We met up a few weeks later when I was back in town. Able to borrow his ex’s old kayak and oar we headed to the dismal swamp.
“ I released my alligator snapping turtle here,” I remind him.
“You never had an alligator snapping turtle.”
“We do this every time. Yes I did!”
“Ok, pay attention,” he said.
The name made it sounde desolate but it was lush, full of sycamores and bald cypress, my favorite, I loved watching the spanish moss hang. I had a hard time focusing once I got around a lot of plants. I couldn’t retain all I learned but was mezmerized by their foliage, the green, the light glinting through branches, the sun hitting water, a large stone, a magpie darting, the scurry of a chipmunk.
“Ok. I did have an alligator snapping turtle though. His name was Michaelangelo.”
We started slow. He led my boat to the shore and steadied it so I could hop in.
“Put your paddle behind you. When you are alone, you will do it this same way but get more in the water. Because I am here, I can push you off a little.
“What about cottonmouths?”
He just shook his head. Then he placed his paddle above his head.
“Take your paddle and find the center like this.” He made his thumb and index finger wrap around it. “You can change it as you go but see what feels comfortable and balanced. Even. Find a place that feels like the weight is balanced on one side.”
I bit my tongue a little so my tongue poked out and mimicked him, looking up at him through my sunglasses for approval. He nodded and twirled his paddle like a baton but dropped it on the ground.
“Yeah, “ I said. “You’ll get the cottonmouths.”
He pushed me a bit more in the water but I waited for him to get in his boat before doing anything. We only went out for about an hour and Jacob showed me the basics of paddling, or forward stroke and told me to focus on my core not my arms. That was easy. Dip one blade forward and then the other falls back. Then draw stroke and rudder stroke to move sideways and back to shore. He told to me swivel my body to face the blade when I wanted to turn. We had some speed so he showed me that I could set the blade in the water, lean my body slightly one way when I want to turn but and rely on the momentum to keep it up.
“No,” but I managed.
“You can also do this when you get a nice wind.”
He was a bit ahead of me and I was placing one paddle in the water and letting the other stand up like he was. I could feel it. I could feel it turn I mean. It was quite easy. While I didn’t understand everything he explained, you can attune to the water fast. A rudder stroke was just a way to will water. If you asked me to explain the mechanism, I couldn’t but I did it several times. It reminded me of the perpetual motion game I played as a kid except without as much movement. My dad used would roll his fists one on top of the other and just repeat: it’s perpetual motion, lion, you can’t stop it. I would jump on top of him and put all of my weight on him and laugh. He was very strong. Perpetual motion, he would say over and over turning his fists and I couldn’t stop it. Grab them, claw them, sometimes bite them. I couldn’t stop him. Until he needed a sip of wine. We let our kayaks float for a bit.
“You can look up and try to find snakes.”
I had been looking up but hadn’t seen anything.
“Or down to see cottonmouths. Or Michaelangelo.”
“I’ve been doing push ups,” I beamed and formed my left arm into a right angle to show him my bicep.
“No, you haven’t. But they look great.”
“My arms hurt,” I said. “Let’s go back.”
I looked up at the pines lining the shore; still green, some browning. Warm fall. I didn’t see any snakes but I saw a few ripples in the water as a school of fish swam by.
“You can see bats here sometimes,” he said.
“Cool,” I was looking down again.
I saw more ripples around my boat.
“Pickerel you said, Jake?”
“Yeah, or catfish. Lots of catfish.”
Back on the bank, he extended his hand and helped me out. Jacob was right. It was easy, relaxing. My arms were toned and fit and ready for this. I could see my right tricep bulging in the sun as I rowed back to shore. Growing, pulsing, moving towards something bigger with each stroke of the oar, I smiled. Smiling while tired, that is the women’s armor. We surprise you being continually broken and rowing.
“I want to be prepared,” I told Jacob.
“You don’t have to go out that often. I’m telling you,” he rested his hand on my back as we I got out of the boat. “The trip I want to take you on is easy.”
“I’m not strong enough, Jake. I want to get stronger.”
“It’s only going to be about three hours.”
“I also heard that the alligators are moving north.”
“Stop googling things.”
Jake took me out the next day as well and we went a little further down Lake Drummond, staying out an extra hour so I can practice turns.
“There is a legend of the swamp, Jake. A bride died just before her wedding. She stays out here in her white canoe and holds a lamp looking for her husband.”
“Was she killed by an alligator?”
“Didn’t say. Will have to check when we get back.”
Jake was paddling backwards and facing me.
“Isn’t that hard?”
“Next time, I am going to bring my camera,” I said. I squinted. The sun was bright and today I forgot my sunglasses. We were in the middle of the lake, far from the bank. I felt safe with him there. “I can’t believe I haven’t seen a single moccasin.”
“Or lamented bride.”
“Well maybe tonight.”
I dipped my index finger in the water, smiling. It was the end of September, 71 degrees and sunny.