This one falls under the heading of “strange and magical things experienced while kayaking.” My twin interests of paddling and dying paired up for a brief dance last weekend.
On Saturday we strapped the kayaks to the car and drove out to a canyon area that…long, long ago and far, far away…had a creek running along the bottom of it. But one day the Army Corps of Engineers came along and built Lucky Peak dam and, lo and behold, the canyon became a long finger of the resulting reservoir instead. (A change that unquestionably sucked for everything that lived down there at the time, but turned out to be a boon for municipal water storage and boating of all kinds.)
We got up at 5:30 to beat the power boats and water skiers and were rewarded with the stillness and solitude that only goes to the early risers. (Which I normally am not.) We started at the tip of the long finger and paddled along for an hour and a half, gazing up at basalt cliffs and the clouds of wheeling, flitting birds that make their homes there. Later we discovered a small but breathtaking cove with lichen covered cliffs rising straight from the water and a couple of tinkling, tiered waterfalls cooling the already hot day.
And then, as we finally neared the end of the narrow canyon and prepared to enter the main body of the reservoir itself, we sighted a pair of Canadian geese shepherding twenty-three, brand new goslings in a tight bunch between them (count them! twenty-three!!) and we immediately swung the kayaks out into deeper water, giving them as wide a berth as possible out of concern for those unpredictable, wide-eyed, bits of fluff.
By that time the power boat traffic had picked up in the main reservoir and a few of them were turning into the canyon, roaring and dragging their bouncing, scooting loads back up what we’d just paddled silently down. The clash of water-recreational cultures had begun and it was now time to share.
The hubster and I had gotten separated somewhere along the line, with him paddling along one side of the widening channel heading for the main marina, while I followed the line of cliffs on the other side, gazing up and studying the geology. Deep down I knew I was going to have to cross eventually, to join him, and navigate the boat traffic in the process.
But I didn’t want to….I just didn’t…and some deep, stubborn thing inside me dug in and grabbed on with it’s toes. I didn’t want to go to the marina. I didn’t want to deal with the boats. I didn’t want anything to do with the human world at all because I knew it would break the spell I’d fallen under earlier in the canyon…of water and wings, rhythm and rock.
So I ignored his lead and kept to my own side until, just up ahead, I was distracted by something strange floating on the water. It wasn’t the occasional driftwood or flotsam or jetsam bumping past my boat. It was soft brown and upright and I soon realized that 1) it was a lone gosling drifting perilously close to the wakes from the main boat lane and, 2) that it belonged to the gaggle of other goslings we’d passed earlier, back up the canyon, but had somehow gotten separated.
I never really decided to do it. On the contrary. It happened with no reflection whatsoever and entirely without my consent. My arms simply paddled the kayak around behind the gosling, turned the bow back up the canyon, and started to patiently, relentlessly herd him along the base of the cliffs after his family. Just like that.
Looking back now it’s amazing to me, how my perception could change that much in a single breath. How a world as populated and noisy as the reservoir was, could suddenly telescope down to a single, tiny, bobbing life like that. My vision went tunneled and everything else ceased to exist…the power boats, the hubster, time. It’s funny. Over the years and on into menopause, I’d forgotten what a fierce thing the maternal instinct can be and what odd things can invoke it. But in an instant there she was again, up on her hind legs with claws spread, just like old times.
It’s nice to know the hormones still work.
The spell deepened. As I paddled slowly…s-l-o-w-l-y…along, nudging, urging, heading off, backing up, turning, resting, then urging the little gosling on again, I started to feel a strange kinship with all the Canadian goose mothers I’ve watched over the years as they guided their own babies along. It was like there was a second, phantom world gradually superimposing over the first, one where the yak was turning into a plump, feathered body and the paddle, a long, stretching neck. It was an odd sensation, that tactile feeling of goose-ness settling over me, but I welcomed it anyway for the additional skill and information it lent me.
The gosling wasn’t doing well…at all…and I soon realized why he had been abandoned. He was weak and getting weaker. The effort required for him to swim ahead of my kayak was clearly a lot and he also suffered occasional spasms of some kind of palsy. I wondered if he was born with neurological damage or if he’d been caught in the wake of a boat right out of the egg, maybe dashed against some rocks or injured in some other way.
At some point it dawned on me that the little guy wasn’t going to survive, and my mission changed from saving his life to reuniting him with the family so he wouldn’t have to die alone. By this time the hubster had noticed my preoccupation and come over to check out what I was doing. As soon as he saw the gosling he joined my efforts without a word and together we urged the tiring baby forward as gently as we could. But the gosling was so weak…and the going so achingly slow…that eventually the hubster decided to paddle up the shoreline to try and find the family. To perhaps herd them back down towards us if he could.
I began crooning encouragement to the gosling, who was pausing to rest with increasing frequency, and he seemed to respond to the soft, loving sounds. He stopped and looked up at me a few times, relaxing a little, and started trying to follow the edge of the bow as I held the careful distance between us that I’d maintained the whole way.
And then something happened that took me entirely off guard. A spasm of palsy struck the gosling that was so strong his bowels emptied into the water. And as I sat there waiting for it to pass, watching the small patch of white refuse sink and disperse beneath the surface, the baby suddenly turned towards me…disoriented, overwhelmed, and unable to continue…and swam straight for the hand that I instinctively lowered into the water.
He never hesitated but climbed right in, balancing there among my careful fingers as I lifted him up and nestled him protectively in my lap. And as he sat there quietly, exhausted, I started paddling in earnest, heading for an inlet about a quarter mile up the canyon where the hubster was signaling that he’d found the rest of the goose family.
I honestly don’t know how to describe the strange mixture of emotions and instincts that had taken possession of me by that time. I don’t really understand it myself. There were flashes of stories going through my mind, stories I’d heard of other mothers from other species who had done the same thing I was doing. There was a female gorilla in a zoo somewhere. The one that picked up an injured human child who had accidentally fallen into her enclosure and cradled it against her, protecting it from an aggressive male gorilla that could have done further harm. There was a Labrador Retriever bitch that a friend of mine once owned, who patiently, lovingly nursed a litter of orphaned kittens to term, taking them on as her own when the mother cat had been killed.
There are other stories, too, of this particular phenomenon—of surprising cross-species interactions filled with tenderness and generosity–and these stories tend to both puzzle and delight all of us who hear them. I wonder if it’s because maybe, each time, they hint that we’re not quite as different from each other as we thought. Or that we’re not quite as alone as we feared.
What I do know is that sitting there in the kayak that morning with a beautiful, dying gosling across my thighs, I suddenly understood with crystal clarity how those other animal mothers could behave the way they did. I got it, how an innocent life falling from the sky, however damaged or brief, can instantly become the only thing that matters. How the kind of terrible vulnerability they present can trigger the most primal of instincts…and what a good and sacred thing that is.
By the time I reached the hubster in the inlet where the family was resting, the gosling was sinking into permanent disorientation. He was actively dying and, as I cupped him in both hands and placed him back into the water, he kept trying to swim the wrong way. He didn’t seem to see or hear the other geese as they clacked and shifted uneasily at the end of the inlet, and we weren’t quite sure what to do. We didn’t want to get any closer out of concern for the other goslings, but at the same time we wanted to guide our own little guy near enough to the others to have a chance to see and join them.
Finally, the two adult geese seemed to notice the gosling swimming near us and one of them raised its wings a little, making alert and angry goose noises and moving aggressively in our direction. At this our little guy seemed to clear the fog for second and see them and he turned to swim down the inlet in their direction.
For a brief and dazzling moment, I thought everything would be okay.
But it wasn’t. Everything started going wrong. Instead of crossing the water towards the family on the right bank, the dying gosling hugged the opposite shore. His head wobbled with palsy, his swimming grew increasingly erratic and aimless, and with a sigh I recognized all the signs. He was losing awareness of the physical environment around him as he commenced the final stage of dying. He was going light…entering that luminous border world around life that has to be crossed on the way out.
I’d also made a classic mistake with the adult geese. Forgetting everything I know, I’d projected all my human emotions onto them and childishly expected them to welcome the gosling–which they’d already abandoned once–back into the fold. Far from the joyful reunion I’d imagined, the parents herded the other babies as far away from the injured gosling as possible, actually moving them down the inlet towards us. I realized they were willing to risk a dangerous level of closeness with humans rather than get anywhere near the dying gosling and, too late, I remembered about that other, harsher instinct that also lurks inside us all. The one that whispers mistrust of all things sick, misshapen, or dying.
It’s the one that always errs on the side of caution in order to avoid contagion and preserve life.
Strangely, I accepted the unexpected turn of events with no more rational thought than I’d given to anything else that had happened. That deep, clawed thing inside me simply fell to all fours and ambled off. Nothing felt wrong or sad to me, still sitting under the spell of primal things as I was. It just felt done.
I watched for one lingering moment as the blinded gosling bumped his way up the inlet and then, when the hubster suggested we get going, I turned my kayak without a word and followed him. We needed to get out of the way of the way of the other geese and besides, I couldn’t chase the gosling down to try and cradle him at the last. It would only have frightened and traumatized him as he died and that wasn’t allowed.
There’s an instinct for that one, too.
I’ve been haunted by that morning ever since, by the image of that strange, breathless moment when a mortally wounded gosling turned and, against every instinct, swam straight into my hand. The memory of it fills me with both wonder and questions. I don’t understand why he did it. I don’t know whether it was a gesture of desperation and disorientation, or a moment of recognition and trust. And there’s no way I can ever know, because I think there are some things we’re only supposed to ponder, not solve.
But even though I can never know for him, I can know for me…from my side…and I know this much:
That in his brief and tiny time here, the miracle is that I found him at all. He was so infinitely small floating alone there in that vast body of water, and a later start, a different trajectory or speed, something as simple as a longer gaze up at the cliffs, would have made me miss him completely. I’ll never know whether the crossing of our paths turned out to be a better thing for him or not, whether my efforts ultimately eased or increased his suffering. I can only hope that I did more good than harm.
But whatever it was for him, it was most certainly a gift for me, one of the rarest in fact, to be placed in my secret treasure box full of sparkling things. It was an encounter full of the dizzying reminder that life is beautiful, yes. Without doubt. But it’s only in opening up to let all the world’s shadows and all the world’s light pour inside to fill me, that life transforms from the merely beautiful into an enchanted, shimmering place of wonder, seen with ever widening eyes.
Epilogue: I’ve been secretly chafing ever since our first kayaking adventure when the hubster bravely towed that fishing boat back to shore and earned his kayak its name–Tug Boat. I wanted a good name for my kayak, too, but after his naming adventure, everything I came up with sounded made-up and lame. Unearned.
But there was a moment in the middle of shepherding the gosling, when he was still in the water and my yak and I were jockeying around him, trying to guide and protect him both, when the name came to me out of the blue, like it had been whispered in my ear.
And that was how the kayak got her name.
copyright Dia Osborn 2012