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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Eight feet of water

You would not believe it from the rain and darkness, darkness and rain all this afternoon, but I spent much of the morning kayaking on the reservoir.

We in Oregon call such windows of winter opportunity "Blue Holes," and this one, after the big freeze, was a treat -- 58 degrees F, sunshine, very little wind. The lake level was high, with no water going over the dam except through the single power turbine, and in order to put in at my usual spot I had to set the boat down in the path, gear up, assemble my paddle, climb into the cockpit under the low-hanging cottonwood branches, and shove off, sliding down the muddy trail right into the water, bow on. How I was going to get back I had no idea -- if necessary, I could use the boat launch area over at the marina, and hike back for the truck.

The thousands of coots that were here last month were not in evidence -- perhaps the freeze had encouraged them to depart for climes even warmer. There were a few seagulls, some cormorants, grebes, Canada geese, and a solitary harlequin drake. I paddled into open water, about a quarter of a mile from shore, and looked about. Apparently I was the only human on the water. It being a Wednesday. It being mid-December. It being the poor-grinding-heart-of-a-recession.

I know that the pundits go on and on about how there is now this great recovery going on -- just look at the stock market. Yah, yah. But I don't actually know anyone that has recovered. The cities, counties, states, water districts, fire districts, soil districts, school districts, parks districts, library districts, and most of the small businesses are hurting more, not less, than a few months ago, and all my friends still working for the state have the four-day-week furlough days to show for evidence. Beloved listens to one frightful tale of woe after another from families -- mother, and kids, and also father, aunt, grandmother and grandfather -- huddled together in the children's section of the library. The jobs that ended. The flu they all got. The benefits that ran out. The extension of benefits that ran out. The life without a phone, without heat. The overloaded caseworkers that yell at them. The empty shelves at the community food pantry.

She can offer a few hour's warmth, computer access, story time, and some lame suggestions: "Have you read this one?" They look at her gratefully.

I measure the economy by looking over the marina, on the theory that the boaters, having deeper pockets than the rest of us, may serve as indicators. How it's going for them.

In good times, there are about fifty or sixty sailboats. Shining. Multiple coats of varnish, clean brasswork, new shrouds, neatly furled sails. People show up in gleaming Acuras, let themselves in by the marina gate, saunter down the docks to their slip in spotless Dockers, cast off, and glitter across the glittering water, racing down to the east before the afternoon winds and tacking back; then they anchor in the lee of the town and dine on shrimp fresh from the galley below, with a local wine.

In a down economy there are usually about forty boats.

A third of them will have slunk away to be parked high on their trailers in spacious back yards, "for maintenance" say the owners, but really to save on the slip fee. The other craft manage to stay put, but over time they get a bit raggedy. Algae fouls the sails and shrouds and waterline, and drips from hawsers and outboards. "Ripstop" nylon escapes at one corner and flaps itself to shreds. Sometimes two or three vessels, after a serious blow, take on a bit of a list. Nobody home much; got things on their minds.

Meanwhile the wide waters may host a few waterboarders, with their stunningly loud stereos thumping away and twin Yamahas growling, and a few fishermen, their shoulders hunched away from the stereos, but the sailboats mostly stay in port.

I paddled over and looked in on the marina. In this recovery they keep telling us about, we're down to:

Nine sailboats and dropping.

This was a shock, but I looked for one boat in particular.

For years I have had an oddball acquaintance among the sailors. His sloop, which I'll call the Matilda, was notable among the fleet for clean lines, despite a very large cabin: a double-ender, black-hulled with one gold band all around just above the scuppers. You could tell she was not owned by money, but he tried to keep her clean and trim.

A somewhat elderly blues musician, he worked weekends. He weathered good times and bad about equally well, by maintaining an extremely simple life. He lived for his boat, and much of the time on it, though there is a rule against this in the marina. His method was to stay in town for a few days, sleeping, I think, on friends' couches, and then drive his beater pickup out to the park, clamber aboard the Matilda, head out for the lee of the town, and ride at anchor there for four days at a time. He seldom appeared on deck. I suspected alcohol to be part of this routine. When I paddled by, I could smell beer and cigarettes.

Once, when I found him sitting in the cockpit repairing something or other, I gave him a book of poems. He thanked me gravely, and we talked awhile.

"You stay out here a lot."

"Well, I love the water, so I want to be on it every chance I get." He had a coughing fit, shoulders practically knocking together.

"Troubles, y'see. No [hack, hack, wheeze] insurance. So I come out here, watch another sunset, y'see?" A snaggled, conspiratorial smile.

I sought him out to talk sometimes after that, he in the cockpit with his busy hands and cigarette, I below in the Matilda's lee, paddling softly fore-and-aft to stay in place. We liked each other.

Once, when I hailed the Matilda, two heads appeared at the hatch. My friend's companion was a remarkably skinny woman about my age (in other words, not young), as craggy and world-beaten in appearance as he. I couldn't understand a word she said -- seemed to live in a sped-up and mumbly sort of universe. I gave them a trout and paddled off, happy to see he had company. They waved until I was a speck on their horizon.

The last two years, though, Matilda has stayed in the slip. She's looked a little less winsome each time I paddled by, which is no more than I can say for myself, and while I worried about my friend, I'd never learned how to reach him other than to find him on the water.

Today, as I reached the marina, I could not find the Matilda. "So," I thought, "they must have hauled her out."

I paddled a little closer. There did seem to be something at the slip.

It was a mast, heeled about thirty degrees. Algae had already made a green streak in the water, where the boom had come to rest just beneath the ripples.

Matilda has sunk at her moorings, and is resting on the bottom in eight feet of water.


  1. what a somber state of affairs. good thing he got his sunsets.

    sending a warm cozy hug your way, though i don't smell like cigarettes nor count as a sailor. i wonder if he knows how well you'll remember him.

  2. Oh, that's so sad - especially for all the things you didn't say. I'm sure you had a quiet and thoughtful paddle back.


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