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Kayak on the Fox River

Fox River Idyll

September 12, 2022  |  Topics: Stories

A sultry sun shines down on the river out of a cloudless sky. Calm, as thick as honey settles over us as my wife, Lynn, and I shove off from the boat landing at Big Bend Village Park. A single car whines softly across the bridge downstream from the landing. We head upstream. Before long the only sounds are the wind in our ears and the dip and dribble of our paddles. I feel conventional wisdom slip away and quotidian time ease its grinding hold. Anxiety melts away.

Kayak setting out from Big Bend Village Park
Setting out from Big Bend Village Park

It takes only one bend in the river for the village—the known world—to disappear behind us. We enter another realm. Cattails and other marsh plants line the riverbanks. The sense of having escaped the gravity of civilization is so immediate and total that, a few minutes later, I am startled to see a mown lawn on the south side of the river through a screen of trees. The single visible house also disappears as soon as we round the next bend, swallowed up altogether by nature.

We push against the gentle tug of the current, paddling at a leisurely pace, pausing frequently to soak up the silence. Dragonflies dart back and forth across the water all around. An iridescent blue damselfly drifts near, lands on my knee. A painted turtle basks on a log near the bank. It raises its spindly head as we approach, plops abruptly into the water. In my mind I hear John Denver singing:

“He was born in the summer of his twenty-seventh year
Coming home to a place he’d never been before
He left yesterday behind him
You might say he was born again
You might say he found a key for every door…”

And I think, well, I’m far beyond my twenty-seventh year and nowhere near the Rockies—but I’ll take the feeling.

A kayaker fishing peacefully
A kayaker fishing in tranquility

We catch up to an angler on large kayak that sprouts fishing gear in all directions. His trolling motor isn’t loud enough to be disturbing. I glance in his direction as we pass, but he keeps his eyes on the line he’s just cast out. If he even notices us he gives no indication of it. The river is wide and we ease on by along the far bank, where we startle three more sunning turtles.

Death intrudes; a listless death in the form of skeletal trees—ash I’m guessing—on both sides of the river. An enormous hawk glares down at us from a barren limb near the water. It takes flight before I can get close enough to discern the kind of hawk. Off to take its death-dealing talons elsewhere. Life and death: it’s what unrefined nature is all about, is it not? At some point the hawk will plummet out of the sky on some unsuspecting prey. Meanwhile, invisible ash-borers devastate whole swaths of forest. It is a relief when, farther along, we come to a healthy-looking woodland on the north shore.

A panorama of dead and living trees
A panorama of dead and living trees

Up ahead in the distance a great blue heron emerges from the shadow of the grassy riverbank, flies away upstream before we can get anywhere near. A similarly surprised and wary muskrat dives to avoid us. More turtles. Every possible floating log, or protruding twig near the surface, it seems, holds a turtle or two or three of various sizes. Then Lynn points to the opposite bank, where a fallen trunk thrusts into the water. As we cautiously slide by, raising no alarm, we count seven turtles in a line.

They're a little hard to spot but at least five turtles perch on the various logs and limbs, and that's after several dropped into the water as I got near.
They’re a little hard to spot but at least five turtles perch on the various logs and limbs, and that’s after several dropped into the water as I got near.

For a long while there is no hint of humankind: grasses, shrubs, trees along the banks as far as we can see underneath the royal dome of an unbroken sky. And our river of hope, leading us forward, toward the horizon, where a line of low clouds appears like a distant mountain range. The voice in my head continues to croon, “Rocky Mountain hiiigh….”

A power line breaks the spell without disturbing the tranquility. A placid sense of civilization steals into the scenery. A couple of farm silos rise beyond the riparian vegetation. Even a small propeller plane buzzing briefly high overhead doesn’t break the mood.

Power line
Power line

Eventually, having reached no destination or climax beyond our total immersion into the serenity of nature, we decide to turn around. Only to discover the sky behind us has been piling up a dramatic cloudscape for our return voyage.

Kayaking into the clouds
Kayaking into the clouds

Thoroughly absorbed, I become one with the somnolent current, which carries us much of the way back. The return is either as uneventful as before—if you count only spectacles and sensational activities—or just as eventful, if you count the quiet entrances and exits of wildlife and the lush loveliness of the scenery. Or simply count the unceasing appearance of turtles!

My spirit soars along with John Denver’s voice as in my mind he belts out, “I know he’d be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly….” Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, although it is truly lovely to see two hawks circling lazily, what I find most magical in the moment are these lowly turtles. About halfway back, no fewer than ten at once perch on a tangle of sticks and semi-submerged limbs.

The true heroes of the story, the turtles herald an important reminder: we don’t need Rocky Mountains to experience the wonder of nature, nor the grandeur of eagles. We just need to travel to a place of serenity inside ourselves and cherish what is right before our eyes. A natural high is here for the taking.

Kayaks passing in peaceful passivity
Kayaks passing in peaceful passivity

We pass the same intrepid fisherman, still studiously making his unhurried way upstream along the north bank. He remains passive to our presence as we float gently by.

Still feeling as though we are deep in an uncharted wilderness, not yet anywhere near Big Bend, we are completely surprised when a golf cart appears on the south bank. Without the cart to alert us, the golf course had been quite hidden from view from our perspective on the water. How often things are not what they seem to be! We take perception for reality—and yet, where is the harm in perceiving wilderness in a place with golf courses, farms, and power lines? The wilderness is as real as it feels. And it is a balm for the soul. The true prize here is the profound sense of peace that accompanied us for the entire journey–the peace of wild things (or places), as Wendell Berry so eloquently put it.

We come into the peace of wild places … resting in the grace of the world, free **

As we turn the last bend, the Village Park is bustling with picnickers. Smoke rises from a grill; snatches of conversation waft over the river. Anglers cast from the riprap-armored shoreline. Two more kayakers are just setting out on their own river of hope. Bon voyage!

Note: The Fox River in this story should not be confused with the more well-known (in WI) one that flows north to empty into Green Bay. This river, dubbed the “Fabulous Fox” by its many admirers, originates in Waukesha County, WI and flows south to its confluence with the Illinois River at Ottawa, IL. For more information go to the Fabulous Fox Water Trail website.

** Adapted from “The Peace of Wild Things,” by Wendell Berry.

Eddee Daniel is a board member of Preserve Our Parks and curator of The Natural Realm.