A Canoe Trip Down the Yellowstone River
A repeat journey down a legendary river honors a first step into manhood.
First we take a stick of driftwood and draw a circle in the sand, large enough for all five of us to stand easily inside, with Sawyer, 13, in the center. Each of us takes a compass direction, in stationary orbit, family style, around him. I stand to the north, barefoot, and hold a stone in my hand. It represents earth. Ruby, 11, takes the east. She has a feather, representing air. Eli, 14, to the south, holds a candle to signify fire or sun. Marypat, standing west, cradles a small bottle of water.
Day 3 on the Yellowstone River, 85 water miles already in our wake. Sawyer’s birth river. The first time we ran the entire rivercourse, in July of 1992, he was a fetal bud, barely a month along, burgeoning in Marypat’s womb. Now he is 13, and this 20-day, 550-mile journey from the edge of Yellowstone Park to the confluence with the Missouri River is in his honor, marking a transition out of childhood into something else that remains a bit vague.
The current rumbles past, cold, humped up in silty waves. In early July the river is high with mountain snowmelt, thick with sediment. In the distance, cars and trucks go past on Interstate 90. The Yellowstone River is like that, running the gauntlet of civilization its entire length across Montana.
Yet on the river, in camps or paddling in canoes, all of that falls away. It is a world of muscular filaments of water, of perching bald eagles and beaver burrows, of gravel bars strewn with agates and petrified wood. River Time takes hold, that metronome keeping beat to storms and camps and fires and the pulse of current. The cars going past are a movie set, through the looking glass, another dimension entirely.
Standing in the warm, fine sand, looking at my second child, this lean, humorous, bighearted boy, I remember rubbing his small back one bad day when he was perhaps three. We were in his room, where he had stormed, slamming the door.
He was, as a young boy, subject to periodic, alarming bouts of inconsolability. They would erupt out of the blue so far as we could tell. In them, it was as if he’d been possessed, or as if he was in the grasp of unfathomable anguish, some psychic pain. In the middle of Thanksgiving dinner with relatives, after playing with other kids, for no apparent reason—unpredictable, terrifying episodes.
We tried everything we could think of. There was no pattern to it. We consulted doctors, applied homeopathic tinctures, had spinal adjustments, played soothing music, held him tight, walked with him outside. Once we went to one of those aura readers, who interpreted his energy while holding the arm of a human medium who was, in turn, laying hands on Sawyer. They applied some mystical adjustments. That’s how desperate we got.
When I forced my way into his room that time, he had thrown himself down on his small bed, lay there rigid, with his head turned away. I had no idea what to do, so I began massaging his back. He was hot and tight. I said nothing, could think of nothing, just kneaded with my hands. And I remember, after a few minutes, the palpable release of tension. How it seemed as if whatever dark energy inhabited him steamed off and away like poisonous smoke, how his body relaxed, went limp, how thankful I was. How I wanted, then, to cry.
The four of us focus on Sawyer, the sun of this little solar system. He wears shorts and a T-shirt. He has the build of a cross-country runner, weighs in at just over 100 pounds. His arms are relaxed at his side. He looks back at us, smiling sheepishly.
We are not churchgoers—have no communion or bar mitzvah or mission to mark Sawyer’s passage. More accurately, these trips, these intersections with the forces of nature, along with our family devotion to adventurous immersions, serve as church, as close to religion as we get. Whatever ritual there is, we contrive, and this is no exception.
“By the earth that is her body,” I begin, feeling the rough weight of stone in my hand.
“By the air that is her breath,” Ruby says. The feather stirs in the breeze.
“By the fire that is her bright spirit,” Eli intones, shielding the flame of his candle.
“By the waters of her living womb,” Marypat says.
“The circle is cast,” we chorus together.
Perhaps out of his childhood battle with anguish, perhaps purely by virtue of his makeup, Sawyer possesses the power of consolation and empathy. When the daughter of some good friends went through a period marked by tantrums, Sawyer was the only one who could bring her back.
“Sawyer, go see if you can help Lizzie,” we’d say, and often as not, he would bring her out of her funk.
He also has a history as an animal “whisperer.” Once he walked into a yard and picked up a pigeon. He didn’t chase after it, just bent over and picked it up. Another time, in Mexico, when he was six, he disappeared into some trees and emerged hugging a wild turkey to his chest. The bird was half Sawyer’s size and utterly calm.
Who knows where this stuff comes from.
Sawyer is the kid, most often, who tries things first. “Sawyer, you go,” his siblings will say, at the brink of some iffy enterprise. It is not a healthy tendency, and Sawyer has the legacy of chipped teeth, cracked bones, stitches, and puncture wounds to prove it. On one river trip, he fell out of a tree, landing on a stick that pierced his neck.