A Canoe Trip Down the Yellowstone River
The only vestige of Sawyer’s toddler struggle with angst are rare moments of sputtering frustration with his older brother, when Eli pushes Sawyer’s buttons as only an older brother can. As Sawyer loses it with Eli, the bad memories creep back onto my mental stage. Parenthood, on some fundamental level, is a long skate across thin ice. We ignore it most of the time, but the potential to break through lurks at the edges, always.
This young man, my son, is unequivocally still a kid, perhaps the goofiest in the batch. Near one of our camps more than 500 miles into the trip, outside of Sidney, Montana, Sawyer finds a mud wallow. He drops his clothes in a pile, wades in, sits down, wriggles around until he is glistening gray to his neck. Before long Ruby joins him, then Marypat. They roll around in the mudbath together, naked, then walk single file, a row of Claymation creatures, to wash off in the river.
Sawyer is also a pure and strong paddler, as good a partner as any adult. He has the kind of stroke that comes from messing around with canoe paddles since he could walk—efficient, seamless, unpretentious, economical, graceful. I can’t take credit for it, other than putting a paddle in his hands and taking him on the river, but it is a point of deep pride.
When he’s in the bow of my boat, I drop into his rhythm. Our blades strike the surface together, the canoe sings through the water. I watch his back, play off his moves. For long periods we say nothing, simply react to the boat and the river and each other. It is like dancing. No. It is dancing.
Back upriver, late on Day 3, as we walk away from the ceremonial circle, a shadow glides over us. We all stop and look up. There, less than 20 feet overhead, flies a mature bald eagle. Its wings are set, six feet across. The white head is cocked. A yellow eye stares down at us. The eagle flies directly over the circle drawn in the sand, and over us, then glides upriver.
Now, you could read too much into a thing like that. You could make it more portentous than necessary. But it would be worse not to make enough of it.
“That was cool,” Sawyer says, watching the eagle diminish in the fading day.
This story originally ran in the November-December 2007 issue as "Proud Passage."