Today, off Alexander Road, I stepped into a time machine. It was powder blue.
I settled in among four forest green cushions. My safety device was the color of bottle gentian. Its paddle was black and silver — a knight’s lance.
Thomas of Princeton Canoe and Kayak settled my craft onto a gravel slope between two weathered docks. He laid the paddle across my waiting palms, as though for a ceremony. A gentle nudge and I was off backwards, most appropriately into the Turning Basin.
Here, Lehigh’s coal-laden barges once bore dark wares to Princeton Town and Princeton U. Here ponderous barges turned, ultimately progressing to Philadelphia by the Delaware Bay or New York by Raritan’s Bay. A few strokes brought me right under the D&R Towpath. My kayak, buoyancy itself, transported me through that rock-edged birth canal into the D&R Canal. Pressing my paddle deep to the right turned me right. I was almost immediately beneath the Alexander Road Bridge. I delight in this Brigadoon moment, although I’m gliding under, not striding over, this bridge to another world:
If I’m lucky, I make it without the rumble of cars overhead. If I’m very lucky, I hear the Dinky behind me, tootling east toward Manhattan, — polar opposite of my current setting. In these shadowy reaches, there is the strong whiff of tar from other eras. Today, no swallows chitter, let alone part my hair. It is August. Their own incredible journey has begun.
I’m luckier with my bridge than Brigadoon’s people. Time was crucial to them — a very specific moment in a very specific epoch, with precise rules to be followed or else. In my sky-blue craft, all time drops away.
It’s overcast, intensifying the colors of canal-side blooms. Spires of cardinal flower erupt like fireworks. My craft has a mind of its own, heading straight for that scarlet. I rejoice, as cardinal flower is a sign of healthy water. Their presence is triumph and gift, to all who preserve and tend land and water in the Princeton region.
When it’s sunny, I tend to paddle diligently, sometimes even counting strokes. Not today. What is it about oyster skies that inspires leisureliness, laziness? Speed is not the point, nor even destination.
Suddenly, in dappled light, I am dwarfed by marsh mallows. Pleated hollyhock-like blooms of strawberry ice cream pink flutter high above my head. Alice-in-Wonderland time. Our Lenni Lenape predecessors prepared a gelatinous sweet from the roots of these mallows — hence our name for one of the ingredients of S’mores. Ever since childhood’s Hiawatha, I’ve been convinced Indians know far more than we. I long to taste their marsh mallow dessert.
The kayak, like a determined retriever, noses me toward other mallows — one the color of clouds, another a most determined magenta. Back in canal-central, I am dazzled by the beauty of these lofty flowers, doubled in the water.
Dark dragonflies dance from bank to bank. It’s a blessing when one lands on my prow. But it never stays long enough.
I glide near a glossy painted turtle. Kayakers are so one with the elements that turtles neither leap nor glide into water as we pass.
On a bank right along here, a Manhattan friend and I watched a vulture devour a fawn. The bird, eye-to-eye, raised both wings like the avenging angel. It hissed at Janet, who had been in the City a little over an hour ago. “Don’t worry,” she soothed. “I don’t want your lunch.”
Not far from here, I spent a good 45 minutes with a little green heron, performing his morning ablutions. I left before he did. Also, south of Alexander, a double-crested cormorant led me like a tour guide, always the precise distance from my prow, for more than half an hour. But why am I slipping into time references? I’m in the time machine.
A battle is going on, all along the sunny side. Mauve sedum pounces upon anything daring to grow on these banks. This viney plant could mean the end of invasive purple loosetrife. But greedy sedum also overtakes the rare cardinal flower. Here and there, jewelweed blossoms peek out amidst sage-green sedum foliage. Jewelweed here is a darker orange than I’ve ever seen — maybe stress changes its hue? These frail blossoms look like prisoners waiving orange handkerchiefs to attract rescuers before it’s too late.
It’s time to dip both hands into the Canal. OOOO! Cold! We’ve had so many nights near and even below 60, this August. My hand-dipping is a ritual, a connection with the Canal that, in its heyday, was the lifeblood of our region. Why does no one realize that our Canal once out-carried the Erie?
What I care about is that the D&R Canal is gently carrying me in my blue slipper-craft. I do the hand ritual again, gratefully letting our Canal baptize me.
One of the most pleasing aspects of kayaking is being down inside the craft, inside the water. Sometimes I can feel the whisk-rippling of wavelets along the prow.
August is the silent time for birds. No more territorializing nor courting, no pretending their nest is on high when it’s really tucked in the roots of a tree. This may be the longest time I’ve ever been on the Canal without hearing a bird. I might have seen a kingfisher zigging and zagging way ahead — his trajectory correct for the species. But, since he’s not giving his rattley call, I’ll never know.
No one would believe U.S. 1 is to my left, humming with various intensities. Nor that Trenton, Camden, Philly, even New York are not that far away. I can hear leap of fish, slip of frog.
I am alone on water the hue of antique pewter. Clouds have parted enough to reveal a thin swathe of ice-blue, above me, below me. Paddling back toward the Alexander Road Bridge, I am cleaving sky. Timelessly.