Paddling the Senses



But especially he loved to run in the dim twilight of the summer midnights, listening to the subdued and sleepy murmurs of the forest, reading signs and sounds as man may read a book, and seeking for the mysterious something that called – called, waking or sleeping, at all times, for him to come.
Jack London

Iam paddling up a tranquil river in a wooden strip-built kayak I made a few years ago. She’s a lovely old-world thing, a pleasurable creature to paddle, sturdy and solid rather than sleek and streamlined, but she gets along well enough if I may humbly say. I named her ‘Little Witch II’ after my mum, and to succeed Little Witch – a plywood boat built by her father, my grandfather, many years before I was born.

In the reflective mood of a reflective river on a reflective day I could hear all the past noises of my tools and labours during the many enjoyable and therapeutic hours building the kayak. Not only could I hear the obvious noises such as power drills, circular saws and belt sanders, I also heard more subtle noises. I heard the sharp blade of my plane singing as it sliced wood-shavings from the planks; I heard the planks too, softly creaking in compliance when glued and clamped into place; if I listened closely I could almost hear the individual grains of a new sheet of sandpaper cutting sawdust while smoothing the wood.

I could hear even quieter noises too. I heard the silence of the garage while surveying my latest building session; I heard voices in my head – sometimes satisfied, sometimes questioning; I heard blood pumping through my heart as Little Witch II started coming to life, as though she was about to float off her trestles and paddle out the garage of her own accord; and I heard the water which on a day just like this would soon be lapping along her form.

Sounds on the water can be blurry and hypnotic; they can be sharp and precise too. Amid all those noises built into my kayak I also hear the actual noises of the day – the rhythmic sloshing of my paddle through the water, the mesmeric sluicing of waves caressing my kayak – and I have lost track of time. That’s when I notice I’m herding an ever-growing flock of waterbirds up the river. Most of them were swamp hens treading through reeds along the riverbanks, which was happening quite innocuously in my peripherals for a while. But as the river began narrowing and the reeds gave way to open banks, the hens were forced to take to the air. Their screeches, the beat of their wings and the skipping of their feet over the water while taking flight seemed innocuous at first too, but as the flock grew the cacophony became somewhat noisy. Why didn’t they simply take refuge in the reeds and let me pass by? To this question I had no answer.

Added to the noise of multiple flapping wings, overhead I could hear a bird of prey whistling its song. It swooped from above, took a swamp hen chick into its talons, perched on a nearby overhanging tree bough and began eating.

I was also blessed by the presence of three black swans majestically honking their way along with the flock. Some ducks quacked into the choir, and with the ski-landing of two pelicans dropping in to check on things, I, as the lone paddler, was the quietest creature in the group.

The scene came to a crescendo when the tidal river ended at a pool where a freshwater creek fed in. Cliffs folded up from the riverbanks thus containing the hundreds of birds which had accumulated aft of my bow. It was quite the amphitheatre indeed. I floated to a stop and shut my eyes for a while to listen to the impromptu nature-song.

After who knows how long, I opened my eyes, turned my wooden kayak around and left the birds behind. Their song faded as I paddled back downriver and was again left with my own noises. I could hear the water of my youth calling me to the garage to build my kayak; could hear the sounds of the same water which probably called my grandfather to do the same. In between I could hear the water calling my mum too. She was sitting contentedly in my memory on a riverbank with a fishing line in the water.

The water called us all.

About Blair Paterson

Blair grew up and lives in Sydney’s Inner West. He first realised a love of nature and the outdoors during weekends and holidays with his family on the Hawkesbury River. From humble childhood pastimes building billycarts and tree houses to spending large chunks of time in the bush, Blair now embarks on outdoor pursuits whenever and however possible – by foot, kayak, bicycle or other. He has worked in Environmental Management and currently Outdoor Education. Some of his fondest travels to date have been around Australia and through the Indian Himalayas.
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