I was thinking …

Boyd Allen

I was born on the Cuyahoga (yes, the river so polluted it caught fire), and my parents moved me to the Ohio and then to the Mahoning. These rivers carried ore, coal, and coke for the steel mills in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Youngstown. They paid our bills.

I grew up thinking the sounds of trains and barges were the engines of the world, and then in college, I read “A River Runs Through It” for a class.

Later, I read it again. This was a different kind of river.

Norman Mclean wrote, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

After college, when I began hunting and fishing in Pennsylvania, I became haunted by waters too.

Moonlight in the winter, snow on the ground and three deer led me down into a swamp along the Allegheny. The wind howled in the long grasses, and it grew too dark to hunt, so I stood in the stillness, speechless, and then turned for home.

Near Pittsburgh, we fished the Allegheny in a small, aluminum boat below the dams and caught sauger, feisty little river walleye. They hit lures so hard they usually hooked themselves in the side.

In “Big Two Hearted River,” I read about a river and a swamp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as it healed Ernest Hemingway’s alter-ego, Nick Adams.

He, like Hemingway, had returned home injured from the war.

The Shenandoah River wound through the hills of Virginia and West Virginia, and a teacher-friend had a cabin on a farm on the south fork, so we packed up after school every year and spent a week in a shed and waded for smallmouth bass while the old boys trapped snapping turtles and hunted frogs.

We cooked fish and eggs over a homemade skillet that took two men to lift.

When I was 8, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. My life has been better for it.

The Clarion in Pennsylvania offered hiking, biking and canoeing for my after-prom. I returned often as an adult.

My dad had a camp on the Grand River in Ohio where I taught my son to fish and spent some of the best summers of my life.

But 16 years in Florida taught me about a different kind of river: slow and treacherous, filled with alligators and snakes, with turns into blind swamps where people got lost and had to be helicoptered out at night.

But during the day, the Loxahatchee and the Wekiva were lit a prehistoric green by flowers, bromeliads and wild orchids.

The Wekiva River begins at Wekiwa Springs, a giant pool where I snorkeled into the mouth of the spring and looked up through the fissure to see swimmers criss-crossing the sun above me in crystal water.

Along the Wekiva, we’d pull close to shore and let the kayaks bump roots so we could watch alligators jump from the logs and swim away.

The last few years I had my powerboat, I was more likely to crawl up the Loxahatchee bend to bend — motor planed up and engine throttled back — than I was to tear out into the ocean.

Jessie and I camped and hiked along the Rogue last weekend.

Our first date away together was a tent on the Loxahatchee.

We have moved from the Loxahatchee to the Chetco.

The first things we bought in Brookings were kayaks and we went to try them out, to “float the river” as you all say.

We expected a calm float down a small river, Florida-style. But it was early June after a rainy winter, and the Chetco spun me backwards into a whirlpool, smacked me off a rock wall and cleaned me right off my kayak. Into the toilet-bowl.

I swam back up through the spinning water, and after Jessie fished me out, climbed back on.

Baptized into the love of one of the most beautiful places on earth, we kayaked the Chetco or the Smith eight times last summer.

Over the next couple months, I will be writing about the local wild and scenic rivers. I will do my best to take some pictures as well, as a way to thank congress and Lyndon B. Johnson for 50 years of these haunting waters.

Reach Boyd C. Allen at ballen@currypilot.com .

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