Travel Stories: On New Hampshire's Androscoggin River, Catherine Buni tried to draw her paddling partners into conversation. But her questions only got her so far.
07.13.12 | 10:28 AM ET
For someone with so much to say, Alex Wilson isn’t saying much. As the author of “Your Green Home” and founder of Environmental Building News, he’s published thousands of words. As the co-author of a series of guidebooks called Quiet Water, he’s written thousands more.
But this morning, one hour up New Hampshire’s Androscoggin River under clearing skies, Wilson’s words are few. Barely audible. Spoken into late-summer wind and grassy riverbanks, where great blue heron patiently stilt through the shallows. Still waters run deep, they seem to say, with pickerel especially.
Alex, bearded and wearing a corduroy button-down patterned with loons, and his wife and business partner, Jerelyn, share a canoe—Jerelyn up front, Alex at the stern. They’ve been paddling this way for 25 years. At Alex’s feet sits Roxy, a meditative golden retriever, who, Alex says, “loves to sleep in a tent and won’t chase wildlife.” The couple is in their 50s now, and, with their kids grown and temperatures rising, they’re working harder than ever.
A grateful guest, I follow in Jerelyn and Alex’s rippling wake. We detour through a hushed marsh and I inexpertly run my solo kayak aground. I don’t mind being stuck, at least not for long. Earlier that morning, I’d strapped my kayak to the roof of my car and driven north to explore a few of Wilson’s words in particular: “With quiet water paddling, you can focus on being there instead of getting there.” I’d spent the last week zipping around preparing for the three-day trip, the extra planning an unavoidable amplification of life’s everyday hum and buzz, and now—not that I’d noticed—there’s nothing to do but enjoy the river. Right?
I dig in and rush to catch up with the Wilsons.
“Have you been here before?”
“What’s your favorite spot?”
“Why Quiet Water?”
Looking away to the woods, Jerelyn and Alex answer in turn, a few reluctant words I can’t quite make out. But I’m closing in fast.
“Normally,” Alex says, “we paddle close to shore.” Alex passes the binoculars to Jerelyn, gesturing toward a shadow or flick and flitter. “Sometimes we’ll see a mink.”
“If,” Jerelyn says, her green eyes alight, “we’re quiet.”
This time, having finally caught up, I hear every word. “Do not speak unless you can improve upon the silence,” the saying goes, and, as anyone who’s heard it knows, once you leave the road behind, the silence of the Androscoggin as you slip east toward Lake Umbagog is pretty near perfect. The river is flat and wide, and each time a fish jumps, the water bubbles with a champagne fizz.
That afternoon, after setting up tents and stringing a drying line, I’m eager to hear the story about the Wilsons’ first trip here 19 years ago. But Jerelyn says she’s going to take a nap. Alex, it appears, is already sleeping. Roxy’s found a nest of sedge herself.
I think about making dinner, making a fire, making a call to my husband and kids, my mother, at home taking care of my dying father, my iPhone, left, receptionless, on the front seat of my car. Maybe there’ll be a trailhead break-in, I half hope, setting up my chair, where I sit and consider the clouds cowspotting the hillside on the far shore, until I, too, fall asleep.
At some point, Alex reappears and starts whittling sticks into kindling. As he makes a fire, we talk. About paddling and passive houses, gardening, climate change, the $50,000 award Alex has just won for his pioneering work in sustainability, our aging parents, our children. Oh, it was quite a trip, I finally hear. Their younger daughter, two at the time, had a high fever. It was pouring rain, and Alex was scheduled to paddle some 40-odd miles of shoreline. Did you consider turning back? “Oh, sure,” says Jerelyn, “I remember holding Frances tight to my chest. We’re going into the wilderness, I remember thinking. We could wait it out anywhere, why not here?”
We cover 10 miles the next day. We see sandpipers, a hummingbird, loons and eagles, the shadow of a moose, the wake of an otter, kingfishers. Around rocky points at Glasby Cove and Pine Point, we paddle, the water mirror still and clear emerald green—for now. At the headwaters of the Rapid River, we stop for lunch. When we’re done eating, Alex drifts off to a quiet spot. Jerelyn finds her own.
I’m happy to follow their lead.
Just that morning, while sitting silently on the shore, I’d caught a glimpse of something bright. In the quiet, there it was, just as Jerelyn and Alex had said, a mink. It stared at us for longer than any of us could have hoped, then dove, curling around the rocks, its feet flashing white. When Alex called to it, kissing the back of his hand, the mink cocked its perfect little head as if to say, what? And then, with an obsidian wink, it was gone.