The best of summer is swimming. Out there in a body of water, limbs loosening and floating somewhere between sky and earth. For a time there is no time, the world stops,
Immersing myself in the waters of Tenàgàdino Zìbì (the Gatineau river) that runs along the end of my street, I remember Michael Ondaatje’s poem “Walking to Bellrock”. It’s a shaggy dog story of a poem. A poem that lends itself to a long morning swim.
The poem begins…
Walking to Bellrock
Two figures in deep water
We set out in the early morning, the village not yet fully awake. The river thinks it’s a mill pond. Everything that has happened overnight is held in the stillness of its water. It thinks it can fool us into believing there is no current, that it is truly the colour of the sky, that we will be swimming through the clouds.
Their frames truncated at the stomach
glide along the surface. Depot Creek.
One hundred years ago lumber being driven down this river
tore and shovelled and widened the banks into Bellrock
down past bridges to the mill.
Heads gliding along the glassy surface of the river. Our dry bags follow, as faithful as old dogs. They make us visible; not that we intend to signal our presence and jar the peace of the morning. From time to time they bump against us, nudging us further into deep water.
I am back in the middle of the last century: a log floating down the river, one of thousands upon thousands poured into the river upstream from the log camps. I picture les draveurs jumping from log to log freeing me to float downstream.
The two figures are walking
as if half sunk in a grey road
their feet tentative, stumbling on stone bottom.
Landscapes underwater. What do the feet miss?
Turtle, watersnake, clam. What do the feet ignore
and the brain not look at, as two figures slide
past George Grant's green immaculate fields
past the splashed blood of cardinal flower on the bank.
We are not walking, we are swimming. The feet float free and kick propelling us forward, past the weed patch, away from the eddy in the bay, and out into the main current. We swim on, oblivious to what lies beneath.
From time to time I dip my head and open my eyes. The water is murky, I know there are fish: last summer floating on my back, one had the audacity to nibble a toe. I try to ignore whatever else might be hiding. We imagine pike, sturgeon, the family of beavers, belugas, monsters from the deep…
My head concentrates on what lies above; the waves, the flecks of foam, the ripples made by wind.
Rivers are a place for philosophy but all thought
is about the mechanics of this river is about
stones that twist your ankles
the hidden rocks you walk your knee into --
feet in slow motion and brain and balanced arms
imagining the blind path of foot, underwater sun
suddenly catching the almond coloured legs
the torn old Adidas tennis shoe we wear
to walk the river into Bellrock.
Out in the middle of no man’s water, the mind wanders into unknown territory. The concentration of minerals in my cells is greater than in the river’s water. Osmosis. I feel my cells taking on the river’s dreams.
July’s quote in the Wakefield calendar — “no one steps into the same river twice. For it is not the same river and they are not the same person.” I nod to Heraclitus — yes, everything is constantly changing. I will not be the same person that leaves this river, I will carry whatever message my cells absorb.
River swimming means learning the river’s language, means knowing where the counter-currents are strongest, where in the spring you can be swept back to the General Store despite swimming hard as you can in the opposite direction.
What is the conversation about for three hours
on this winding twisted evasive river to town?
What was the conversation about all summer.
Stan and I laughing joking going summer crazy
as we lived against each other.
To keep warm we submerge. Sometimes
just our heads decapitated
glide on the dark glass.
What do we talk about? and we do talk; our voices carry across the water, so a friend swimming towards us recognizes us not by the colour of the dry bags, but by my accent, the intonation of my voice.
What do we talk about? Politics, books, gardens, the colour of the houses as we drift by, the war in Ukraine, the way the water feels against the skin. And we don’t talk, but luxuriate in the silkiness of the water flowing past us and through us.
There is no metaphor here.
We are aware of the heat of the water, coldness of the rain,
smell of mud in certain sections that farts
when you step on it, mud never walked on
so you can't breathe, my god you can't breathe this air
and you swim fast your feet off the silt of history
that was there when the logs went
leaping down for the Rathburn Timber Company
when those who stole logs had to leap
right out of the country if caught.
The log drives ran on the Gatineau from 1800 – 1991. I wasn’t here, so rely on my imagination, and other people’s stories to picture the river jammed with timber floating all the way to the falls, or later down the chutes past the dams.
I find myself back in the early 1800s wondering whatever the Anishinaabe people who used the river to paddle to their summer camps thought. Presumably, the river suddenly became impassable. Were they able to find another route? What was that story? The river won’t let on, holding its dark memories close.
But there is no history or philosophy or metaphor with us.
The problem is the toughness of the Adidas shoe
its three stripes gleaming like fish decoration.
The story is Russell's arm waving out of the green of a field.
It would be so easy to be lulled by the tales the river wants to tell us, to just let go, to just let it take us. We need to concentrate on the way ahead so that we don’t get swept along by any unspoken desires of the river to deliver us to the Chelsea dam.
Instead, we focus on different perspectives; how the trees settle along the bank, the way that the houses peek through the trees, and on friends who wave at us from the bank shouting “Are you crazy?” “Go for Gold”, “Wish I could join you”.
The plot of the afternoon is to get to Bellrock
through rapids, falls, stink water
and reach the island where beer and a towel wait for us.
That night there is not even pain in our newly used muscles
not even the puckering of flesh
and little to tell except you won't
believe how that river winds and when you
don't see the feet you concentrate on the feet.
And all the next day trying to think
what we didn't talk about.
Where was the criminal conversation
broken sentences lost in the splash in wind.
There is no morning plot, except to keep in line with the red roof of the church. Easy enough when the water is calm and its reflection reaches out to us. Not so easy when the wind comes up, tossing fragments of its image here and there, slapping us in the face and stealing any words we try to say. We lose direction, forget where we are heading, and for a time there is no progress. Afterwards, at the Blue Barn café, warm cappuchino in hand, I dissolve. My muscles, relaxed, barely retain any memory of the morning’s work.
Revisiting Ondaatje’s “Walking to Bellrock” after all these years, (I read it first in 1989) I’m surprised that this isn’t where he wrote about the muscle of a river. It is what I remember most strongly about the poem, and yet it isn’t there. My memory recalls a clear description of the river’s pull, its resistance against the body. But now, swimming with Tenàgàdino Zìbì, I come to another interpretation. Each stroke, parts the water as one might dissect bundles of muscle fibres, each muscle sheath wrapped in fascia, separating easily with the slightest of pressure, letting me through.
Stan, my crazy summer friend,
why are we both going crazy?
Going down to Bellrock
recognizing home by the colour of barns
which tell us north, south west,
and otherwise lost in miles and miles of rain in the middle of this century
following the easy fucking stupid plot to town.
Are we going crazy? Those of us who, like river-maidens choose to be lured by the water. Or is it merely summer madness? An escape to a place where for a brief moment we forget about the heat of the day, the papers to be marked, the students to be consoled, the meetings to organize, the greater problems of the world. A way of finding home.
With thanks to Shelly, number one river maiden, and my other fellow morning swimmers: Jessica and Juliana. Not forgetting the ground crew: Huffy and Russell.
There are other stories about swimming on the blog, for example, here and here. In addition, we would love to hear your water stories — so please feel free to drop us a line at Wanderingwakefield@gmail.com.