The river. Lord, I’ve done some traveling but there’s nothing that quite compares to it. To give you an idea, let me tell you a Niagara River story.
A Mostly Forgotten, Gorgeous Day
A friend sent me a photo of the two of us posing after finishing a tube run down the river. Old black tractor tubes are half deflated at our feet. She’s looking sassy in her cutoffs and I’m shirtless and smirking amid a head full of wavy brown hair. How old? I’m not sure. Somewhere in that range of newly minted adulthood.
I have zero recollection of anyone taking that photo and barely remember the day at all. Yet there we were, radiating that glow of exuberant youthfulness of which the young themselves tend to be so unconscious. It’s both beautiful and, these days, a tad painful to see.
They say that “youth is wasted on the young” and that may have been truer for me than many, though I loved most of my college days.
I’ve lately read various articles and studies on how dismal so many of kids feel today. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among people age 15 to 24 in the U.S. This breaks my heart because it’s so unnecessary. We live in one of the richest societies on Earth and in the history of the world, but so many of our kids are sunk into despair.
Our culture is broken. We need to fix it, yet argue about the stupidest political issues every day instead of collectively focusing on the critical stuff like our kids, communities, and the planet.
A Winter Day by the River
A Dream of Trees
But back to the river, which still haunts my dreams. Some years ago, before she moved back to Florida, my mother lived in the village of Lewiston, NY on 2nd Street. We were visiting on Christmas vacation, but I was deluged with work and feeling glum.
Just before I woke up one morning, I had a dream of climbing these tall and bendy spruce (or maybe they were fir) trees along the river banks. Hanging onto the crown of one tree, I jump off and drop before the bending tree springs me back up and up, flung joyfully into the air above the line of trees.
Then, falling again, I grab hold of the crown of another tree and start over. At some point, I use a tree to spring myself up and over the middle of the river before diving down into it.
I forget most of my dreams, but that one has stuck with me.
When I woke, no one else was up. It was snowing and just starting to get light. You know those huge, puffy snowflakes? The kind that float and spin and seem more like the fluffy milkweed seeds than regular snow? The kind that just stick on your hat and gloves without melting?
Yeah, those. So, I went for a walk. I walked down the road and over to the notoriously steep “Suicide Hill,” intent on seeing the river in the snowfall. I was only wearing sneakers and soon discovered there was a layer of ice just beneath the thickening snow. I wound up virtually (and involuntarily) skiing down part of the hill, wind-milling my arms and somehow managing to lurch into the deep snow to the side of the road.
From there, I carefully sidestepped down the rest of the hill, the snow covering socks and sneakers, inching up my calves beneath my jeans. The icy feeling was unpleasant yet somehow a price I was eager to pay.
The Sand Docks
Eventually I made it down to the Lewiston Sand Docks, which is a kind of concrete landing on which huge piles of sand were traditionally dumped by a dredger.
On that winter day, though, there were no sand piles. Nor were there any of the fisherman who frequent the Sand Docks all through the summer. It was just me and the snow and that astonishing morning river.
Strangely, on the Internet I can’t easily find a good photo of ice flowing down the lower Niagara River, though it used to be (and maybe still is) a common sight in those parts. What one typically sees are semi-transparent blue-green slates of ice made visible by thin layerings of snow. Or sometimes sporadic, misshapen bulges of hard-packed ice recently broken apart at the falls.
But that morning was a sight I’d never seen before and will probably never see again. A procession of hundreds of sheets of ice flowing downriver, solemn yet bedecked with fluffy mounds of light, feathery snow. A rich, white pageantry, the air around festooned by thick flakes falling slowly like God’s own confetti. A strange fairy tale mix of Pope’s funeral and Macy’s parade.
I thought of going back and awakening my wife, who is a fine, award-winning photographer, but knew she wouldn’t appreciate being awakened on an early winter morning. And the scene might have dissipated by then. She’d be grumpy and the spell would be broken.
So I stood on the edge of the Sand Docks alone and tried to take it all in. The snow seemed to merge us, the river and sky and me. In the water below was deep slushy ice pushing up against the stone of the docks. One slip of my slick sneakers and under I’d go. I’m a strong swimmer but I wouldn’t last long in those waters.
Given the snowfall even my footprints would soon be gone. If I were to slide beneath the ice, perhaps no one would even know. Truly merged, I’d disappear from the face of the world, a mystery never solved.
I stood there a little longer before taking a step back. More family would be arriving soon. There were presents yet to be wrapped and opened. Celebrations and a poorly written report to edit. Then flights to catch.
So I trudged back up the hill to my mother’s place. My lovely, funny mother who was recently carried away during the pandemic.
I no longer remember much of that holiday. Not the gifts given or received. Not the subject of the research report that was weighing me down. Neither the conversations nor the convivialities.
Most of that time is gone, only stray pieces of flotsam and jetsam washed up on the shores of my memory. Still, however, I can now see in my mind’s eye myself and my friend — smiling and sassy in her cutoff shorts — floating downriver in a bubble of western New York summer sunshine, yet somehow surrounded by a pageant of ice sheets adorned in fresh new snow.
The scene makes no sense, no more than my dream of aerial acrobatics amid firs and spruce, but there it is. Another vision born of blue skies and wintry storms, dreams as well as memories, passing inexorably by as do all things in life, everything caught in the vast, lovely, terrible stream of the great Niagara.