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  • [This is a short story with multiple episodes. The seed of this one is That Roaring Sound .]

    When the foreclosure finally happened, we sold off most of our stuff, strapped boxes of family treasures on top the car, piled in our clothes, outdoor gear, provisions and all the books we could cram in, and headed way into in the back country upstate to Bruce's cabin on the Quartic River. Bruce was in the Peace Corps in Peru, and kindly had offered his three-room log house for as long as we needed to stay there. We were in the middle of nowhere, but the stillness and beauty of the forest grew on us as we learned how to live like pioneers. Our old life seemed – and was – very far away.

    The old car wouldn't start when it came time to go to town to get groceries and visit the post office. With no phone service and no one to call anyway, we decided to travel in Bruce's canoe, even though the town was a good 12 miles downriver. So we set off one July morning, guided by a compass and an old topo map that Bruce had. We stowed away our camping gear, Bruce's fishing tackle, and a small chest of provisions and shoved off. The trip should take about eight hours down, I figured, and nine or ten back. We planned to spend the night camping upstream from town. It didn't work out that way...

    The current had picked up. Our canoe passed some rocks. Others loomed ahead. Wary of what the river might be doing downstream, we decided to put in. We turned toward the left bank, where I spotted a narrow cove overhung by birch trees. We paddled furiously, bumping boulders. Then an unexpected whirlpool turned the canoe around, backing us into the cove, the mouth of a brook with a gravelly beach on one side. I jumped out and hauled up the boat as my wife and daughter, Annie and Iris, leapt to shore.

    Clouds had moved in and mist was drizzling down, but the birches sheltered us. Beyond the gravel landing was a small clearing, and we could see two trails leading away from it. One seemed to follow the big river south, the other one headed east along the brook.

    We were not far from the town, which I judged to be several miles down-river. I told the others to wait there while I scouted the river trail to see how hard it would be to portage past the rapids. After walking a few hundred feet, the trail was pocked with rocks and almost obscured by dangling branches that I had to duck around. The sound of rushing water got louder. I could see the river start to swell and crest beyond the large boulders that crowded the shore.

    Soon I encountered a jagged wall of granite about 12 feet high, blocking my way. Ahead, I heard a roaring sound, which I took to be a waterfall. Scrambling up the damp, ragged rocks, I slipped and nearly tumbled back before reaching the top. I was atop an escarpment that dipped down, then extended across the river to the opposite shore. The way down it was even more precipitous than what I had just surmounted. Some thirty feet below, the ledge dropped down to a jumble of boulders that stretched several hundred yards. I could see where the roaring river slid over the escarpment, but not the bottom of the falls, only the foaming waves, splattered boulders and corpses of trees lodged in the swirling stream far below. It did not look like a felicitous portage.

    If we could get past this place, the rest of the trip would be easy. We could paddle all the way to town in an hour or two. But we were already tired from being on the river for six hours. Hauling our canoe across the ledge and between the jagged rocks with would exhaust us and the gathering rain would soak us. I returned to my family to tell them the bad news.

    At our landing place, I found Annie and Iris huddling under a tall pine. Iris had gathered some brush and sticks of wood, which she had piled inside a stone circle in the clearing, a remnant of someone's campfire. They urged me to fire it up before the rain set in. Stripping away some bark from a convenient birch tree, I ignited it with my Zippo and managed to fan up a blaze.

    We sat cross-legged by the fire, enjoying the rushing of the brook as it splashed into the cove, munching trail mix and raspberries. Annie told me she had walked the other trail to pick the berries while I was gone, and found it easy going. It followed the tributary, which splashed swiftly around rocks and over cobble. But a little way up the trail, the stream broadened and slowed, just past a beaver dam. From there, the water flowing out of the forest looked placid. Annie said she thought she saw a wisp of smoke rising up somewhere beyond where the stream disappeared from view, but she wasn't sure. But she was sure she had seen a blue heron alight on a dead tree.

    After I told them about the problematic portage, I asked what they wanted to do. "We've had a long day," Annie said. "Why don't we camp here and wrangle those rocks when we've revived ourselves?" I nodded. It would be getting dark before long, and I saw no reason not to take one more day to finish our journey. We had our tent and sleeping bags, but not much for supper.

    Then Iris said, "Can we please explore this little river? I'll bet we'll find all sorts of birds, turtles, and frogs. We might catch some fish, and there could be an even better camping place up there." I had to admire her intrepidness, especially after paddling for most of the day. I figured we could easily turn around to get back here if we needed to, so why not?

    We gathered our belongings and doused the campfire. Donning our packs, we hoisted the canoe and traipsed up to the beaver dam. As the canoe slid into the water, we heard the call of a heron and a fish jumped after a dragonfly just two feet away. Assuming our positions, Annie in front, Iris amidships, and I at the stern, we shoved off to explore a new world. We had no idea how new and different it would be.

    Continued in That Laughing Sound

    [The original seed of this series is On Sustainable Power, May 31, 2012.
    To identify all the stories in the series, click the tag That Sound beneath the map.]

    @image: Tillman's Ravine, New Jersey (CC) Miquel Vieira
    on Flickr
    @audio: Raining sound, droplets hitting the ground, from Sound Jay
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