By Greg Seitz
When we are children, we have a flexible understanding of time. Right now is all that matters. We are slowly and painfully taught the type measured by a clock.
Adults eventually forget that first expansive era. Time seems not only limited, but also speeds up.
Luckily, we can occasionally experience it as children again – by riding a river. In Portage: A Family, a Canoe, and the Search for the Good Life, Sue Leaf's new memoir of a forty-year canoeing career, her family's paddling trips around the United States and Canada slow time down. In prose that pulls the reader along like a swift current, she tells tales of many fluid days afloat.
From when Leaf and her husband Tom had three little kids riding in the canoes for many misadventures around Minnesota, to their empty-nester days, lakes and rivers are a place to check in, reconnect, and experience wondrous things together. "When one becomes immersed in the landscape of an unfamiliar world, the tick of the clock is forgotten," she writes.
Canoeing down the Little Missouri River in North Dakota on their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, on their sixtieth trip around the sun, Sue and Tom take a "time-out from life." They seem bewildered to be at these milestones. The river can't help make sense of it, but it does temporarily decrease the feeling of days slipping through their fingers.
Leaf likens it to two words the ancient Greeks used to measure time: chronos and kairos. Chronos is the calendar and its eternal march of days and months and years. Kairos is flexible, its duration or at least our experience of it able to expand and contract. "That a moment can expand to assume significance is wisdom I will remember as we sense our time running out," the Little Missouri River chapter closes.
Canoeing carries the Leafs to kairos over the arc of this family's history. The trips are joyful memories, and Leaf translates that joy by describing the landscape, water, wildlife, history, geology with observant and educated eyes. Birds are her greatest focus, and when she sees something interesting and possibly rare, I felt like I had discovered a new species myself.
Early in their marriage, Sue and Tom organized a big 15-person float down the Rum River an hour north of Minneapolis. The guests of honor were Vic and Betty Gustafson. Vic was the Gustavus Adolphus College professor who essentially introduced the Leafs to each other, and taught them the basics of wilderness paddling.
The memory begins by describing a snapshot of the group, paddles in hand, smiles and sun shining off their "nearest and dearest" friends and family. The chapter ends with a modern melancholy heart, missing three people who paddled the Rum River that day and are now gone, but also happily transported back in time 29 years, the magical day on the river arisen, inspired by one faded color photo.
While mostly memoir, the book is full of useful information. The table of contents is a great North American canoeing bucket list. Woven into the stories are detailed descriptions of logistics, wildlife, safety, and more. It's a useful guide to twenty-eight routes from Montana to Florida.
I've wanted to see the Niobrara River flowing through the heart of the Sandhill country in Nebraska ever since reading Jim Harrison's novels set there. On their twentieth wedding anniversary, Sue and Tom take their canoe down it for three days. They find a narrow corridor rich with life and solitude amid an ocean of grass. After reading about it, my interest in wetting my own canoe in the Niobrara has intensified, and now I know something about how to plan a trip there.
It was not until late in the book that Leaf wrote about her backyard river (and my personal favorite): the upper St. Croix, on the border of Wisconsin and Minnesota. I was wondering when it might show up, and when it did, I learned they canoed it often over the years. Sadly, the chapter starts by saying it "lacks pizzazz," and then goes on to paint a poor picture of the St. Croix. Unlike other chapters telling the tale of one trip, the only significant stories about it are not in their canoe, but afoot, hiking the historic portage trail between the St. Croix and Bois Brule Rivers, and dragging their boats over gravel during low water. Much of the chapter concerns the degradation of the river at the hands of logging companies and other industry.
I missed the wonder and curiosity Leaf felt everywhere else. Perhaps familiarity bred boredom. I haven't seen a fraction of the rivers she and Tom have, and I am biased to the waters where I feel most at home, but the St. Croix is an awe-inspiring experience each time I go to it. There are ancient sturgeon and ephemeral dragonflies, stoic mussels and a billion years of geology, pictographs and lumber-era artifacts, stories and beauty around each bend.
The St. Croix is also where my wife and I have often slowed down time with friends and family, traveled together in kairos for a moment. Trips like those mark the progress of a life, memories are distilled of certain times and people and feelings.
As Portage shows, there is no better milestone than a river. While it may seem ageless, it could in fact be only a few millennia old, and has been changing throughout its whole history. In our lifetimes, we can see channels come and go, islands erode, sandbars form and wash away, trees grow and fall, waterfalls shift, and people make their fleeting impacts. So when we go back to a river, through a photo, a story, or a canoe, we see something that feels eternal and makes our lives seem short and thus important. We can also see the landscape shifting and reshaping, the beach of our youth now a fast-flowing channel.
Thanks to "Portage," I will soak in each slow moment a little more every time I float with my loved ones.
–Purchase Leaf’s memoir now through the University of Minnesota Press.
–Check out three other recently released canoeing reads, reviewed by C&K editor-at-large Conor Mihell.