Article and photos by Joe Mish
Over the course of time everything we experience is stored as a memory. Having limited capacity for recall, it is the most impactful memories that linger. By no means are memories ever lost, they are stored in pristine condition in unconscious archives. The key to recovery can be a scent, sight or a sound. Prompted by clues hidden in unrelated conversations, a single phrase or word can bring an experience back into sharp focus. Old, faded photographs of no particular beauty or composition can instantly bring the past into laser focus as the prompts to our memories are as individual as fingerprints.
So it is that each time I paddle the river, it becomes a physical journey through the accumulated memories collected over hundreds of miles, paddled on the same stretch of river. Each trip is like opening the old family album to add new photographs and seeing the older images as the pages are turned. It is as if a gravitational pull compels you to linger a bit longer in the realm of old memories.
There is hardly a location on the river that does not hold a memory for me. Digital images and photographs, abound, however, it is being present on the river that provides access to memories not captured by the camera or pushed aside by the endless flow of freshly minted memories.
Every time I pass the drainage above the mouth of Pleasant Run, my mind immediately plays the video of the snowy winter day I pulled out of the current into the safe harbor of a drainage stream to warm my hands under my arms. The heavy snow quickly covered me and my boat as I leaned forward, folded arms resting on my thighs. I felt safe and comfortable as the canoe was stabilized in the heavy slush and well within the six-foot-wide drainage stream away from the main current. The snow was almost a foot deep along the high bank and to my surprise a dark brown mink was porpoising through the deep snow toward the drainage and my canoe. The mink came within arm’s reach before it realized the convenient bridge and large lump of snow was an existential threat.
One summer day I had my young daughter in the bow of my canoe, as we approached the tower line near home, a large fish jumped clear of the water, hit the gallon jug of juice she was holding, bounced off the opposite gunnel and fell back into the river. Her expression was priceless, as was mine, to witness a scene that could only happen in a cartoon. Can’t pass under that tower line without reliving that moment! Though many years have passed, the clarity and even the emotion of that comedy is still retained in the tower line archives.
On an initiation canoe trip with my four-year-old grandson, I paddled close to a high shale cliff, as in my experience cliffs were a major attraction to young boys. Sure enough, Caleb was impressed and asked how to get to the top. Before I could answer I noticed a large animal on the narrow shelf at water’s edge below the cliff. We closed in on a supersized beaver munching some delicate vines growing on the cliff face. The beaver slowly moved into deeper water but not before swimming on the surface a few yards in front of the canoe. You will not be able to see it, but when I pass that cliff, it reveals a crystal-clear video of that priceless moment. Of course, the next day Caleb never mentioned the beaver to mom but was totally impressed by Grampy carrying the canoe over his head.
One early spring day after ice-out, the river was running high, and the only ice that remained was found in deep cuts into the bank where trees were washed away. As I rounded a sharp bend in the river, I kept about three feet off the left bank to avoid the main current. Immediately on my left was a large ice-covered cove about twelve feet into the high vertical bank. I could not believe what I saw! Standing in sharp contrast to the empty expanse of graying ice, was an otter! As it ran toward me, I realized its only escape route was into the water next to my canoe. At less than two feet away I watched the otter dive into the fast-moving muddy water in the narrow space between my boat and the ice shelf. I thought I was hallucinating, perhaps hypothermic. I never saw an otter on the river before or since. Consider, this bend in the river projects the memory of my close encounter with an otter, exclusively for me. It is my personal archive, available to no one else.
Memories are where you first met them, they are safe from prying eyes and remain where you last left them. The storage capacity is infinite and the keys to unlock them are everywhere.
Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.