Huck Finn Fever Dream
Night of the Angry Beaver Attack
It damn well might have been a B movie, opening as it does with a couple of unsuspecting rubes out for the evening. Bauer and I rolled up and nosed the SUV into a crowded parking lot, next to adolescent punks grinding and kick flipping in a graffiti covered skate park. We lugged my dented blue metal canoe off the roof and down over the levee, onto a crowded beach where we came upon a menagerie of midtown freaks catching the last bit of sunshine, frolicking in full summer glory: dudes with tats and cutoffs, chicks in bikinis with nose rings. There was a motorboat anchored right off the beach, a little portable bbq billowing smoke, kids and moms, towels, blankets. Even the mean pit bulls looked happy chasing balls and frisbees. A wide open evening scene.
We stopped to catch our breath and get our gear squared away. A group of fellas beside us had their hip hop cranked up and were passing a thin cigarette around. It seemed they had been out there a long time, and well into a beer-fueled day rage. Bauer and I cracked cans of beer and shoved off into the glassy evening water of the American River. If you fancy a little history, this is the beachhead where John Sutter first landed in 1839 on his inland journey from Yerba Buena, the little town that became San Francisco. We too pushed upriver against a moderate current, not working too hard, enjoying the long rays of sun glinting on the water. Over there, some kids launching off a rope swing, screaming, doing flips. More dogs, tearing through the shallows.
My friend Bauer, the mild mannered, sensible one, was a rookie on this excursion. So I thought it best to initiate him into the underbelly aspects of river travel. “Hey Bauer, we gotta go through Cape Fear!” “Hmm. Sure, why not. What’s that?” The trestle came into view and we veered left toward the far bank and headed into a dark little opening in the foliage. We entered a narrow passage between the bank and an island, a 15 foot wide channel. As we passed under the low tree canopy, a creepy feeling came over our little boat. Heart of Darkness, Colonel Kurtz, spooky homeless camps visible on the island. “Exterminate all the Brutes!” We talked quietly and glided along, scanning the nasty littered scene for signs of life. Bottles, plastic bags, paper shreds, clothing, strewn around in a tableau of wasted life. But nothing stirred in this abandoned scene.
I advised Bauer to grip his paddle in the event of a close encounter, flashing back to the band manager in Spinal Tap who extolls the benefits of a solid cricket bat in the rough and tumble world of rock n roll. We ducked under low branches and made our way toward the light at the end of the tunnel. No activity, just a little adrenaline rush, and near the end of the channel a few downtrodden characters huddled around their megre camp.
And then it opened back out onto the wide river. Bauer looked back and I snapped a photo of him frozen in orange light, with the erector set trestle silhouetted behind. And on cue, a freight train rumbled overhead as we paddled underneath the bridge.
We continued up upriver past Goose Shit island, a lonely pile of rocks sticking out of the water. Darkness descends...that quality of rapidly dimming light so tangible you think you can touch it...the gloaming. We pass under Business 80 full of commuters hurrying home east and west, suspended fifty feet up, but worlds away from our canoe that is now cutting through the water, paddles pulling with purpose. Up further, this section of river is peaceful, no people, no litter. We stop for a few sips of beer and notice our friends way down river chasing after us. We push on!
After a time, the tranquility is broken by something stirring in the water over by the bank. We drift over, and scan near a large tree with an exposed web of roots, half in the water and half on the land. There it is again! We grip our paddles like before. And as we drift closer they are on us, tails flapping fangs bared, water flying. An angry beaver attack! "First mate Bauer, evasive maneuvers, sir! Avast!" And we steer back out into the main flow of the river. A close call indeed. These ugly, vicious water rodents have tenaciously executed their biological mandate, successfully defending the dam or nest or wherever the hell they abide.
We paddle the last hundred yards uneventfully, and slide into a wide sand beach just as the blood red full moon peeks out over the trees. Unload cooler, unfold lawn chairs. Crack more beers, and then greet three more boats just a little behind us. Beach party is underway as the lunar disc rises and lights up the riverscape. The Mahoney’s are here, and Duke, Chester, Bobby Sharman. And Mister Miller himself has arrived—Commodore Miller, the mastermind of this periodic full moon river odyssey, founder of the Fort Sutter Yacht Club. Hey, who doesn't want to be in a yacht club? The lanky, bespeckled Miller is such an advocate for the humble Grumman brand canoe, he has outfitted a whole armada of friends with Craigslist vessels of this type. He owns a rare Grumman "war canoe" with an 8 person capacity, used often at summer camps. I'm always intrigued to remember that a maker of rockets, spaceships and fighter jets also fabricates canoes. Product line diversity taken to the extreme.
It is a fine landing party. The air temperature matches skin temperature so that it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins (Christine Farren). Some of us plunge into the black water. On some of these trips guitars are played and campfires are lit. We swill more cans of beer, and a flask of whisky is passed around, until the river seems to tilt just a bit.
Much later, the boats shove off one-by-one for an easy tipsy float downstream. Bauer and me are last to depart. Merrily merrily the current carries us back under bridges, past islands and rope swings. The shoreline slips quickly past and we strain to make out our launch point in the moonlight. "Is it there? No over there! Wait, what's that?" Ahead on the bank we see a bonfire and twenty, thirty kids gathered around it. We pull off, join in with this random party to briefly greet our fellow river people. And away again. We manage to pull in and disembark where we started from. The fantasy of the beach party fades and grid of responsibility returns.
The next morning, certain questions remain. Was the moon actually that big and red? Did rabid beavers really surround our boat and viciously attack? And what was that bon fire crew all about? Questions left for you to ponder, knowing, as you do, about unreliable narrators where river tales are concerned. Conjecture? Huck Finn fever dream? Fancyboy river tourists? Canoe club nerds? Who knows? Ask Bauer, the one with a more straightforward sense of memory. He's got his own thoughtful, well considered opinions, initiated as he is now in the ways of our nocturnal summer odyssey.
© Justin Panson 2017, All rights reserved.
Photos by Duke, Miller, Bauer, Rich, Sasha and me. Maybe Sharman too.
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