Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The difference a day makes

On Monday we break out the inflatable kayak, strap it to the top of the Westfalia camper bus and head out into the heart of the Grande Ronde Valley for a leisurely float down Catherine Creek. The water is quite high and very cold right now, and the prospects for bird watching are outstanding. Unfortunately, my camera which was lost last week remains AWOL so I have no photos of the wonderful things we saw. Our inflatable Tomcat easily holds all of us, though there is no room for our dog Sammy.

We put in near Union and begin what will turn out to be a four hour excursion. No difficulties to speak of, except for the odd, low hanging branch. The water level is so high that we are able to survey the surrounding landscape, mostly farmland. The kids try their hand at paddling, "oaring" they call it. Under their steerage, we drift lazily in circles, getting a slow 360 degree pan of the area. Here and there we see a tractor, or a loading chute for cattle, mostly though we slip quietly down the meandering channel bounded by tall grasses and stands of trees. Once the hot weather hits and the water level falls, all you will be able to see from the water will be the banks and the tall grass, the sky overhead...and the birds.

They are everywhere, yellow headed blackbirds, red winged ones too, swallows, owls, hawks, ducks, geese, cormorants and blue herons. There's a spectacular variety of plumage and color. Along the dirt cut banks are dozens of small round holes out of which flutter small wren like birds (I need to look them up). An impressively massive owl glides across our bow pursued madly by several of these small birds. Ducks and geese beat the water with their wings and head elsewhere in the marshy valley floor. But the stars of the day are the herons. When one of these birds is startled into flight out of the brush along the banks of the channel the sudden unfolding of wings can be both startling and mesmerizing. A heron's takeoff looks improbable at first and then by degrees it becomes almost balletic.

We pass snacks amongst us on the kayak. Tess and Colm chatter ceaselessly, like birds. They have not yet absorbed the idea of passing quietly into a new world and of patiently waiting for discoveries to unfold before them. They crawl forward and backward, trading spots on the kayak, sometimes sitting in our laps leaning back into us, sometimes perched on the ends of the kayak peering into the cold water, craning their necks to catch up with birds we've startled into flight.

By far the highlight of the afternoon is floating beneath the heron rookery strung along the creek in the middle of the valley. These are places where tall stands of trees live. Because the water level is so high right now, we can navigate almost anywhere we wish amongst them. Indeed, we sometimes lose track of where the channel is and we have to watch the water carefully to see signs of the current. The herons' massive nests are built high above the water in the tops of branches of old trees. Sitting quietly on our boat, we see at least a dozen dark nests in a single stand of trees. Several such stands populated by both herons and cormorants wait for us.

The herons themselves look prehistoric, long, angular and ungainly until they swoop into flight. Tess and Colm are delighted when they spot a pair of baby herons peeking over the edge of a nest, their mother sitting above them in profile, imperious. The cormorants who share this habitat with the herons appear more familiarly birdlike, black and sleek. It's midday and most of the nests are unattended. The effect of seeing so many nests and so few big birds at home is akin to having wandered into a ghost town. The few natives at home are fascinating and largely indifferent to us. The ambient noise is subdued, sepulchral. I wonder how different this rookery must be in the early morning when all the nests are occupied. As we drift along, searching through the flooded lands for the channel we see more and more nests. It is magical.

At the end of our float trip, we put in at a spot where Catherine Creek intersects one of the gravel roads that crisscross the valley farmlands. It is a low bridge from which Beth and the kids can hike about three quarters of a mile to the pick up car while I deflate the kayak and ready the gear to be stowed. The kids know that at the end of their walk will come a short drive and then ice cream cones at the burger stand in Cove. I watch my family walk leisurely about a quarter mile to a point where the road turns at a right angle. Tiny figures, they walk across my line of sight until they're obscured by roadside brush.

The roads are straight lines with perpendicular intersections. The creeks by contrast meander in intricate, looping patterns, nearly forming oxbows at every turn. We could have paddled to the car but it would have taken us a lot longer and we've been out for four hours already. Occasionally, I see a pickup go by on the road Beth and the kids have turned onto. Seems pretty likely they'll get a ride from someone, a farmer in this area. I watch one go by and trace its dust plume into the distance. I'm satisfied but tired and looking forward to being home and out of the heat and dust.

It occurs to me that if I get atop one of the wooden posts supporting the bridge's guardrail I might be able to see something, my family, our car, the passing pickup. The land is so flat here that just a couple of feet altitude represents an advantage. I place my left foot atop the post and push hard, lifting myself up. For a moment I'm on top, the valley briefly opens up before me, then I feel my balance shifting back. I realize I'll have to step back down and try again. Without much thought or care, I bring my right foot back down to the ground, but my weight has shifted subtly back and to my left, causing me to lean heavily against the guard rail. I realize with alarm that the guardrail is blocking my effort to regain my balance and is instead causing me to topple backwards over it. It's the same kind of leverage me and my boyhood friends used to when we'd sneak up behind each other on our hands and knees and then signal someone else to push the unsuspecting victim backwards.

I fall, slowly, my entire body reversed on the fulcrum of the rail. My feet fly up in the air, the left one scraping the metal rail hard on the way up, my back and shoulder hit the gravel road. As falls go, this one feels and, from a distance, probably looks theatrical, as if I'm pretending to have been shot. As I go down, I groan, then yell, then curse loudly, flat on my back in the middle of a lonely road. My foot throbs where it scraped the rail; there is a nasty gash there and the blood has already spread along the length of my foot to my heel. My back feels scraped and bruised. But mostly I'm pissed off. I get up and cut loose with a few primal swear words. The empty space around me swallows up my complaint utterly.

Eventually, I recover my equilibrium, wash off my wounds and ponder the ridiculousness of what has just happened. I decide to get back on the post and complete the maneuver that began this absurd interruption in what had been up to that point a glorious day. This time I ascend easily to my perch, and bird-like, I scan the distance, looking for a dust plume. When at last I see our car I hop down. Through the dusty windshield I can make out Beth in her distressed, straw cowboy hat. She's wearing the same smile she's had on since we got on the water four hours earlier. Peering out from behind her, craning their necks to see me are Tess and Colm. The novelty of seeing me out here alongside the road, not in their car with them, seems to amuse them, as if I were one more odd bird to add to their collection of sights this day.

Their faces capture some hidden light, three lovely orbs glowing in the swirling dusty air. I can't help but smile back. As I start loading gear into the back of the car, I say, "You'll never guess what happened while you were gone." Beth looks at me quizzically. When I tell her about my fall, she shakes her head as if to suggest that it's not safe to leave me alone anywhere. Soon enough we're all licking vanilla and banana ice cream swirls in cones. After finishing those we drive back and retrieve the camper bus and we caravan home, about fifteen miles.

Back at home, with the car and bus unpacked, the kids playing tether ball in the back yard, and Sammy wiggling delightedly amongst our legs, Beth notices a spot on the living room window. She asks me to remove the storm window, a large heavy one about four feet square, so that she can clean off the spot. The afterglow of the day's excursion is still strong with both of us and I consent. I'm still in my shorts and barefoot. We remove the window easily enough, popping it out and resting it on the porch. Beth has it cleaned in a jiffy and is feeling pleased about it. I lift the window back up into place, resting it on the sill as I try to get control of the unwieldy thing. It's harder going in; it doesn't fit easily. I get three corners in but the fourth seems stuck. I pop it out again and start over. The window is so heavy that it's hard to manipulate. Finally, I ask Beth to get a screw driver from the kitchen thinking that I can maybe lever it up on one side and get it to slide in.

Standing there alone with the window, I decide to try once more. I scoot the metal base inside the frame and then reach up with both hands try to slide in the top. The bottom of the window kicks out and, before I realize what's happened, it slides straight down like a guillotine and lands on my bare foot, the right one this time. The shock and surprise is such that the pain is rivaled for a second by the thought that I may have just lost my toes. I look down and see that they're still attached but now that pain has crested and I yell at the top of my lungs. I keep yelling as I move the window off my foot. I yell even more as I limp about in small circles on the porch. In my peripheral vision I see an elderly woman walking on the sidewalk across the street. I'm yelling, "Fuck! Fuck! Goddammit" over and over again. She pauses, then seems to think better of it and continues.

Meanwhile Beth and the kids come running. I fight to get a hold of my reactions. The kids have never seen me in pain before. I can already see the concern on their faces. I hobble to a chair, straining with every breath not to curse aloud. Colm and Tess see my foot, and the bloody crease running across the base of my toes. Colm gets close to me; he puts his arms around my neck and lays his head on my shoulder and just remains like that. He doesn't let go. Beth is beside herself, feeling guilty about the window, unsure of how serious this injury really is. She runs for ice. Tess asks me questions. What happened? Does it hurt? Is it bleeding? Do I have to go the hospital? Why are you making those sounds? I ask her to get a towel. Instantly she's off in search of one. Colm hold on, pressing his cheek into my shoulder. Don't worry, I tell him and I stroke his hair. I'm just trying to breathe through this pain. Tess and Beth bring the ice (actually frozen blueberries from the freezer) and towel. We elevate the foot, and then my body begins to shiver. It feels like the onset of shock. I ask for a blanket and Colm and Tess both spring into action. Within moments they're back and I'm swaddled on the front porch. The pain has dulled somewhat, but I'm still finding it hard to breathe.

Beth asks me about going to the emergency room. I decide to ice the foot for twenty minutes or so and then take a look before deciding. I do a quick check online for foot trauma and get a site where I can look at the bone structure of the foot, specifically the metatarsal area where my injury is located. I discover that broken bones in this area require about eight weeks of immobilization. The thought pierces me...one storm window equals one summer. It's intolerable, more intolerable than the pain. I decide to go and get x rays and find out what my fate is. Beth is miserable at the thought of what might be in the offing. The kids though seem to have rebounded, especially Colm who now seems assured of the fact that I'm not dying and so is newly buoyed and fascinated by the prospect of going to the hospital. "Awesome," he says.

The family loads up again in the car and we make the drive of six blocks to the hospital. I get out and leave them in the car. Beth has to feed the kids and get them to bed. I hop on one foot into the ER, my injured foot wrapped in ice (we saved the blueberries). About two hours later, I get the verdict...no broken bones, just a deep and purplish laceration, and a numbness that will subside in time. I will play with my family after all this summer. In a day filled with good and lovely things, it's the best news I've had yet.


Blogger Sharri said...

So much loveliness and pain all meshed together in life, isn't there?

7:35 AM  

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