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Rock Me On the Water

Friday, October 12, 2007

On the afternoon I got the canoes registered, I beat it a couple of exits north on I-77 to Salt Fork, Ohio's largest state park. Now, like all but two of Ohio's lakes, this lake is a dammed reservoir (I could easily have spelled it with an "n"). Repeating: Ohio has two natural lakes. Yes, that's sad, but I'd have to take that issue up with the glacier, and it ain't answering questions. So if we Ohioans are going to disport ourselves on big water, we have to be happy with our dammed reservoirs.

Salt Fork is big, and some people waterski and jet ski on it (bleccch), but there are two long arms of it that are designated as no-wake zones. It is here that I appreciate the men in khaki; they can bust speedboats all day as far as I'm concerned, if they're not too busy busting small women in 10' canoes.

I was not the happiest of campers when I finally got to Salt Fork. I'd had a tough couple of weeks. The sun was already low in the autumn sky and the best part of a glittering day had been spent on getting the boats legal. But the water's gentle rocking worked on me like a masseuse and before long I was humming and noticing and one with the elements like I ought to be.

The pokier the water, the happier I am. Shallow water means the roaring smelly boat engines can't follow me. Shallow water means dragonflies and algae and wading birds and warblers
and banded watersnakes and painted turtles. My canoe draws about four inches of draft so there's very little water I can't navigate. Or: I can navigate very little water. So I launch at the boat ramps and beat it for the nearest elbow or embayment or slough--the places nobody else wants to go.

It was pretty quiet at Salt Fork, a few killdeer, the aforementioned herps, some warblers sifting through the trees. Let's face it--reservoirs are useful and pretty for people to look at, but they're not exactly burgeoning wildlife habitat. When you've got oak-hickory forests marching down right into deep water, there's little room for sedges and cattails, little habitat for the crawlers, waders and sliders. They're picturesque, and sometimes little else. I yearned for the messy, mucky wild rice marshes of Hadlyme, Connecticut, the salt marshes of Great Island, rich with the scent of sulfur and decay, teeming with life. Lois and I had navigated those waters, gotten all muddy doing so. This was too clean for us, like a decorated store window or a movie set. I mulled this over as I stroked over the quiet water. I decided to revel in the reflections of early autumn leaves rippling before the bow.
And then I noticed it--the soft popping sound of fish lips all around me. Evening was coming on and there was an embarrassment of fish, everywhere. Fish feeding, jumping, swirling, everywhere. And then an osprey beat by, and another, diving again and again, right into the light, impossible to photograph but so deeply appreciated. And right behind the fish hawks, a phalanx of Forster's terns. Oh, oh, oh, oh. How I adore terns, how they bring me back to New England. Their creaky calls and slicing wings speak of sand and surf, even on this manmade inland lake.
Oh beautiful bird, with your bandit mask, thank you for saving me.
Hold on. I'm coming. Hold on.

The fish are feeding and so are we. We're not afraid of you; the fish are all around you in your little boat, and we're catching them.
Thank you. I'm all better now, not grousing about sterile Ohio reservoirs any more. I'm going to come back soon. Will you still be here?
We may have to move on, it'll get cold before long. But we'll look for you, and you look for us.

I will. Thanks again for coming to me.

Oh, people Look around you
It's there your hope must lie
There's a seabird above you
Gliding in one place
Like Jesus in the sky

Jackson Browne, "Rock Me on the Water."
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