Monday, June 16, 2014

Father's Day + Float Trips

Father's Day this year wasn't hard. It wasn't easy, but it wasn't hard, either. This year, I wasn't thinking about those last few days in the hospital--the unexpected emergency phone call, the midnight drive to St. Louis, the waiting (God, the waiting), or the decision to take my father off life-support. I still think about all those things and many more on a far-too-regular basis, but not yesterday. Yesterday I pulled out old photographs and drank coffee, laughing at the ridiculous faces we made, and writing down memories before time carries them away from me. Some of my favorites will always be from the river.


My father wasn't a saint, and as far as I know, he never pretended to be. "He had his demons," as they say. There were times in my life where we went for months without speaking, where our relationship was so strained I thought it might snap into bits with any more tension, but it never did. He loved my brother and I deeply, my father--and we loved him. I suppose that's all that keeps any relationship from shattering, when you think about it. When you're close enough to a person, you'll see them at their worst as well as their best. My father was always at his best on the river.


We took an overnight float trip every year--my father, my brother, and I. As we got older, we sometimes invited friends, boyfriends or girlfriends along, but I really liked it best when it was just the three of us. We liked to go during the week, because we would have the river mostly to ourselves. The week leading up to the trip, my father was almost giddy with excitement--buying groceries, packing the tent, and checking the air mattress for leaks. When I was in college, I would get at least one phone call a day.

"Do you still have a sleeping bag?"
"You don't have to bring sunscreen; I have sunscreen."
"What time are you coming in? I can make dinner. What do you want for dinner?"
"Do you need river shoes? I think your brother and I are going to look for river shoes."
"Hey, will you stop by and get some of those clove cigarettes?"
"I bought three waterproof disposable cameras; do you think we'll need more?"


My dad loved the river--we all did, but he especially--and the river seemed to love him back. He would have a fishing pole in one hand, another tucked under his knee, a paddle in the other hand, and still run circles around my brother and I. When we would stop to camp, almost always on the same gravel bar, he would spend the day catching trout while I read and wrote poetry and my brother fished, swam, and skipped rocks. No phones, no GPS, no clocks, no connection to anything but the world around us.


Nightfall on the river was always my favorite. The fireflies emerged with the stars, and some nights the distant sky would light up with heat lightning. Everything seemed hushed except for the rippling water and the crackle of the fire, and the calm seemed to quiet my dad's soul too. Normally laughing, boisterous, and making (mostly crude) jokes, he changed after dark. He talked about God, Native American history, his childhood, and stories he'd heard about my grandfather's time in the army. We talked about nature, and ethics, and trigonometry. We told ghost stories, discussed whether ghosts exist, and made pacts to try to contact each other after death. We identified animal sounds, tried to replicate them, and felt our hearts race when one would come near. Then, exhausted, we would all crawl into the tent to sleep....only to talk some more.


We always woke up to mist on the river and dad cooking his "campfire breakfast" in a cast-iron pot over the fire. It seemed like we were always hesitant to leave our little spot, knowing that loading up our canoes brought us one step closer to the end of our little adventure. So we'd linger a bit, dad wading out to fish again, with Ethan usually following.



Finally, we'd load up our canoes and head downriver, stopping now and then for a really good fishing spot, a well-placed rope swing, or if one of us happened to turn over at the Hall's Bay rapids.



No matter what, we always stopped at Boze Mill--one of my favorite places in the entire world. The remains of an 1800s mill sits between the river and a beautiful blue spring. It's freezing, but after floating most of the day (and in my case, already suffering a decent sunburn), it was my favorite place to swim (and to dunk my brother).



Yesterday, these were the things on my mind--floating Whitten to Riverton. My only regret is that I haven't been back since he died. I know it won't be the same, but nothing ever is except the memories. Reliving them--enjoying them--seems to be the best way to keep them alive.


I'll leave this post with thanks to you, if you made it this far, and this note that my brother posted on Facebook yesterday. He always says things far more eloquently and succinctly than I ever could:

To the best hunter, fisherman, and all around woodsman I've ever known.
To the man with the pioneer spirit. 

To the artist, the carpenter, and expert on all things Native American.
To the man who could do anything, and did.
To the tinkerer, mechanic, the maker of anything.
To the generous, loving, and hilarious soul.
To the man who shared all these things with us.
 To the man I think about every day. We miss you.



  1. That river has a magical property about it. When you are there everything else just seems to fall away and we are just what God intended for us to be. Walking beside him in his creation of life. I would give anything to have had just one more trip down the 11pt with your dad to be right beside him and have it all fall away and be what God had intended for us to be

  2. I cried when I read this, even though it was meant to be uplifting and encouraging all of us to remember the good things. I remember the first time I met your dad. I'd say we were about 10-12. I know we weren't in JH, yet. I had two sets of cousins who lived near by your grandparents house, and I would see Steve quite often when we visited with our cousins. Even at that time he seemed like an older spirit--a little out of time. He knew about all kinds of things--primitive ways of surviving--and actually pretty weird stuff at that age. I used to think about it...and I knew he lived in a house with parents just like mine. I knew he didn't ever live in a teepee or trap animals to eat--but I have to admit he sure could tell a mean story. He could be crude, but he also could be kind when you needed him. I'll always recall a time when I was probably a junior in high school and he was a sophomore--and I had a boyfriend who "dumped" me....can you believe it??? He was willing to go beat him up for me... All I had to do was say the word... (I didn't), but I remember we rode around for a long time--and he made me feel better. When we parted that night, I'll never forget it...he gave me a big old bear hug...and he told me the guy had never been "worthy" of me. I guess it was at that time that I realized the good guy that he was. Like you said he had his demons like all of us--but I always like thinking about that one night and remembering the goodness in his heart. Sometimes we focus on bad times way too I think's its really special that you chose to remember the good times. Love this post and love you, Jessica!


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