August 25, 2009

No Suit Required

"We'll stop and see if the water is shallow enough to get out here," John said as he turned off the motor to his small boat, big enough to fit four and downright roomy for the three of us.

John and Edith both dipped their half kayak paddle into the water and chimed together, "Nope, too deep." We'd left John's kayak strapped to his Jeep's hardtop, favoring speed over rowing.

But when John pulled the ripcord to start up the boat again, nothing. Yank yank yank, nothing. No rumble, no put-put-put, no roar. Just John's arm slicing through the air, to no avail.

"Don't worry, we'll float back," he assured us, but I was less worried about getting back to his boat clubhouse in Lambertville, NJ than I was about not getting the chance to swim in the Delaware River.

"We'll paddle just to keep from bumping into things," John instructed, steering us away from rocks and trees and shore and other obstacles.

We all sat silent for a while, having chatted heartily on our way up-river and back at the clubhouse during the club's annual chicken BBQ, drinking John's homemade raspberry wine and flavor-injected chicken. We'd stuck around just long enough to see if we'd won anything in the raffle, and when we didn't, we'd made a beeline for the shore.

John tried a few more times to start the motor, but true to his word, we were floating pretty steadily downstream back to our starting point, so we weren't concerned. We approached a small tributary on the New Jersey side of the river, and heard a distant rushing waterfall before spotting a tiny, muddy beach ripe for anchoring in. In no time, my board shorts were off, pink-and-gray river shoes on, and I in the water, trying to not trip over the rocks and tree branches by the shore before the sharp dropoff that put me neck-deep in the river.

Whatever fed that waterfall made our little cove freezing cold, but once we swam out into the sun-exposed part of the river, the water warmed up by ten or fifteen degrees, at least. The stream that had taken us down-river to this point felt tremendous when swimming against it. We tried standing in it but were soon swept away. I tried swimming upstream and, paddling as hard as I could, only maintained my position, running to stand still.

John was fiddling around for a while, docking and anchoring the boat onto the beach, while Edith and I swam. When he finished, he approached the water, hands on hips, in his powder blue polo shirt and cargo shorts. Unlike us, he'd forgotten his swimwear, but standing knee-deep in the water, he declared, "I'm going in anyway."

Once he got over the submersion into the low temperature, John chatted away with Edith while I zoned out a little, practicing my floating technique, arcing my arms and legs back and forth snow angel-style as the current spun me around. I listened to the falling water, crashing not too far from where we were, and remembered visiting Chittenango Falls with Liz Green in college, taking off our tops and standing under the water that pounded on our backs, shoulders and chests like fists. We hadn't brought suits either, and drove home with the windows down in wet shorts and bras, our shirts dry and thrown in the backseat.

Or one summer in Syracuse, when a bunch of us tried to go to the beach just past twilight after it closed, and were summarily asked to leave by the police. Desperate to get in the water, we plotted to invade the local pool supply company, where the boyfriend of one of the girls in our group worked, and where we knew there would be functional floor model pools, fully equipped with filtration and chlorine. I hadn't brought a suit so I borrowed a pair of Maria's shorts and wore them unbuttoned with my satin purple bra, the only nice bra I owned at the time. We frolicked like nymphs in the water until a coming storm lit up the black sky above, ending our evening early.

Back in the Delaware River, I was glad we found our way into the water, especially having not jumped off Warren's pontoon during my last visit. And although riding the bull on our Lehigh River raft got me plenty wet the weekend before, I'd been itching to swim in something other than the hectic gym pool where hairless pro swimmers splash water in my face and leave me doggy-paddling in their wake.

Of course, swimming as a naturalist has its drawbacks. Something tried to bite Edith underwater (for once, not me), and John recoiled from something dastardly that turned out to be a big leaf. A big, brown, hard-shelled cicada went floating on his back past us on the surface of the water, still singing his song. And unfortunately for us, the sun was setting, casting its final magic hour rays through our wet hair and into our gleaming eyes as we squinted less but smiled more.

We let John give the motor one more try before emerging from the river ourselves, dripping with life and adventure, plopping our wet bodies back into the boat. John and Edith once again hoisted their paddles, led us downstream and maneuvered us back into John's docking area. With a quick wave goodbye to the fellow boat club members, we zipped away in the Jeep, kayak still teetering above, peering over the windshield and rattling over bumps in the road.


On the train ride back to New York, I scratched my hairline and a piece of the river fell onto my chest. Showing it to Edith on the tip of my forefinger, I urged her, "You have to shower tonight, look." But, hypocrite that I am, I didn't shower when I got home. Dirty hair and all, I slept in my bed coated in river, not wanting to wash it off of me.

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