I am grateful for the little synchronicities that compile to write the text of our days. My fellow tenor in the Jubilee choir, David, turned me on today to a beautiful essay about the Platte River which sparked a remembrance of my own time on that river which is said to be “an inch deep and a mile wide”.
My journey down the Platte River was in the 1980’s when I was living in Lincoln, Nebraska and my friend, Jim, suggested we take a canoe trip from the west back toward the city of Grand Island on the Platte, over our spring break. In the spring, the shallow river has more flow and more depth and it is a prime stopover for thousands of Sandhill Cranes which are migrating from southern climes back to their nesting grounds in the northern states and Canada.
As we started our passage we had lots of sunshine. The greatest challenge was keeping to the deep channel that would float the canoe. We both kept an alert eye for those elusive stretches that would shift from one shore to the other, then back to the middle. Only occasionally did we hit sand and gravel, at which point we would paddle back a few feet and then try another tack. We were light and happy.
Toward sunset each day we would push onto a high bank, pitch our two-man backpack tent and start a small fire for cooking our dinner. During the day we had seen hundreds and thousands of Sandhill Cranes circling above us in gigantic gray brown beehives. At the end of the day every sky-born crane would circle down, spreading its expanse of wings like a parachute as it set its two feet onto a sandbar.
Every little sandbar on the river became alive with the rustle of feathers and subdued squawking, until the ground was no longer visible. Jim and I would sit in jaw-dropping silence as we snapped photos of birds against a brilliant Nebraska sunset.
On the final day of our journey we set off late because the sun had not risen to wake us. The morning was heavily overcast and gray. We were jacketed against the chill air and we could feel the moisture in the air long before it began to snow.
It started with just a few flakes, and their appearance spurred us to paddle a little faster. Our progress was frustrated by our reduced visibility, so we frequently headed into a dead-end channel and had to back up more often. The flurries became a full-fledged Nebraska blizzard and we strained our eyes and our arm muscles to find our way down the river toward the city of Grand Island.
At one point, overwhelmed with mental exhaustion and physical fatigue; after we had run onto yet another sandbar, I sat in the prow of the canoe, the paddle across my knees. I was blanketed in the unrelenting whiteout, just staring blankly into the gray murky water. Jim was impatient behind me. Half laughing, he prodded, “What are you doing?”
I answered with force, “I don’t know!” I had given up, momentarily. In the middle of the Platte River, being pounded by a spring blizzard which was roaring across the high plains of Nebraska . . . I surrendered . . . I surrendered.
My friend did not push me. He waited for me to return to myself. I slowly lifted my paddle, pushed the end of it down into the water against the gravel bed, and the two of us wordlessly shoved ourselves free of the ground and back into the flow back toward the world of men.
When we saw the ponderous cement bridge over the river, we knew we had reached the outskirts of Grand Island. And unable to go any further we stepped up to the street level into a world which had become strange to us. We were soaked to the skin. We wore layers of clothing, topped with our plastic rain ponchos. We had several days of unshaven facial hair and we had not bathed since we started the trip. We each held aloft a canoe paddle in an attempt to engender pity in some kind-hearted passerby.
We knew we were a sight and we also knew it was a long-shot, getting somebody to stop and then to go out of their way to drive us to our car. But it was our best plan. Now, here’s the part of the story that feels like a miracle; that in retrospect feels like it might be connected to that moment of surrender in the thick of the blizzard, in the middle of the river, when all seemed lost.
A car stopped . . . several yards past us . . . onto the shoulder of the highway. When we ran down the stopped car and peered into the rolled down window we were amazed to see the faces of our co-worker Joe, and his wife. They were familiar faces – a port in the storm. They had driven to Grand Island to catch a glimpse of the famous Sandhill Crane migration, and had been as surprised as we were to be caught in a blizzard. Of course, they were also surprised to be driving down the highway and catching a glimpse of two sorry souls standing on the edge of the road holding canoe paddles that looked vaguely familiar.
After unloading Jim and the canoe, I went home and had the best long hot shower I have ever had. Today I can still remember how good it felt to be warm and clean. I can still remember how good it felt to sit on my couch with my muscles unclenched.
So I celebrate the cold that shows me how to appreciate the warmth. I celebrate the wet and the risk and the discomfort that makes me appreciate being dry, and safe, and at ease. And I celebrate the moments of despair that leave us no other choice but to give up, to surrender, for these moments open the portals to our deliverance.