Taking the Plunge in December
When I lost my day job in September, I made a number of resolutions, many of which have fallen by the wayside. Some I can’t recall. One vow, however, remains indelible: to dive into the Eight Mile River once a month, every month, all year round.
I have come oh-so-close in the past, but January and February are killers. Windows of opportunity — high water minus ice flows, combined with sunny, windless afternoons — are rare during 40-hour work weeks.
The river, which my mother-in-law calls a “crick,” marks our property’s eastern border, across the hayfield. To receive full immersion credit, a bather must walk barefoot from the house, a 200-yard ordeal, clad in gym shorts and clutching a towel to one’s bosom.
I took care of December on day one. It was a piece of cake. Still, the dog went crazy, running in tight circles and yipping frenetically as I clambered up the rocky bank on all fours. Even my neighbor’s stolid cows trudged over to the barbed wire for a gander at advanced mammalian behavior.
Then my son, home from college, insisted we take the plunge on Christmas Day. I went in almost daily in September and every other day in October, but twice in December was overdoing it. Nonetheless, I tiptoed behind Jackson towards my fate. Tenacious snow patches and frozen groundwater guarded the path. This would be baptism of an entirely different hue.
There was no ice along the banks, but only because the current was running at several knots. Strategy to minimize time in the water was of the essence. Several of my toes were already off the grid. If we used our normal spot, we would be swept downstream into the rock dam that we cobble together each summer.
So we followed the narrow animal path along the bank for some 25 feet, found a convenient rock, bent our knees and launched ourselves, reluctantly, downstream. I had hoped to get more distance out of the dive. The water burned at first. I emerged upright arms flailing, numb legs churning the river bottom. The exit rock, incredibly, was more than 10 feet away. The freshet buffeted me from mid-torso down. The skin exposed to the air felt angry and red, totally separate from my torpid lower body. Soon I would experience a painful “brain freeze,” like you get from pounding Piña Coladas.
My son was already on dry land. I began to bellow. Bad form or no, the world needed to know what I had gotten myself into. I remember being deeply grateful that I wasn’t doing this solo. After perfunctorily posing for my wife’s and a friend’s photos, we ran — more like galumphed back to the house.
Such painful encounters aside, I consider the river to be part of the family. It’s where my son caught his first trout, where we looked for turtles and frogs and indigo buntings, where our dog Sophie engaged a six-point buck in a comedic swimming match. A hawk once dive-bombed me while I was performing ablutions, apparently mistaking me for a muskrat. The other day I spied a mink promenading on an ice flow — before it saw me and retreated into the water like a brown Slinky.
We have kayaked most of our river's eight miles, all the way to the Connecticut River. My wife and I went over in a canoe, long ago, in March. We made it to shore all right, but the canoe kept on navigating nicely without us. The stretch above us is more challenging, and my son and I tackled the rapids when he was ten or eleven, in April. We tipped over twice and portaged around a few places that we deemed to be life-threatening. Afterwards, as we dragged the boats across our field, he said simply, “I’m never doing that again.”
Jackson and I camped by the river once, when he was four. The experience inspired existential musings. It was sunny 70-degree late September day as we pitched the tent. It would dip into the high thirties by dawn. That night, when I explained that our dog was only growling to protect us, Jackson was anxious to know: “From what?”
Later, having left the tent to relieve ourselves, and shivering in the dark, he wanted to know: “Dad, why are we doing this?”
Late January brought sub-zero temperatures. The ice was thick enough to skitter across where I would have made my first swim of 2009. I suppose I could have broken through with a splitting mall. But I am not that crazy. Another resolution shot to hell.
On my riverine treks I sometimes encounter a great blue heron standing one-legged on an ice shelf, grimly contemplating a rare patch of open water. Having invested too much time and energy in his position, he looks at me but does not fly. I turn back. I know what he’s going through.