My nose, outside the covers, is like a dog’s — cold and wet. I’m been dreaming about skinny dipping in a freezing mountain lake. When I open my eyes I’m in a black and white photo — silhouettes of river willow and dogwood hover in the predawn haze outside my window. I pull on my jeans (I’ve kept them under the covers to warm them), zip a down coat over my jammie tops, tie up my tennis shoes and creep to the outhouse over frosty decks. The sun is somewhere, like me, trying to wake up, warm up, pop its head up into another day.
Back inside I wad up newspaper and stuff it with a few dry sticks onto the coals of last night’s fire. It catches. A small beginning to turn this little Skagit River shack into something cozy again.
Last week’s horrific Paris attacks, as if mirroring a dysfunction in human rhythm, caused my own heart to fall out of synch; so I decided it was time for a day off, a real get-away. And Seattle friend Cathryn Vandenbrink said, “Come with me to the river.” Yes! There’s nothing like getting off the grid to remind us what’s essential, to help us breathe again.
The river was full and fierce when we motored in Thursday afternoon, with swirling discs indenting the surface like water saucers without cups. The weekend storm brought down new snags, big ones. It looked like Allen “Black Dog” Engels might have trouble getting to his shack on the other side of the island. The river was slowly and forcefully changing its mind, taking a new route to the sea.
My computer was left behind on my desk. I turned my iPhone off when we arrived, after snapping and sending a few quick pics to friends. I packed a yellow legal pad and a pen, of all things. Now I’m writing with the tablet on my knees in front of the woodstove, flames blazing, feeling like Abe Lincoln, judicious and correct.
A white porcelain pot of river water is on top of the stove readying itself for the dishes left in a pile from last night’s dinner with artist and neighbor Allen Moe. He came downriver to join us; then set off after, in the half–moon night, to paddle home upriver into the next slough. We left the clean-up for this morning.
Just as pink appears over the trees to the northeast and an orange glow deepens as if on a scrim behind the willows, I add another little pot of drinking water to the stove. The sun must be yawning and stretching too, getting ready to Skol the day.
Then it’s time for breakfast, and coffee! Hot water drips through Peet’s Major Dickason’s Blend. We throw some bacon into a fry pan on the fire and savor the smells as the sun rises lazily over the alders. Crack four eggs into the pan — leave just enough bacon grease for flavor — and we sit down to a hot hearty meal. Sunlight fills the room; moisture from our breath on the inside of the windows reflects the glow. The storm is a distant memory. A wasp who was, I suppose, cold, hibernating and dreaming in some corner, has been revived by the warmth and lands on my shoulder. He/she is gently relocated out-of-doors.
Happily fed, and sufficiently caffeined, we text a few messages to friends and family — yes, our cell phones work here in a surprising conjunction of circumstances. The sun has jumped fully into the day, turning all the frost on the cottonwoods and cattails into liquid light dripping off the branches.
At the table a drop of water plops onto my sleeve. Hmm. A leak in the roof? Oh well. It’s a shack. It’s drafty. The windows are beautifully mismatched. A few cracks in the walls show through. There are no door handles, only cleverly-made wooden latches, all different. Everything is perfect!
So another cup of coffee is in order. There’s no rush, no need to hurry anything up.
I walk out to look at the low tide — the muddy edge of the bank is revealed. Fog rises from a field of reeds. There’s still frost in miniature spires covering every inch of the slatted Adirondack chairs on the deck. When I set my coffee cup down, it melts a perfect circle in the ice. I amuse myself by making Olympic rings on the wide arms of the chairs. Every detail of the world is precious. Moving slowly, I can take things in differently.
Then the big pot is boiling, so we pile breakfast dishes on top of those from last night and pour water over the lot.
Dishes done and back in their places, it’s time to pause for a moment or two in the chairs in the sun pondering what life must have been like a couple generations ago. Black Dog and Allen stop by and we sit on the dock watching the river. A stranger paddles up in a home-made boat and we chat about local names — Bald Mountain, Crooked and Steamboat Sloughs, Triangle Marsh, Fishtown, Barge Island — and the flood that brought this geography into being. Tundra geese — or are they Brants? — vee overhead.
Too soon it’s time to go. Fold up the blankets, the down quilt, the sheets and mattress covers — all get stashed inside a plastic zipper bag against the mice. Sweep the deck. Split and bring in wood to dry for the next visit. Check supplies. We’ll haul out our garbage. Bring gas cans for filling. Take some laundry home.
Granted the city supports this idyll: Seattle water in our cups; a couple propane lights made dinner prep easier — Costco chicken, organic carrots, sautéed spinach and cranberry sauce; construction leavings from Capital Hill, 2X4s and framing materials, got our fire going.
For a day or two, life was easy, natural, followed the changing light. When it got dark, we went to bed. We rose with the sun. We watched the day unfold on the river, tide rising, falling.
Now we fold ourselves into the skiff, convince the Johnson outboard to turn over (eight pulls on the cord), and head upriver, wind on our cheeks. Three eagles soar and swoop, cutting arcs in the air above us: black wings parentheses against the blue, white tails flared. Ten stately Blues sit in trees at the shore as we pass.
When our vessel nudges the dock, we tie up, haul totes back into the trunk of the car and, reluctantly, leave the river to its own devices. But for this moment, and several following, all’s right with the world.