I'd had a restless night, with sleep just beyond my grasp for too long. I stumbled around the house, getting ready for work while coaxing my son into preparing for school. Stepping outside and locking the door I was pleasantly surprised to feel how warm it was, despite it being the first week of December. The sun hadn't yet come up, but there was just enough light to illuminate the neighborhood, filtered through a thick layer of fog. Streetlights stood out as beacons through the grey distance, and the sound of traffic on the busy street one block away was barely a whisper. I stopped to enjoy the sight, and listened to the sound of moisture dripping from the bare branches of the oak trees. I've always loved the fog, and this morning it brought back an experience from 15 years ago.
I'd gotten up early in the morning - before the sunrise on a late summer day - and loaded up my paddling gear. It was a moist, cool morning as I strapped my kayak to the roof of the car and quietly slipped through the deserted streets, heading for the highway. Less than an hour later I pulled into the parking area beside the ranger's office at McConnells Mill State Park.
|Me on Slippery Rock Creek in 2002.|
The sun was just over the horizon, spreading a coppery light across the landscape, but the deep gorge that held the creek looked like a cauldron of shifting mist. Heavy fog filled the depths of the narrow canyon, rising to nearly the rim where a lazy breeze dissipated it across the ridge top. As the sunlight strengthened I put on my sprayskirt and pfd, shouldered my boat, and hiked across the meadow to descend the trail to the water.
There is an easier place to access the creek - an old bridge where you can park beside the road and have your boat down to the water in thirty seconds. But I'd always preferred the trail behind the ranger's office. It was only a quarter mile or so, descending among the rock faces and dense forest via several rustic staircases. Near the bottom, where it wasn't quite as steep, the stairs ended and you had to pick your way down a rocky path to the creek bank. Though it wasn't exactly an easy trip carrying 50 pounds of boat and gear, I always looked forward to this trip and the feeling of immersing myself in the depths of the gorge.
This morning it was a mystical experience. The fog obscured the edge of the woods, and thickened as I descended slick stairs. The sound of the whitewater below, usually a roar by the halfway point, was a distant hiss. The hemlocks and ferns slowly dripped fog borne moisture to the moss below, and occasionally a songbird would call, it's voice padded by the fog. At the bottom of the stairs I carefully picked my way across the rocks, slowing to clear the crowding trees with the boat. By the time I got down to the gravel and mud at theedge of the water the fog was so dense that I could barely see 10 feet. The bright sunlight I'd experienced at meadow above was a soft sterling glow, giving a strange cast to the dark green and brown of the forest.
I slipped into the boat and stretched the skirt over the cockpit rim. The water level was low enough that there was little risk, especially since I'd paddled this creek dozens of times over the past year. By now I knew the path of the narrow whitewater creek very well, and felt confident in making a solo trip at low water levels. I picked up my paddle and slid down the bank into the current, guiding the boat to the center of the creek. Ahead of me I could hear the muted sound of a rapid, growing louder and sharper as I approached. Yet the scene ahead was still a wall of fog, enclosed by the dark rocks of the banks to my left and right. I knew I had to be to the right to enter the first rapid, and I eased the boat closer to that shore as the current picked up. I strained my eyes, peering into the gloom - and now I could see the outline of the white foam on the dark water through the mist. Another paddle stroke and I was at the lip of the ledge and then past, the fog slowly rolling in the breeze above the rapid. I cut the boat into an eddy, looking upstream, but the waves were already lost in the fog.
I peeled out back into the main current, and guided the kayak downstream. Once again the sound of whitewater slowly gained volume and focus - and then was revealed at the last moment of the approach. This place that was so familiar to me seemed like somewhere new - yet it was only my familiarity that could allow me to press forward with barely any visual cues. As the boat dove through the mist and turbulent waves the cool water splashed into my face, bringing the morning into sharp reality. Each rapid was an experience, both the same and different than ever before, and I lingered at the eddies, reluctant to approach the end of the run.
|Even longer ago - me in the Pirouette on Slippery Rock Creek in 2001.|
Finally I made my way through the last rapid. I knew the bridge for the takeout was ahead, though it was still concealed in the fog. Floating on the current, I didn't paddle until it came into view, and then eased towards the shore where I gave one last strong stroke to push the boat onto the sandy shore.
I left the boat hidden in the woods near the creek, and began the walk back upstream towards the car along the streamside trail. At the halfway point the fog was beginning to thin noticeably. And as I finished the climb out of the gorge the brilliant sunshine once again warmed me, with clear blue skies above. By the time I reached the car I was sweating. Looking down into the gorge there was only the slightest wisp of mist to be seen, twisting and swirling as it slowly disappeared.