Kayaking Among the Stars
On our very first night, we noticed that we could see stars reflecting in the river outside our window. Disconcerted by the complete darkness though I was, I called Bruce over and pointed at the still water.
He studied the scene for a moment, dipping into quiet observation, in no rush to speak quickly. I always speak quickly; I learned as a child that if you don’t speak now, you don’t get to speak because someone else will, and you’ll have lost your chance. Sometimes I watch him, convinced with each passing moment that he’s not going to reply. But he always does.
“It’s the stars,” he finally said. I knew that’s what I was seeing--knew that the tiny dots of white light that grew fainter if I focused on them were stars reflected in the glassy surface of the river--but I needed his confirmation. I didn’t know it was possible for such stillness to exist.
I grew up in the city and have lived in cities my whole life. Bright lights at night and the noise of traffic is comforting to me, and it’s what I prefer to lull me to sleep. Out in the middle of the hill country of Texas, I found a strange anxiety flaring within me at night, one I’d never known before. Once the lights were out I would lie in bed and feel the darkness pressing on me, cocooning me, but not in a comforting way. Several times I found myself short of breath, and thought wonderingly, “Is this a panic attack?” I’ve never had one.
Bruce got me a nightlight, and it helped.
On our second night, we saw a light rising above the ridge that looked like a U.F.O. We stared at it, squinting through the binoculars Bruce had brought for sighting wildlife. I tried to prop them against the wall while I looked through them because the image was so shaky it was difficult to make out: a tiny cluster of red, yellow, and green that danced in arcing bursts in my circular viewfinder.
I would have expected to feel wonder and delight. Instead, I felt some of my panic return. I demanded Bruce tell me what the light was. Was it a tower of some sort? It couldn’t be an airplane, because it didn’t appear to move. Irrationally, I wondered if it could be some kind of drone or even an explosion about to overtake the ridge.
“I think it might be a star, or a planet,” Bruce said.
I doubted this theory, but googled it anyway. He was right: we were staring at Capella, one of the brightest stars in the sky. It’s actually a cluster of stars, which explains the flashing, multi-colored light. It appeared in the sky for most of the four weeks we spent in the wilderness, jumping and twinkling down at us from just above the ridge. Eventually, I referred to it as Our Star. Bruce wrote a song about it.
One of the employees of the lodge encouraged us to take kayaks out at night so we could see the stars from the water. The right night didn’t come until the weather had turned cold. A week and a half from our departure, Bruce suggested we try it, and I knew it was then or never.
I put on leggings underneath my sweatpants, and a sweatshirt under my coat. I pulled my hat down over my ears and put gloves on. We walked through the silent camp, which I always found strangely eery after dark when there wasn’t a retreat in session, past the landscaped gardens, the silent buildings, the furrows the wild pigs had made, and down to the river.
The water was completely still; we had chosen our night well. Bruce pulled two kayaks off the racks and, carefully, I climbed into one of them.
My anxiety piqued for a moment. Even during broad daylight, water is a fearful thing for me. I hate the thought of what might be swimming below me--things I can’t see or manage. Slimy fish, creatures with tentacles and eyeballs in strange places. Snakes. Once, when I was bringing my paddle board back in to shore, I saw a spider the size of my palm happily perched on the side of the dock. In the darkness, anything could be sharing my kayak with me. More than that, anything could be beneath me in the silent water. If I tipped and slid out into the freezing river, I would not even have my eyes to help me.
I ignored the feelings. This was an experience I wanted to have, and I would not let my fear take it from me. Resolutely I took my paddle and dipped it into the lake.
I missed the water completely, thrown suddenly off balance by what my eyes were trying to make sense of. Above me the stars shone fiercely in their quiet brilliance, while below me those same stars were reflected back with only a slightly muted quality. The black water and the black sky wrapped around my boat, sprinkled through with stars, and for a brief moment my brain didn’t know which way was up. I grew dizzy; I was kayaking in the sky.
I dipped again with my paddle, and this time it made contact with the water. Bruce and I pushed away from the dock and for a few moments we paddled in silence, each experiencing the same disorientation. I focused on the touch of paddle to water, reminding myself that the boat wasn’t going to tip and spill me out into the sky. It felt like I would fall for miles if it did.
Away from the lights of the dock we slowed to a stop and listened to the deafening silence. I leaned back and pulled my paddle across me, staring up into the sky. The longer I looked, the more stars appeared, until they seemed to be pressing toward me. The sky looked more white than black, and the Milky Way was a thick band gauzily stretching over the ridge. Other than the gentle drops falling from my paddle, no sound broke the stillness.
If Bruce and I spoke, I don’t remember much of what we said. It was inconsequential. It was, doubtless, just exclamations of wonder. We drifted for a long time, every now and then paddling back to each other after the water had pulled us apart, and holding onto each other’s paddles. I think I had expected it to be a romantic experience, and it was. But not with him. The romance I felt was with the sky, the water, the air; the blackness that scared me so much, now riddled with billions of stars, only a handful of which I could see.
Those few thousand accessible to my eyes felt like a portal, reminding me of the trillions of stars behind them, beside them, around the other side of the globe, and in galaxies far away. I thought of the men and women who had floated on rivers and lain on the ground before me, staring into the vast abyss. There is a smallness so small that the mind can’t comprehend it; a poignant humility that is capable of reordering everything.
When we finally grew too cold to keep floating, we turned our kayaks and began paddling silently back to the dock. We passed our own windows on the way, which we had left lighted on purpose, and which cast a big golden square onto the surface of the river. I looked up at the dwelling, built into the side of the cliff, and felt a keen sense of its own beauty. For a moment two types of wonder came to me: the wonder of the sky and its endless ferocity, and the wonder of that golden light and its inherent safety.
Perhaps I can’t truly enjoy one without the other. In fact, I am sure I cannot.