Let’s face it. We’re in love.
For many of us, this romance began when we were old enough to wriggle into a life preserver. We didn’t know it then. What we did know was that this River of ours drew us back from all over the world to hold Her hand from late March to early October. How do we know Her love?
She caresses us with her early morning summer fogs. She engages us with the kindness of Her late afternoon chop as the day fades to twilight. Then She lullabies us with the brilliance of Her sunsets as the flaming shadows and purple lights descend upon us from out towards Wolfe Island and Kingston beyond.
But our love is more than a summer whisper.
We are the shoulder season people.
We won’t be budged. Even when the early morning solos outside our windows have been quieted by the migrations south. Even when the water temperatures make that afternoon swim uninviting, and the wood stove burns anew.
Though we know what must come, we won’t leave Her. She simply shrugs. Then, without so much as a glance at Her shoes, our River turns Her back on us. Her hand slips away, and we are left hesitantly feeling for a charged cell phone before heading back to the island with a boat full of groceries. Bathed summer night runs back from town become a gloved adventure with flashlights piercing the dark looking for channel markers.
To be sure, even in the summer months nothing can be taken for granted. But on almost any island one can spot a friendly looking light in a cottage window. In the shoulder seasons there is permanent darkness, a horizontal abyss. You have a new passenger in your boat who from time to time casts you a sideways glance. He goes by the name hypothermia. You pretend that he’s not actually there, but you still shudder if you have a lick of sense.
As She does every year, your River suddenly has a new set of friends who you pretend not to know. You wish that they’d just stay in the boat, but they don’t. They join you at the cottage like a passel of uninvited guests who never leave.
They are there that October night when you hear a mouse trap slam shut and the squeak of a small, departing soul. You take the trap outside into a misty rain and walk to a small cliff. Before you have a chance to open the trap you’re airborne. The hard wind and cold rain, two of Her most endearing fall friends have done their work well, right here at the cliff’s edge. You go down hard, but don’t go over.
Her friends join you as you prepare to split glistening wheels of red oak for your hungry wood stove. You’ve carefully readied your 20 ton splitter for the job. All you need to do to haul it to the new location is to attach it to the tractor. It’s two inches shy of where it needs to be. Without so much as a glance you reach back and pull. Which is when the searing pain begins. This industrial behemoth rests on two six inch steel I-beams which lie horizontally above the tires that support them. They’ve shifted slightly when you yanked on it, and now your ring and middle fingers of your right hand are in a vise whose purpose is clear. To separate them from the rest of your body.
You tug in vain. The pain is blinding. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the splitter gives up his victims, and two purple, throbbing digits are returned to you. You sink to the ground, rocking backward and forward. Bad luck and Calamity are just other names for two of Her shoulder season friends.
The truth is, this fetching summer love becomes dangerously rough around the edges when the sensibles head for home. But you already knew that.
Even though you can admit to these new friends of Hers, the only real way to tear yourself away from Her is to remember the chill that She wants to bring into the relationship. That chill can lead to burst copper pipes in spaces that are virtually impossible to get at with a blow torch. That’s when you know you have to leave Her.
How could She break up like this when the two of you have so many memories?
Her answer is simple. The chill worsens.
So you grab your pipe wrenches and take that there’s-no-turning-back-from-this choice and separate your intake from the water pump. You drain your pump, and from up above the water starts to charge down through your inch and a quarter pipes – the ones that take your water to more than half a dozen buildings.
You trudge outside and look up. Why? Because you’re almost blinded by both the day and the irony of your good fortune. Taking the water out usually is accompanied by the drips of icy cold rainwater trickling down the back of your neck, and the ferocity of a thoroughly soaking fall wind. But not today. It’s Her last kiss.
You separate the dozen junctions you’ve got to disconnect with your nut driver. Then you hoist the plastic pipe onto your shoulder and walk from one building to the next.
Progress has brought copper pipes with valves attached that now pierce certain bathroom floors. At these system low points all you need do is turn a valve. How inoffensive the sound, considering the vicious hissing that would take its place in the spring if you were to forget that one valve that’s hidden underneath an aging vanity.
This is how you truly got to know Her. Through the work you understood that you weren’t so much an owner as a custodian. That’s when She accepted you, and that’s when the love began.
Then comes the last act of this seasonal play - the raising of the boats.
The wealthy among us, the sensibles, now press electric buttons. We pull chains.
We pull, and pull and pull and pull. Gradually the boats rise from the River’s surface. She barely acknowledges their absence.
A stillness comes to a boathouse when this happens. The water that moves through and past your steel pilings does so without even a whisper. Yes, you can hear it lapping against the ninety year old cribs, but that seems like an afterthought in Her mind.
With the last shutter clicked and the last padlock pulled closed you head for town. The landscape looks bleak. It should. It is.
You’ve closed for the season. You can’t know whether you’ve closed up for the last time. But that’s part of the excitement that you bring to each Spring with Her.
Closing up is hard to do. But opening up never is.
By Mark R. Russell
Mark Russell first came to Hay Island in 1956 as a six-month-old. The family summered on Hay Island every year thereafter. His mother and father purchased the Cedar Nook Girls Camp property originally owned and built by the Lewis family of Virginia Beach, VA in 1968. Mark and his three siblings continue to spend as much time there as the seasons allow. His time away from the River has been consumed by raising three now twenty-something children and working in industrial investment banking and business development. Today he not only spends time on the River, but luckily for us, he is writing.