Reflections on Water
The “River of Beer” and the Mystery of Color
By Tamia Nelson
September 2, 2008
Paddlers are drawn to water. That’s not exactly surprising, is it? And we spend a lot of time looking at it. The reason is obvious: whenever you play in big waves or go one-on-one with the Old Woman you need to hone your “water eye.” It helps you keep your keel down and your head high (not to mention dry). But watching water yields other dividends, too. In places far removed from the wind and the waves—small ponds and hidden swamps, sheltered bays and estuaries, placid slow-moving streams—watching the water opens our eyes to the beauty around us.
And that’s not all. Observation is the starting point for all journeys of discovery. We look at whatever captures our interest and we ask questions. Then we go exploring. That’s what happened when I began to take note of the color of water. I grew up in well-watered country. As soon as I could walk, I wandered around my neighborhood, stopping along the way to play in every mud puddle and drainage ditch I came to. Soon I was venturing further afield, and my travels took me to the margin of a nearby stream known locally as “Sewer Brook.” The name was well-deserved, I’m sorry to say, yet this much-abused, malodorous stream had many redeeming qualities. For one thing, it flowed through a wetland alive with birds. I didn’t know any of their names back then, but I was delighted by their colors and songs nonetheless.
Swimming lessons at a small lake not far from town broadened my horizons still more, as did summer afternoons paddling around a chilly pool in one of the quieter stretches of the ’Kill. But until my first trip to Grandad’s cabin in the Adirondack foothills, I was ignorant of the ways of wild rivers. My Grandad’s river opened my eyes in a hurry. The trip began as most family holidays did, with too many kids packed into the stifling back seat of too small a car. But things started looking up as soon as we arrived at Grandad’s cabin. We roasted hot dogs and toasted marshmallows over a leaping blaze, while rain drummed on the big canvas tarp that Grandad had strung over his fire-pit. And as we wolfed down our food, Grandad thrilled us with tales of the wild animals he’d seen, his hairsbreadth rescues of lost hunters, and the giant brookies that waited to be hooked on his next trip to one of his many secret fishing holes.
Needless to say, I was hooked, too. So was my little brother. And we nagged Grandad till he agreed to take us on a fishing trip, my first real fishing trip. Not that Grandad would ever take two kids to one of his secret places, mind—they were his and his alone—but he did promise to take us to a “pretty good spot” he knew just upriver from his camp. I don’t think my brother and I got a moment’s sleep that night!
Bright and early the next morning, with the late-summer sun setting the wet landscape ablaze in golden light, Grandad settled my brother and me on the steel bench that was the only passenger accommodation in his Willys Jeep. Then we rumbled off, heading for a place Grandad called Split-Rock Falls. There was a fishing hole there where even two kids like us couldn’t help but catch a mess of trout—or so Grandad said. I hoped he was right.
The trip didn’t take long, even if the Jeep’s top speed was somewhere south of 30 miles per hour. We parked in a barely discernible clearing. The cabin that had once stood there was long gone, rotted back to earth. Only a few stones from the foundation pillars remained, along with the rusty remnants of an ancient mangle. My brother and I tumbled from the Jeep and followed Grandad down a nearly invisible trail that wound through a dense thicket of stunted spruce. I could barely contain my excitement. I seemed to feel an insistent drumbeat under my feet, as if I were walking over the earth’s throbbing heart. The two of us scampered along in my Grandad’s wake, our lunch pails swinging from ties around our belts and our tackle boxes and rods smacking our bare legs, already bloody from blackfly bites. We didn’t bother with a creel. Grandad had also promised us a shore lunch, with fresh-caught trout as the main item on the menu.
The drumbeat I felt through my sneakers became more insistent with every step I took, and before long I could smell the river. But I still couldn’t see it. Then we broke through the spruce, and there it was—the falls. Though the drop was only about 10 feet, to my inexperienced eyes it seemed immense. My brother and I stood silent, awed by the sight. A rich, brown torrent surged over the lip of the falls, plunging into the pool below, only to disappear in a creamy swirl of foam. My brother was the first to find his voice, and his shouted words were clearly audible over the roar of falling water. “Wow!” he piped. “It’s…it’s a river of beer!”
There was no doubt what caught his eye, and there was no doubt, too, that he’d just realized that…
Water Isn’t Always Blue
First, though, someone had to explain to my brother that the torrent wasn’t really a river of beer. And since my Grandad was now laughing uncontrollably, the initial burden of explanation fell to me. I found it rather heavy going. To my little brother, Grandad’s river looked just like the beer in the big glass mug that was always at my Grandad’s elbow in camp, a dark German brew that boasted a thick, creamy head. I had to admit that the comparison was apt. Adirondack rivers often flow brown, and as my Grandad noted—he’d finally stopped laughing—the mahogany tint and foam were both signs of a healthy waterway. So it wasn’t a river of beer at all, he added, with what I thought was a rather wistful expression.
While Grandad worked to convince my little brother that his river wasn’t beer, I prowled along the bank to get a closer look. There was no mistaking the rich, warm, brown hue of the water plunging into the pool. Yet the apparent color changed to dark blue wherever the pool deepened. And just a little further downstream, as Grandad’s river rushed through a tunnel of spruce, pouring over and around car-sized boulders in its frantic passage, it began to look almost black. Clearly, the river had many moods, and it had a color to match each one.
I’d have given anything to capture the scene before me in some tangible form, but I had neither camera nor paints at my disposal. So I got down to the serious business of impaling a worm onto a hook, and in due course I reaped the reward of my efforts—a delicious shore lunch. Grandad had been right about that, too, as he was right about the health of his “river of beer.”
Much later, in classrooms and during endless days in the field, I had reason to reflect on my long-ago trip to Split-Rock Falls. The most important lesson? Loren Eiseley was right:
There is Magic in Water
We take the stuff for granted—or at least those of us do who live where clean water gushes out whenever we turn the tap. But water’s slippery. It’s hard to pin down. Definitely one of a kind. Take the way it becomes less dense as it approaches the freezing point, for example. That’s why ice (aka solid water) floats. This is pretty unexpected behavior, yet the very existence of life on earth can be said to hang on that one unique property. Consider, too, how water can be both nurturing and deadly, on the one hand supporting the vast web of living things that sustains us, while at the same time threatening to drown our coastal cities. And then there’s its color, changing in response to every alteration in sky and shore, its tint reflecting the very chemistry of the land and rock over which it flows. If this isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.
Of course, magic comes in many forms, and not all of them are good. Just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge water by its color—as I discovered not so very long ago on…
That’s not the name on the map, by the way. In fact, “Dead Pond” doesn’t have a name on any map I’ve seen. It’s too small for that. But it does have a lot of company, in the western Adirondacks and elsewhere, from New England and eastern Canada to northern Europe. In any event, more than two decades after Grandad took my brother and me to that “pretty good spot” in the pool below the falls, I paddled my pack canoe toward the shallow outlet of Dead Pond.
It’s a pretty place, bounded by high, steep banks clothed in mature maples and towering white pines. It was a fine early autumn day, too, pleasantly cool but not yet cold. The maples were blazing with brilliant red and orange tints. A loon wailed in the far distance, while jays scolded me from the hillside and chipmunks scurried noisily through the papery fallen leaves. Yet something was wrong. The pond was eerily still. No water striders skated by. No trout dimpled the surface. No heron fished the weedy shallows. I looked over the gunwale into the depths. At first glance, all was well. The water was crystal clear. I could see every detail of the bottom, down maybe 15 feet below my keel. Every pebble, every grain of sand, stood out in sharp relief. But nothing moved. No tadpoles wriggled into sight. No turtles stirred. No fish swam by. No living crayfish darted about, though their bleached exoskeletons were everywhere, each one perfectly preserved, like funerary monuments in some abandoned cemetery. Logs long submerged looked freshly felled. Even the new-fallen leaves seemed unnaturally bright, their colors undamped by immersion. The water beneath my keel was crystal clear. The surface sparkled in the sun. But the pond was dead. I didn’t linger.
Later, back in my home waters, on flows and rivers stained a rich brown by tannins from rotting leaves, waters that teemed with insects, fish, and birds, I again had reason to reflect on the mystery of color. Sometimes things aren’t what they seem at first glance, and beauty is no guarantee of either life or health. It always pays to look twice.
You can’t judge a book by its cover, right? And you can’t judge water by its color. Life is mighty untidy at the best of times, and living water is seldom crystal clear. Dead Pond looks lovely, no doubt about it. Perfect setting. Sparkling water. A picture-postcard wilderness scene. But then look again. Look below the surface. And what do you see now? A memorial to something lost. Nothing more. Sterile. Silent. Dead—dead in fact as well as name. Give me the “river of beer” any day!
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