Monday, November 18, 2013

Dark Water, Part 3 of 3

Making a night paddle (or hike) work depends on the cooperation of the moon, which in turn depends on your knowledge of its phases. A new moon is low and setting in the west when night comes. So, you’ll only see a new moon in the sky for the first hour of the night. As the week progresses and the moon approaches its first half-moon phase, it gets higher and higher in the sky each night at sunset. When the moon is at exactly its first half-moon point (one week before a full moon), it will be directly overhead when the sun sets and night comes. So this “first half-moon” will light the night sky from sunset to midnight, sinking over the western horizon around midnight. My paddle tonight is under this first half-moon, so when I stepped into my kayak soon after sunset, the moon was already high in the sky.

 After an hour of drifting, I decided it was time to go back to the mouth of Forney Creek, so I turned around and began paddling into the wind. The night sounds changed from insects, frogs, and owls to the hum of wind in my ear. All I could now hear was the blowing of the breeze, the “kurrl” of my paddles dipping alternately into the water, and the “plink, plink” of the ripples against the hull of the kayak. I pulled my hat down tighter on my head so it wouldn’t blow off. My favorite headlamp is clipped to it, and I’d hate to lose them both in the water. If my hat blew off, I could probably paddle back and pick it up as it lingered on the surface, but it’s an experiment that I’d rather not try, especially at night.

 As I paddled back over 65+ years of mud and sediment that have been accumulating below me, I began to hear the sound of the moving water again. I think about the many, many years that this erosion from mountains to seas has been going on. I ponder how our civilization has changed this process. Fontana Dam has created a lake where none previously existed. How many years will it take for the muddy entrances to all these feeder rivers to expand to fill in these channels? This mud should be in the Gulf of Mexico by now, but instead it’s under and around me.

 But I can’t be too critical of modern civilization. In small doses, it can be comfortable, even beneficial. It’s modern civilization that has given me not only this lake, but a plastic kayak to explore it with. It’s given me the roads and the truck to turn a week-long trip from Knoxville to Bryson City into a two hour drive. It’s the glitz and glitter of modern life that attracts people to malls, movies, and TVs, keeping them off Fontana Lake so I can be alone tonight. Civilization has created many of the environmental problems that we face today, but it has also given us the equipment and opportunities to enjoy those parts of our world that we haven’t yet despoiled. It’s even allowed us to get beyond the day to day battle to feed ourselves and to elevate our thoughts to pursue things like education, health, and love of the outdoors – the very outdoors that we almost eradicated. I hate irony. How ironic that life should have so much of it.

 After my night paddle, I walked back across the mud flats and toward the opening in the woods where the trail to the campsite begins. When the lake is full in July, that opening would be at the water’s edge, and this mud flat would be under water, but on this October night I have to walk about a hundred yards to get there. Stepping out of the moonlight and onto the trail in the trees is like stepping into a dark tunnel. I turn on the headlamp on the brim of my hat and walk about ten minutes back to the campsite.

 The only sounds I hear are the crunching of leaves under my feet and the relentless roar of the river a few yards to my right. They are the same sounds that a mountaineer would have heard 100 years ago, or the Cherokee 300 years ago. I feel the weight of nature and history surround me.

 It’s good to be alone in the mountains and to sleep by a river that flows into dark water.