It was mid-April this year before I went out on the Squannacook River. In autumn I typically stay out until the new ice is too thick to push my boat through, (about a third of an inch), and I’m back by March in time to break up the last of the corn ice. This spring I was unavoidably detained.
When I made my late arrival, the first thing I noticed was how busy the beavers had been. Trees were down everywhere like a cyclone had come through. Some were impressive in size, as much as 18 inches in diameter. It’s puzzling how the beavers do it. Sharp teeth alone can’t explain it. Take the sharpest knife you can find and try to chip away at an oak tree, and see what I mean. The wood chips a beaver makes are small miracles. The little guy bites them off by the thousands in an hour, any one of which would occupy a man all day in the chewing.
I found the river to be as much mud and slime as water. The mud was an agar, an aromatic and fertile stew, a volatile compound nearing its flash point under the April sun. The latent energy was palpable, as if all hell was about to break loose.
With no leaves on the trees yet, one has a good view of the hawks and owls perched overhead. There are few fish or amphibians to be found so early, and the scene has every hallmark of an ambush. The innocents yet sleep on the bottom. Soon they will surface to their long-awaited dance of spring, but for many of them it will be a short dance indeed.
The painted turtles are out. They love to sun themselves beside the water, but they keep a wary eye open. Paddling along, one rarely catches them unawares. Usually before one ever sees them there are only the concentric rings where they made their getaway. On this excursion I kept still long enough to see two come up onto a log. They seemed less cautious than usual, which at first I ascribed to spring fever. But when they began to mate I understood the reason for their carelessness. It seems they share at least one wanton instinct with man.
In a shallow lagoon the water begins to boil and grow turbid. I paddle over to investigate and then instinctively pull hard astern when I see an enormous snapping turtle on the bottom, raising hell. He’s the military force in the area. He’s built for combat. He’s even the right olive and brown colors. He eyes me malevolently as he smashes and chops his way through the sunken leaves like an imperialist tank crashing through a colonial village. He has no fear. Every living thing flees before him. Watching, I hear an inner voice say what seems like sound advice: Don’t fall out of the boat.
Back on shore I crossed paths with a man carrying a fishing rod. He bemoaned how an osprey he saw had all the luck that day. I pointed out that the osprey probably did better because it was willing to go into the river after the fish instead of just sitting on the dry shore trying to pull them out. My man did not laugh. That’s okay, because I wasn’t really joking.
When I meet other men by the river the first question is inevitably, “Any luck?” By which they mean, did I catch any fish? I am tempted to answer that I did not catch anything but that I apprehended a thing or two. But that would be obnoxious so I just say I did not come to fish, and move along before they can ask what’s in their eyes: “Then why on earth are you here?”
One needs no reason to go out on the Squannacook. If anything, one needs a good reason to leave her, and an even better reason not to go to her at all. She is a flowing elixir for the mind. She is ever constant and never twice the same. She offers an infinite variety of ideas and suggestions to the imagination. And like the magic sweets in the fable, though we always have an appetite for more of her, we always come away from her fulfilled.
Chris Mills lives in Groton with his wife and three teenage children. Chris can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.