The Same Path

The Same Path

by Dan Kuhlman


“To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday.”

John Burroughs


There is something deep inside which clamors for the singular and the unique — the “terra incognita" beckoning the soul, the drumbeat of exploration pushing outward. Yet I believe John Burroughs has grasped a truth as well, perhaps something deeper, which yearns for a bit of the familiar and the lessons it can teach.

It was a pleasant December 28th when my friend Paul and I decided to float the Kansas River from Lecompton to Lawrence. This is essentially my “backyard” section, the one with which I am most familiar. Several years ago, I floated this same section of river once a month for a year. I wanted to to see if I could learn what it had to teach under different conditions, seasons, water levels, temperatures, even the vagaries of my own mood. Living near Lecompton admittedly made the logistics easier to float this section, but I would like to think I was channelling a bit of Burroughs — digging deeper into the familiar, the same path. I often enjoy traveling distances for fresh adventure and sights unseen, yet I fear, too often, we may sacrifice the familiar on the altar of novelty.

Paddling the Kansas River may not be considered high adventure, but it holds its own surprises and is one of the few “wild places” that is local and readily accessible — 173 miles of public waterway, a National Water Trail, wandering through Northeast Kansas. Stay within the high water marks of the channel and you are on “your land”.

So once again, at about 11:00 a.m., I pushed into the waters of the Kansas River at Lecompton Rising Sun landing, paddling easily, letting the light current carry me under a bridge. The weather this winter had been rather mercurial, with bitter cold punctuated by balmy interludes — and here was one of those interludes. High, patchy, cirrus clouds accented a pale blue sky as the temperature crept into the upper 40’s. A light NW wind along with water flow of 3,800 cfs made conditions perfect — a moderate flow with some exposed sandbars, but a generous channel to navigate. Flocks of snow geese graced the sandbars, noisily taking flight as we approached. A bald eagle pair examined us from a tree on the north bank, staring as we meandered along. We were following the path of least resistance, listening to the hushed tones of the river.

After an hour or so of paddling we decided to stop at a large sandbar, relax, stretch our legs a bit, and get a bite to eat. The paddling had been excellent, yet wandering across a sandbar in the Kansas River in December, with a warming sun overhead, seemed ample reward for the day’s effort itself. Refreshed and ready to move on, we organized to continue our paddle.

When pushing off, we noticed a persistent line of white in the distance downstream. It was very defined and I had never before seen anything quite like that on the river. We pondered a bit as to what it might be. Snow? Probably not, as the temperature had been warm enough to

turn any lingering snow into meltwater. A line of rocks on the shore? Perhaps, but why hadn’t I noticed them before? Pushing into the current and snaking our way along we continued musing on the mysterious white line, until closing in it became apparent; that line of white was in fact a giant sheet of ice perched across half of the river channel just before the narrows and Buck Creek meander.

We stared at it for quite awhile trying to take it all in, as this was definitely not expected, and our senses were having a problem processing the information. Here was the “something new” that Burroughs had been talking about, but it just seemed so out of place. This was no small ice wall. It was a solid ten feet thick, stretching across half the river channel, and a good quarter mile long. It had broken into pieces, and we could kayak right up to the ice and into it,  following the narrow ribbons of water cutting through. Sort of like being in Alaska — only this was Kansas, and it took on a dreamlike quality. Here was magic, pure and simple, and the river was the magician pulling quite a surreal rabbit out of its hat.

We spent 30 minutes marveling at this provocative piece of nature. Paddling next to it, listening to the sound of the current against the ice, exploring the passageways, paddling back upstream to do it all again. Neither of us wanted to leave, but knew we had to disengage to continue downstream.

Floating away I looked back over my shoulder as we rounded a bend, still amazed, wanting to make sure that had really happened. I have no idea how that wall of ice formed; what natural processes built it up into the stature it had attained. Rilke admonishes us to “live the questions”, honor the mystery, let it stand on its own, and I am content in that ignorance. The experience was enough for me, and did not beg an explanation.

I recalled other times I had been surprised on this stretch of river when I was paddling it monthly over the course of a year:

A March afternoon, turning southward into a stiff 30 mph wind, waves kicking up over my bow into the cockpit; the kayak slapping down on the water cresting each wave, paddling continuously for all I was worth to travel one mile in an hour.

A November storm front blowing through on the heels of a perfectly calm afternoon, and the temperature dropping 30 degrees in less than a minute; the wind switching from dead calm to 40 mph from the northwest, whitecaps pushing me along a river that had gone from glassy to standing waves, in an instant.

A February float at low water, lazily meandering with the channel, and a bald eagle sitting on a piece of driftwood on the sandbar. I slowly approach, not moving, wondering how close I can get. The kayak rubs up against the sandbar, the eagle 30 feet away; staring, a full five minutes, but time seemingly standing still, pausing for a deep and thoughtful breath.

And that more recent time with two good friends, standing on a sandbar with the sun setting — silent, watching, listening; stars popping out of the sky with a hint of the Milky Way forming at the edge of vision, coyotes barking in the distance, a full moon rising in the east.

The same river, the same stretch of river. But different, each and every time.

And then this December day. I considered going back again but did not, though was sorely tempted. At any rate, I suspect the second time would have proven anticlimactic. It was the unexpected nature of the ice that brought the lesson home, firmly embedded in the familiar.

I float this stretch of river with no expectations, it does not have to perform. Sometimes I notice nothing new, no matter how attentive or mindful. And perhaps it is during those times, when the river is apparently mute, that it is possible to hear a still deeper call; those times when I take note of the currents of my own life, the river sliding by like memories. In that stillness, that silence, the river is good enough to invite me to examine the deep corners of my being  providing a framework for self reflection rarely found elsewhere. Perhaps this is what Sigurd Olson experienced when he reflected,

“At times in quiet waters one does not speak aloud but only in whispers, for then all noise is sacrilege.”

And, quite possibly, the something new that Burroughs mentioned may be more about myself than the river.

So there are rich experiences and rewards to be mined, lessons to be learned through the discipline of the same path:  the bald eagle, the coyotes, the November gust, the spring waves, the binding nature of friendship, the wall of ice, or times of silence and reflection, carving channels into my own life.

I may not know exactly what to expect each time I push off into the water, but whether it is a new path or an old, the river appears to reward persistence and is generous to a fault when trusted.