Feb 12, 2006

The ferry heaves onto an ice flow, which shatters into scales, then slush. To the soundtrack of this tinkling applause, the boat bludgeons across the Saint Lawrence.

This river is special to my family's mythology. My parents tried to start a commune back in the halcyon early 70s. The other hippies balked at the downpayment, so Ellen and John bought 120 acres in upstate New York. Cherries dot their forest. Beaver gnaw dams on its borders.

Together, they built a log cabin, hewing timber, notching the logs, the whole works: real pioneer stuff. About $75 worth of plastic sheeting and tar finished the structure, which stood for 17 years.

We lived there my first winter. Snakes wormed off the hillside, seeking the warmth of the oil-barrel stove. My father John snapped once, raking great handfuls of them from above his infant's head, casting them alive into the flames.

In later summers, my parents would set me out to graze in the hillside garden, a tangle-haired tot crouched among the carrots and peas. "You were a bit feral," they admitted. "We couldn't convince you to sit and eat, so we just figured, why bother? You'd run past and snag some food, or forage outside. You ate plenty and you ate well, so we didn't worry about the table manners issue for a while."

Why was it any surprise I turned out vegetarian? Or a travel writer? And an etiquette barbarian...

But I digress. This particular patch of earth – called "Island Afoot" – bordered the Grasse River, a tributary of the Saint Lawrence.

The name laces through my earliest memories. I had a lot of respect for the Grasse River, having fallen foul of it twice.

The first incident I don't recall. Family legend claims as a toddler I willfully leapt into the spring-melt flood, bobbed to the surface and started paddling. My mother raced alongside shouting, "swim!" until she found a shallow swathe of bank, where a rescue was feasible.

"Heartless woman," I like to tease her.

"You were buoyant and breathing. You were doing just fine," she points out. "If I'd jumped in at the wrong point, we both could have been swept over the falls."

People do not survive that stretch of rapids.

But the good swimming hole is just above the first cascade. So age eight – otter-strong and sure in the water, but clumsier on land – I raced barefoot over the river-slicked boulders above the whirlpools.

I fell. Windmilling backwards. That slow-motion, cinematic, not-going-to-make-it-sensation piping down every limb.

Gracie – an older neighbor child I idolized – reached forward and grabbed the front of my bathing suit.

The fabric stretched. Strained. Then stayed my fall.

I almost lost myself in the Grasse River twice, which only increased my awe of the Saint Lawrence. Bullied by a mere tributary, I couldn't imagine the mother river.


Now I learn that the Grasse is not as ferocious as my childhood recollections. In fact, it's not one of the Adirondack's more rough-and-tumble waterways. St. Lawrence University Archivist Edward J. Blankman reported that: "quite distant from High Peaks country, it has the qualities of a faithful companionable wife, rather than a spectacular fiery mistress."

She still spanks bratty kids pretty hard, to my mind.


Arriving in Quebec Wednesday night, I yanked open the hotel drapes and gasped. A broad bay unfolded, dark on dark. I knew it was just a river, but its sweep resembled the sea.

Yes, the Saint Lawrence. Finally.


I couldn't leave without crossing its waters. Safe on the ferry deck, I thought about families and memories and great waterways that noodle across borders, mocking nations' maps. Of the people who pluck you from the flood or the maw of a fatal whirlpool. Of small gestures that have large resonance. Of Gracie, of Ellen, of pea-patches and pratfalls in the syrupy sunshine of childhood.

As I smiled, the crushed ice applauded.

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