Leaves were breaking from the budding bank-side maples as our group meandered down a stretch of the Pomme de Terre River north of Appleton. And, yes, the river meandered from one bend to another as wild rivers do. As my lead canoe came around one of those bends two White Tail Deer raised their heads from the morning drink, as shocked at seeing us as we were delighted to see them. At once, in a heartbeat, they pivoted, clamored up the bank and bounded away into the woods toward safety.
Well, sort of, for at the very next bend of the river we came upon the two a second time as they lept into the fast, runoff waters to escape our intrusion once again. One made it safely across the current to the opposite bank. Not the second one, for it was plastered by the current against the upturned roots of a deadfall. Having had canoes pinned like this, the pressure is never ending, intense and strong. The frightened deer struggled mightily, and as we neared we discussed what we might do, if anything, to help the deer that was in obvious trouble. The closer we came the more the deer thrashed and kicked its legs, struggling for any leverage in the water that covered all but its head. When we were not 20 feet away and had begun to maneuver the canoe to in some way help, it had generated enough inertia to edge itself off the root mass of the deadfall and make it across the river.
The imagery of that moment several years ago came back to me while on a recent walk with my friend, Lee Kanten, in the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge when we stopped on a high outcrop overlooking a bend of the Minnesota River. Such bends of a river come to me often as life-like metaphors, and one I’m relying on now as I, like the deer pinned on the deadfall, attempt to get back on firmer ground after an unexpected divorce.
Lee has been the “guys in the canoe” in that metaphor.
Something else I thought about as we sat basking in the warm sunshine on that late afternoon was how fortunate I am to have a manfriend who can talk intelligently about life and relationships. We men are not noted for having such deep discussions of the heart, although I might argue against the cliche. Perhaps this isn’t as uncommon as reputed. Since moving to the prairie a couple of decades ago I have been fortunate to have had a handful of male friends who have been forthright and understanding about relationships. Mostly canoe talk, if you will, and yet, those conversations often lacked the depth of my conversations with Lee.
Sometime last fall we made plans to take lunch at a barbecue joint in Milbank, and yes, there is one and it has delicious brisket and ribs smoked the right way. We sat at a picnic table outside in the sunshine and brisk breeze and easily moved past formalities. Lee, to my knowledge, isn’t a fisherman, nor does he pay much attention to sports. He’s an artist, film maker and musician who wandered onto the farm during a Meander two years ago at the start of his retirement. Over time we connected, and that was thoroughly evident as we gnawed on the rib bones. Time has erased the exact content of our conversation that afternoon, although I recall returning home and telling my former wife how nice it was “having a male friend up here I can talk to about real stuff.”
She agreed and encouraged the friendship. And now, because of her decision to end our marriage a few months later, that friendship with Lee has taken on deeper meaning and importance. On the day following her announcement to me Lee drove out to the farm to spend a long afternoon as I worked through my initial tears, fears and heartbreak. That they were departing the next day for several weeks on the road was especially tough except for cell phones and the calls back and forth as he and his wife, Jeanie, called to check on my state of mind, and were kind enough to hear me through too many times to count.
A few weeks ago Lee called to suggest we take a walk. Someplace in the woods. In nature. We took Joe Pye and headed over to the Bonanza Area of Big Stone State Park. Lee asked good questions and was an excellent listener, and as we walked we talked of relationships, that of his son’s recent breakup, that of a cousin’s issues, and of mine. At the end of a long walk through the wooded hills and ravines we came out at a picnic area and sat for awhile. “This was where we came when my son broke down about his situation,” he said, looking around at familiar surroundings.
On that warm day Big Stone Lake was honeycombed with black ice. In a few days the winds and warmth would begin the sinking of the surface ice and the upper lake would become free. Ah, freedom. The start of a new season. Of new life. As if he were a metaphor himself, Joe Pye took the opportunity to chew through the restraining strap as we talked. So much symbolism in so little time.
The following Sunday we went to the Refuge and to a trail I hadn’t noticed in all the times I’ve been there. “We used to come here all the time when I was a kid. This was our playground,” Lee explained as we headed up the thin semblance of a walking path that looped through the scrub brush and cattails to within a few feet of the original channel of the Minnesota River. We then climbed up onto a series of gneiss outcrops that overlooked an upriver stretch of the river. While you couldn’t see where the stream came from nor the exit, we were above a delightful and peaceful bend of the river. And here we sat to talk once again.
As men friends, one consoling the other on the loss of love and of the hope for a more peaceful time ahead. Of looking at life as a series of bends of a river, never quite knowing what is around the next curve … not the challenge nor the possible beauty … just that the current continues to push you along, and you paddle as well as you can, and as much as needed, taking it one paddle stroke at a time.
Something a good friend both recognizes and reminds.
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