Essays history

Jamie McEwan II: Years Later, I Added the Frame- Chattooga River, 1971

Look at the moon,” I said, pointing. “And that star, and the little cloud.”


“And the ridge, and those other clouds. What a picture. What do you think–do you include the ridge and the clouds, or zoom in on just the little cloud and the moon and the star?”

A hypothetical question–we had no camera.

“Why not include everything?” said Tom. “Why draw a line around it?”

I looked over. Brother Tom, driving, sat sprawled, his seat as far back as it would go, one rawboned hand lightly holding the wheel.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Just–for fun.”

“We don’t have to cut things up. We don’t have to take them to pieces.”

I looked at the moon again: a thin crescent moon with its star and pink cloud keeping pace with us while tree-topped ridges rose and fell between.

“So many people,” Tom went on, “only see things the way everyone else sees them. Pre-digested. They don’t think anything is actually real unless it’s on TV, or if there’s a photo. Or a story.”

I waited for him to go on; his last sentence hung in the air with the pitch of incompletion. But the minutes unrolled with no further comment.

Perhaps Tom had concluded that by talking at all he was interfering with the experience. I tried to think of some safe topic of conversation. Failing, I turned away, rested my head on the cold, vibrating glass and watched the silhouettes of trees and signs speed by like–no, not like anything. Like themselves.


I woke in full daylight, to a discord of chirping that seemed to herald a spring morning, rather than late fall. Tom was not in his sleeping bag. Pulling on jeans and a sweat shirt I climbed out of the van’s back hatch and walked upriver.

The road was an orange-red gash through the pine forest, a startlingly bright color to northern eyes. From a low area on the left, from beneath a chill swirling mist, came the sounds of gently flowing water, bubblings and churnings plus an occasional percussion of plops. The sun was hidden somewhere in a pearl-gray sky; the tops of the pines trembled only slightly.

Too cold to linger long, I jogged back to the van. Tom sat in the sliding-door opening gently spreading peanut butter on too-soft bread.

“Maybe we should hit a restaurant for breakfast,” I suggested.

“Notice any last night?”

“I guess not.”

“I think we’re pretty far from any town. Besides, you probably want to get an early start.”

“I guess. You know, I was hoping it was going to be warmer here. I think we’re going to have to go farther south.”

“Think so? If we go much farther south we’ll run out of mountains.”

I didn’t answer.

“We’ve left the snow behind, anyway,” he added.

“Yeah.” I moved his crutches, sat beside him, reached for the bread.

“What are you going to do today?” I asked him.

“I don’t know. Poke around, I guess.”

He would stay dry all day. For a moment I almost wished I could trade places with him, injured knee and all.


It wasn’t long before I dropped my decked canoe onto the water, snapped my sprayskirt on its cockpit rim, and took up my paddle. There were many strokes ahead of me.

During the first miles I picked a dry line down mild rapids, while the mist dissipated and the sun became a bright spot in the still-prevailing haze.

Then a well-defined eddy beckoned. I planted a paddle deep into its solid stillness, swung myself around to face upstream, and then drove out into the current again. Now that I had turned one way my muscles required a corresponding stretch on the opposite side; I soon found an appropriate eddy. Then the first side again. Back and forth. As the river began to fall more quickly I paused in the center of each eddy to look ahead, twisting around in my boat. Often a single glance was all I needed, allowing me to flow back into the current without entirely losing momentum.

At a deeper, more serious note from the river I pulled against one shore. A vertical gap in my view downstream marked a steeper drop. I stopped and climbed from my boat, making the awkward transition from water to land-animal.

Three choices. I could carry around. I could run the drop before me, to plunge into a bubbling pool, with unknown consequences. Or I could scout a side channel that flowed off to river right.

I shivered in the mist that rose from the churning water before me, and again felt a shrinking distaste for all that turbulent wetness. I could easily pick up my boat and carry around; the pool below the falls waited only steps away. No one was there to judge me, to coax me; no one was there to impress. The only thing that I had to do today was to deliver myself at the take-out before dark, where food and shelter waited. In fact–what was I doing here at all? Why go to all the trouble to get myself into a situation in which my only goal was to get myself out again?

Take away the prop of other people, the support of their gaze, the stimulus of their conversation–was there anything left?

I looked up at the sky, around at the undramatic brown hills, and felt a crazy, disconnected freedom. I could scream, sing, shout, run naked…. No one was there; no one would pass this way for months. How strange it seemed, that of all of the places on Earth, I was in this particular one. I looked back up the river. No trace remained of my passage. Yet here I was, somehow. Still shivering.

Looking back at the drop I saw, in one sweeping glance, the proper line. I imagined how it would feel, how the strokes would fall, how the waves would jostle me. Then, without ever having come to a conscious decision, I trotted back to my boat.

Swooping with the water as it curved, then smacking into the boiling pool below, seemed so natural, so inevitable, that it was almost dreamlike. The imagined run and the experience had blended.

More rapids, more drops, more decisions. Rocks and water, hills and sky were my only audience. All the attention I would have given to companions fell only on these–and on myself. The day grew warmer, the sun brighter. Once I tried sunbathing on a flat rock out of the wind. Still too cold, the sun too hazed. I had brought no lunch. One part of me wanted only to put the miles behind me, to find food and warmth and companionship at the end of the run. Another part wanted nothing, was lost in the wordless isolation of the day.

In a calm stretch I pulled my boat onto shore and wandered up a small rise, between oaks and beeches and dogwood and rhododendron, to relieve myself. Away from the river I became aware of the calls of birds, the rustle and scamper of small animals, the soughing of wind in the trees. I walked further from the river, aimlessly exploring.

Who owned this land? Did anyone ever visit it?

I put my hand on a white oak tree and looked up, feeling its strength of trunk, its spread of bare reaching limbs. I laid my cheek against it as if to plumb the secrets of its woody heart.

The chill drove me back to my boat, where I was grateful to again fold my bare legs into its thin fiberglass protection. The sun, a white disc showing through the wooly overcast, had already passed its zenith. I had no watch, but I could feel the afternoon drawing on as I continued down the river.

Again I was forced to scout, again wondered why I should run a tricky ledge. Why bother? The desire seemed to come not from my mind but out of my hands, my arms, my back. This morning my body had demanded symmetrical turns. Now it urged me to put into motion the strokes I imagined while standing on shore.

Look. See. Do.

The river took on a new rhythm. The rapids became more continuous, the surrounding hills steeper. Now I threaded down among large, dark, worn rocks, half submerged, that brooded silently amidst the rushing waters.

I came to a rapid where the only clear channel lay between two large boulders in midstream. There was no good way to scout from shore; I paddled back and forth above the drop, snatching glimpses over my shoulder when I could. A smooth green path of water led over the lip between them, exiting below as a gush of white foam.

Finally I swung my canoe around and shot through the gap. Losing my balance I put out my paddle in an instinctive brace–it rasped over the rock–then with a “Crack!” that vibrated through my arm I tipped over.

I fell as through a mirror into another world: a cold, wet, unfriendly world where I could not breathe, could not see, could not hear. Stupidly not understanding, I tried to use my paddle to right myself. Failing, I realized that I held only a splintered shaft in my hands–the blade had broken off. I tried to roll up with my hands only, a maneuver that was easy in a swimming pool; failing again, I pulled my spray skirt from the cockpit rim, pushed my legs from the boat, and swam upward.

Light. Air. I grabbed the end-loop of my canoe and hung on grimly, looking from bank to bank in indecision. As I hesitated, the current washed me gently against a flat rock that just broke the surface. I crawled up onto it.

For some moments I lay, while the water drained from my clothes. But I couldn’t rest for long. I had to find the paddle blade. With miles still to go, I needed it.

I rose and gazed downstream. Not far below me the river fell away abruptly over and around an irregular line of boulders. No paddle.

It might have hung up somewhere in the drop below; if not, it was now washing downstream. I had to catch it. I had to try.

With a struggle I emptied my slippery water-filled craft, slid it into the water below the rock and stepped in. Without bothering with bracing or spray skirt I hand-paddled to the left bank, jumped out and, hoisting the canoe to my shoulder, tried to run along the bank.

But it was impossible to run amongst the jumble of boulders. In the next eddy I could find I climbed in again, pushing fully into the knee braces this time and attaching the spray skirt around me. From close-by, upstream, came the pulsating roar of the rapid I had just carried around. Downstream the waves were mild, and scooping at the water with both hands I made good time through them and around a bend.

There, above the next rapid, I saw the blond flash of freshly broken wood. Bent forward I dug away, harder and harder, as if sprinting for a finish line, as if thousands of spectators were cheering me on. I snatched up the broken blade just at the lip of the next drop.

Crude though it was–a blade with only six inches of splintered shaft for handle–it yet served far better than my hands. The rapid proved easy.

When the water slowed and deepened I rested, leaning forward on my front deck. Before me lay a long, quiet pool. I had reached the reservoir that filled the river valley with its unnatural flood.

The sound of rapids upstream became louder as I drifted around to face them. A patch of vivid blue appeared in the sky above the hills upstream. The first clear sky of the day. For one moment, seeing the sky, the hills, the trees, the river, it seemed that a great message was about to be given to me. I sat very still, floating, waiting in suspense.

No message came.

I breathed again. That scrap of luminescent blue emphasized the relative gloom of the shaded river. It must be getting late. And I had–what was it?–I tried to remember from the map–two or three miles of flat reservoir to cross before I reached the take-out.

Through experiment I found that the best way to use my stub of a paddle was to switch from one side to the other every few strokes. The splintered wood chafed my hands. My back ached. My legs cramped. It seemed much longer than a few miles. The riverbed widened into a lake that still did not reveal my brother or any sign of road.

I made for a light patch amidst the dull shoreline: a beach, I guessed. Slowly I crawled across the surface of the water. A dark spot resolved itself into Tom, sitting motionless. Watching me approach, no doubt. Now I existed in someone else’s eyes.

I paddled straight in, running my bow onto the rough pebbles. Tom sat against a little tree stump, his crutches beside him, looking at me with mild interest. The moment came when he should have spoken, asked a question, wondered at my plight … and the moment went by in silence. My turn … somehow silence was the proper answer.

Silence to silence went the conversation as I climbed stiffly from my boat, hoisted it, and waited for Tom to push himself to his feet.

Still without speaking we made our way along a path through blackberry bushes. With one word, any word, I would have fallen back into everyday life. Instead I remained suspended. The diffuse light of the fading sunset, the water dripping from my boat, the ground beneath my feet, the bushes, Tom–I was acutely aware of them all. At the same time I was aware of my own awareness. I could look both ways–from outside and from inside–bounded and unbounded–framed and frameless–present and storied.


As he drove out the gravel take-out road, Tom threw out a long arm to point across me.

“Moon’s up,” he said, with a quizzical smile.

The moon gave only a fuzzy glow through the haze: unworthy of photographs, not suitable for framing.

“Oh, moon,” I said. “Oooooh moon!” I howled, and we laughed as the gravel clicked and the van swayed and the boats creaked above.