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In the dead of night, when most townspeople and country folk are snug in their homes, I am drawn to a five-mile stretch of the Fox River shrouded by darkness and infused with the sounds and smells of freshwaterlife.
Trained downstream, my canoe glides past overgrown spoil piles, left heaped along the banks from days when steamboat travel was in its heyday. Wetlands and timbered stretches punctuate the shores, syllables of an arcane river language. Snags and sandbars loom out of nowhere. This river in the darkness seizes and transports me in a rapture across an ancient glacial lake basin.
I'm not alone. My friend Ellis – grateful I am for his industrial-strength imagination – is posed in the bow like a bygone whaler, paddle raised out of the water, looking and listening intently for deadfalls and submerged snags that could change a night float into a swim. Shimmering eddies and ripplets trailing a jutting branch, or the musical tinkle of water splashing about a waterlogged obstruction, are more than enough to cause him to proclaim "Hard left!" or "Bear right!"
We use no artificial light for navigation. There is no need for it, save for a chance encounter with night fishers. On evenings when moonlight settles on the water, the main river channel is a beacon, a glimmering, silvery tunnel. Shadows cast by the wooded banks press beyond the shoreline. They narrow the passageway and guide the nocturnal river traveler. Even during a new moon, light spilling from nearby towns and farmyards illuminates the main channel with sufficient lumens for safe travel.
Our first night float set the standard for all our subsequent evening ventures. In late November we paddled steadily downstream from Princeton beneath a waxing moon until the sounds of traffic, clock chimes and barking dogs faded. The air was still and cold, with temperatures in the upper 20s. Wisps of wood smoke clung to the air and a trace of October lingered in the smell of moldering leaves. The absence of foliage revealed silhouettes of tree trunks and limbs. Although there was no snow, new frost formed a bejeweled groundcover.
The feel of the paddle and the sound of its wooden blade splaying water provided a cadence, lending a sense of purpose to being on the water in the darkness. We canoed past shadowy oak openings with brittle leaves still clinging to the branches, past riparian forests of silver maple, beyond alluvial plains congested with willow thickets, open meadows and grassy marshes. Beneath a starry firmament, illumined wisps of clouds drifted across the river valley and provided perspective to the treeline and horizon. Our breath was steaming; we paddled on.
Near the mouth of an old oxbow we glided upon a settled flock of Canada geese that took to boisterous honking and then finally to the air, leaving feathered down in their wake. A short distance downstream our canoe floated beneath a large cottonwood. Growing near the water's edge amid a copse of buckthorn, the cottonwood's limbs hung over the river, massive and bare.
Like bowling balls with wings, wild turkeys erupted from the tree with a din that broke both the stillness and their roost. Brittle limbs cracked and branchlets littered the waters with trailing debris. When the last bird careened ponderously across the river, we speculated where they might end up that night.
On wide-pooled stretches, we set our paddles aside, shed our gloves and cradled cups of steaming coffee in our hands. From nearby and afar, great horned owls hooted and barred owls hoo-hoo-aw-ed. Deer browsed along shore, their movements heard in the rustling leaf fall. We hardly spoke – the distant clamor of Canada geese made up for our awestruck silence. As I refilled Ellis' cup, shifting my weight to steady the canoe, a flock of tundra swans swung low over the river, their swooshing wing beats audible above the canoe. Open-mouthed and teary-eyed from the cold, the encounter was burned into our memories. Between gulps of coffee, my cigar smoke wafted toward the stars and the current gently pushed and pulled aft, then fore, washing us downstream like a feather falling from the sky.
A night float is special in every season – for Ellis it is mid- to late spring, when lilacs bloom and the fishing picks up. Paddling in the dark, the evanescent bouquet of lilac blossoms causes us to pull up short, drift, linger awhile, and inhale great draughts of lilac-drenched air. The human stories behind the lilac blossoms may be richer than the fragrance itself. Old homesteads and farms, some abandoned and some with no trace of buildings left at all, live on through the cultivated bushes and trees planted by European settlers and their descendents. For Ellis, when the lilacs bloom in May, a night float cuts loose a flood of childhood memories that can cause his eyes to well up.
Sometimes it's solitude that makes a night float memorable. On one late autumn outing, falling snow blanketed the river like the flocculent seeds from a cottonwood grove in June, decking the shore and snags with a snowy mantle. Sifting through bare branches, the icy flakes whirled and hissed like radio static. Paddles iced over, snow pelted our faces and the canoe tracked across the inky blackness, slicing through patches of icy slush. Shivering, eyeglasses fogged and beaded with moisture, a sense of isolation gathered around us like snow in the hull and then, the solitude was complete.
In the darkness our senses heighten, and perceptions are honed such that we can discover a good deal about neighboring lands. Depending on the season, we float downstream taking in fresh-cut hayfields and manure-scented barnyards, farm lights and barking dogs. We hear the rumble of cars and trucks, their tire treads humming up and down the rural township roads and county trunks. Nearby from its roost in a backwater swamp, a great blue heron issues a harsh croak. Marshes and wet meadows throb with the choruses of breeding frogs and toads, and the cries of soras and snipe. When a northeasterly blows in, the fantail rudder of an old windmill guides the wind, propelling the rusty blades with a creaky groan. The gusts sweep across the river valley, circulating through an aspen wood where the rise and fall of rustling leaves sounds like rain.
Evidence of fluctuating water levels abounds. Waterlines stain the trunks of trees, exposed fibrous roots mat the undercut banks, verdant patches of vegetation sprout from the muddy riverbed, and water-deposited detritus, now dried and matted, clings to pendulous branches overhanging the river. Straight away downstream from town, flotsam is wedged in the limbs of deadfalls and washed ashore: old tires, ice chests, minnow buckets, lawn chairs, a child's plastic ball.
Rivers sleep in the day and wake up at night. After dusk, following the last robin's evening chortle, swarms of insects come out, fishes splash, raccoons ramble and a solitary mink slinks about the gnarled roots buttressing the shore. Bats flutter and skim over the water, dodging our movements and assaulting the slight wake of air the canoe stirs up to catch their fill of insects. Every river nook and cranny is occupied by hunger.
We paddle, drift and lollygag downriver in the dark, deliberating nothing, content with the fishing prospects, whatever they may hold. The canoe brushes up against a deep-cut bank, eddies swirl and shimmer in the dark. I tie off a short section of cotton rope from the gunwales to a twisted swath of shore grass. Hooks baited, lines tossed overboard, we sit in the dark and wait. And still upstream from the take-out point, a mile, maybe two, without our knowing, late evening becomes early morning.
Thanks to mild weather this winter, Thomas L. Eddy reports that he and Ellis took night floats on this stretch of the Fox River in every month this year. Mr. Eddy lives in Green Lake, Wis.