
Dark Trail earned its name for the tree canopy that shades and darkens its travelers. Gambel oaks. Mountain maples. Box Elders. Orange lichen clothes their trunks as they arc over the path. I ride a round-trip seven. The higher I go, the prettier the canyon, campsites yielding to firs and aspen groves and snow pockets still in June. On Independence Day I launched from a mogul Continue reading
Exploring High Uinta mountain lakes and trails is a favorite family pastime. While the children fish and kayak, I enjoy walking around the lake. Teapot Lake is just my size: not so big I feel it might swallow me up, but small and friendly and pretty, and more than a puddle. I walk around its banks in 20 minutes, despite the north shore trail still being snow-bound in July. Hundreds of frogs croak in swampy bogs. An old boardwalk guides directs the trail across snow melt draining into the lake. Tiny white flowers proliferate.
the boardwalk beckons
a sign of humanity
in my wilderness of fears
easing my way
on the swampy trail
lily pad pools flanking
yellow stars in the green
invisible frogs creaking
a hundred rust-hinged doors
and always the wind
across the lake
Roger is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road. The book tells the true life story of an obscure farm road and its power to transform the human spirit. The book is available in print and for Kindle at Amazon. See Rabbit Lane reviewed in Words and Pictures.