A Canoe Trip Down the Yellowstone River
First we take a stick of driftwood and draw a circle in the sand, large enough for all five of us to stand easily inside, with Sawyer, 13, in the center. Each of us takes a compass direction, in stationary orbit, family style, around him. I stand to the north, barefoot, and hold a stone in my hand. It represents earth. Ruby, 11, takes the east. She has a feather, representing air. Eli, 14, to the south, holds a candle to signify fire or sun. Marypat, standing west, cradles a small bottle of water.
Day 3 on the Yellowstone River, 85 water miles already in our wake. Sawyer’s birth river. The first time we ran the entire rivercourse, in July of 1992, he was a fetal bud, barely a month along, burgeoning in Marypat’s womb. Now he is 13, and this 20-day, 550-mile journey from the edge of Yellowstone Park to the confluence with the Missouri River is in his honor, marking a transition out of childhood into something else that remains a bit vague.
The current rumbles past, cold, humped up in silty waves. In early July the river is high with mountain snowmelt, thick with sediment. In the distance, cars and trucks go past on Interstate 90. The Yellowstone River is like that, running the gauntlet of civilization its entire length across Montana.
Yet on the river, in camps or paddling in canoes, all of that falls away. It is a world of muscular filaments of water, of perching bald eagles and beaver burrows, of gravel bars strewn with agates and petrified wood. River Time takes hold, that metronome keeping beat to storms and camps and fires and the pulse of current. The cars going past are a movie set, through the looking glass, another dimension entirely.
Standing in the warm, fine sand, looking at my second child, this lean, humorous, bighearted boy, I remember rubbing his small back one bad day when he was perhaps three. We were in his room, where he had stormed, slamming the door.
He was, as a young boy, subject to periodic, alarming bouts of inconsolability. They would erupt out of the blue so far as we could tell. In them, it was as if he’d been possessed, or as if he was in the grasp of unfathomable anguish, some psychic pain. In the middle of Thanksgiving dinner with relatives, after playing with other kids, for no apparent reason—unpredictable, terrifying episodes.
We tried everything we could think of. There was no pattern to it. We consulted doctors, applied homeopathic tinctures, had spinal adjustments, played soothing music, held him tight, walked with him outside. Once we went to one of those aura readers, who interpreted his energy while holding the arm of a human medium who was, in turn, laying hands on Sawyer. They applied some mystical adjustments. That’s how desperate we got.
When I forced my way into his room that time, he had thrown himself down on his small bed, lay there rigid, with his head turned away. I had no idea what to do, so I began massaging his back. He was hot and tight. I said nothing, could think of nothing, just kneaded with my hands. And I remember, after a few minutes, the palpable release of tension. How it seemed as if whatever dark energy inhabited him steamed off and away like poisonous smoke, how his body relaxed, went limp, how thankful I was. How I wanted, then, to cry.
The four of us focus on Sawyer, the sun of this little solar system. He wears shorts and a T-shirt. He has the build of a cross-country runner, weighs in at just over 100 pounds. His arms are relaxed at his side. He looks back at us, smiling sheepishly.
We are not churchgoers—have no communion or bar mitzvah or mission to mark Sawyer’s passage. More accurately, these trips, these intersections with the forces of nature, along with our family devotion to adventurous immersions, serve as church, as close to religion as we get. Whatever ritual there is, we contrive, and this is no exception.
“By the earth that is her body,” I begin, feeling the rough weight of stone in my hand.
“By the air that is her breath,” Ruby says. The feather stirs in the breeze.
“By the fire that is her bright spirit,” Eli intones, shielding the flame of his candle.
“By the waters of her living womb,” Marypat says.
“The circle is cast,” we chorus together.
Perhaps out of his childhood battle with anguish, perhaps purely by virtue of his makeup, Sawyer possesses the power of consolation and empathy. When the daughter of some good friends went through a period marked by tantrums, Sawyer was the only one who could bring her back.
“Sawyer, go see if you can help Lizzie,” we’d say, and often as not, he would bring her out of her funk.
He also has a history as an animal “whisperer.” Once he walked into a yard and picked up a pigeon. He didn’t chase after it, just bent over and picked it up. Another time, in Mexico, when he was six, he disappeared into some trees and emerged hugging a wild turkey to his chest. The bird was half Sawyer’s size and utterly calm.
Who knows where this stuff comes from.
Sawyer is the kid, most often, who tries things first. “Sawyer, you go,” his siblings will say, at the brink of some iffy enterprise. It is not a healthy tendency, and Sawyer has the legacy of chipped teeth, cracked bones, stitches, and puncture wounds to prove it. On one river trip, he fell out of a tree, landing on a stick that pierced his neck.
But he’s game—the one who will take on the new sport, embrace the next adventure, step into the frontier. When we broach the possibility of spending a year in a foreign country, Ruby and Eli groan, but Sawyer would pack up tomorrow.
When we began this series of coming-of-age expeditions, it was as much an excuse for adventures as any thought-out program of adolescent transition—our version of Walkabout. It just so happens that each child was in the womb on a major river trip. It seemed a circumstance to take note of.
Besides, what are the alternatives? What serves in our culture? Getting a driver’s license, being able to buy a beer, joining the military, leaving home, the fretful cruising of main streets and malls? I can’t claim that anything particularly momentous or definable happens on our trips in terms of leaping from childhood to adulthood. It is simply a recognition, and a nod of homage to this individual and to Mother Earth.
But then, these journeys are an engagement with something larger and significant—having to do with overcoming adversity, taking responsibility, doing your share, learning skills, building fires, keeping the canoe straight, reading water, being a solid partner, finding bits of amazement lying around everywhere. In that way there is no question that it serves.
Today each of us places our symbolic item at our feet, inside the circle. Ruby plants the feather upright in the sand, Eli sets the candle down, Marypat pours her water, I drop my rock. Marypat steps forward and presents Sawyer with a silver bracelet we had engraved. It is a simple band, decorated in a wave pattern. On the inside it says Sawyer Kesselheim—Yellowstone River ’06. He slips it onto his thin, brown wrist. It gleams in the sun. Marypat kisses her boy, holds his face in her hands, looks him in the eye. He is several inches taller than she is.
It comes to me, watching them, that this business is as much about us coming to grips with transition as it is about Sawyer’s evolution. We have to acknowledge our son for who he is, who he is busy becoming, growing inexorably away from us. As much as we accepted him as our child, held him and nourished him as our baby, the product of our marriage, it is now our challenge to appreciate his singularity and let him be—someone undeniably of us, but also irrefutably his own.
Easy enough to say. Almost cliché. Hard to do.
Sawyer could do worse than the Yellowstone for his birth river. It is water that has seen some life, experienced hardship, asserted its place. Riding along it, we sense, through the hulls of our boats and up the shafts of our paddles, both fatigue and fortitude in the currents. We sense, as well, that it will outlast us.
The Yellowstone River is an apt metaphor for the trials and triumphs of life. It endures the onslaught of civilization. It is sucked off into irrigation canals at diversion dams, sullied by runoff and treated sewage, used to lubricate sugar beet plants, oil refineries, and power plants, and tapped to provide municipal drinking water. Its banks have been riprapped and leveed to combat flooding and to control the meandering that is a river’s natural tendency. Six major diversion dams punctuate the channel between Billings and where it meets the Missouri.
Yet the Yellowstone is astonishingly resilient. In spite of the demands and restrictions, it operates largely as a river should. It floods, sometimes with awesome force. It moves islands, piles up driftwood, erodes banks in whopping chunks, distributes cottonwood seeds, escapes its banks.
There are cattle on the floodplain, and sometimes in the river. Herds of sheep graze nearby. But there, too, thriving and adapting, are the flocks of terns, a startling number of bald eagles, deer flashing off into the willows, white pelicans clustered on the downstream ends of gravel bars, trout rising, rattlesnakes swimming the flow.
There is something delicious about slipping through the vise of civilization, just off the radar. The river skirts the edges of Columbus, Laurel, Billings, Miles City. We camp each night on sand islands and gravel bars. We cook on driftwood fires. In three weeks we don’t ever use the stove.
We swim many times each day. The kids plummet, arms stretched overhead, to see if they can touch bottom. There are long stretches where they can’t. For hours we drift along, moving at the whim of gravity, reading out loud, retelling family stories, hatching plans. The dome of sky arcs overhead, whispering with clouds. Pastel landscapes reel up before us. The river eases us along in 25-mile daily chunks. Never once do we encounter anyone else camping.
Now all of us move in toward Sawyer. His family surrounds him, closing into an embrace. Arms, warm skin, faces, the eyes we share; it converges into a messy, sensuous knot of limbs and smiles. Nothing is said. What could you say? The sun is warm. The sand soothes our feet. The river roils past.
“Let’s go swim the rapids,” Sawyer says.
The embrace breaks. We step out of the circle, leaving our offerings and the ephemeral marks of ceremony. This evening’s wave-train thrill ride beckons. None of us is old enough to resist. In fact, our habit is to locate campsites near a section of fast water and big waves. Many twilights are spent indulging this version of wilderness amusement park ride through rapids.
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."