In early June of 2008 I went on a 130 mile canoe trip down a portion of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers. I put in at Sauk City, WI, on the Wisconsin river and ended the journey at the mouth of the Platte River, just before Dubuque, Iowa, on the Mississippi. I paddled every day for five days and camped every night on white sand beaches. This journey went through some very beautiful and sparsely populated areas, as well as rolling hills and farm country. I saw a lot of wildlife like herons, and hundreds of turtles sunning themselves on logs. I occasionally saw other boaters, but for the most part I was alone and spoke to no other human beings for days on end. It was a very surreal experience.
Once, I decided to paddle through the night under the stars. The water was very still as there was little wind that night and no moon, but hundreds of stars were reflected on the river, and those lit my way. It was very dark, other than the light from the stars. There is not much development on that portion of the Wisconsin river, and everything on land was encased in shadow. As I stood upright on my canoe and navigated through the channels my senses other than sight came into play and became more keen.
I encountered islands during that long night on the river. Some channels passed by them, following the flow of the river, but others came to dead ends or into swampy branches of the river too shallow to navigate. I became adept at feeling the quality of the air at the mouth of channels, to tell if it was a main branch or not. The air at the mouths of dead ended passages was warm and stagnant, but there was more air flow in those that were open.
There were owls out calling into the night. I would drift into one owl’s territory and hear it hoot several times. As I got farther away, the hoots of the first owl receded into the distance, but not before I would drift into the territory of another owl, whose calls would become louder and louder and louder as the others faded away. I drifted through the territory of several owls, experiencing each time their nocturnal chorus. The surrounding forest was completely dark, but the calls of the owls helped me to judge the rate distance I had traveled.
At one point I saw some shadows on the water ahead of me. As a drifted closer, I realized I was in the midst of a herd of white tailed deer crossing the river. I was right on top of them before I realized what they were; They had been completely invisible to me. I only noticed them by the way their reflections displaced the glimmer of starlight on the river.
As the days went by I entered a state of altered consciousness. My inner dialogue became quiet and my other senses – possibly long out of use – were opened up as I navigated the river. I found a rhythm: drifting at night and paddling late into the afternoon of the next day.
Eventually, I came to Wyalusing State Park, located on a hilly, wild area at the junction of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. My budget was limited at that point. If at all possible I planned to do some “stealth” camping. I stored my canoe by some trees and headed up the hill into the park. The spring rains had washed out a portion of road and the park was deserted. This seemed like a good place to make camp.
I had been looking at nothing but green trees all day and was tired from being in the canoe for more than 24 hours straight. As I closed my eyes I continued to see nothing but images of trees and shrubs. As I drifted off to sleep, the green images contorted into the shapes of sinister,predatory faces.
I had only been asleep for a few moments when I awoke to the sound of coyote calls. Their howling had bled into my dream.
A pack of coyotes rallying for a hunt had surrounded my tent. It sounded like at least six or seven coyotes, their howls coming from all directions; dominating, warlike. It was strange to me, yet familiar. Having been away from the world of words for a few days, I had gained some insight that went beyond labeling – more of a ‘feel.’ These coyotes seemed to be displaying some type of aggressive bravado. That was the feeling. I remained very still.
I don’t know how long I lay there listening to them, but they were close enough that I could hear their footfalls on dry leaves.
Soon I heard the pack tearing something apart. At first I thought that maybe some of the coyotes had been fighting, but the pitiful cries of the victim put that to rest. Whatever it was they were killing, they were not doing so dispassionately, but rather with prejudice; aggressive and savage.
I heard them eating and chomping noisily and then there was another group howl. It really seemed like a victory howl, like the singing of a group of drunken sports fans whose team had just won. It also called to mind a group of brokers on Wall street whooping it up at the opening bell. The cries triggered a memory from more than twenty years ago where I witnessed a gang of hoodlums assault and rob two people in a park in Southern California. It seemed to be a type of initiation for some new members. They had a cry that was like an Indian war cry. I remember chills running down my spine as I heard this call. It was the same call I heard from these coyotes.
After the cries had died away and the coyotes had moved on, I was still unable to sleep. All night long I heard the throaty call of a mother deer calling desperately for her fawn. The call sounds like rushing air with a muffled whistling. It was a call of desperation and maternal love. She called for it all night, circling the area around and around, but it was to no avail: Her fawn was in the bellies of six or seven coyotes and was no more. that slowly faded into deep morning and finally quieted down in despondence.
I broke camp the next day and resumed my journey down the Mississippi. The previous night’s experience hung on me heavily. I concluded that I had been romanticizing nature, with thoughts about the “circle of life” and how everything is connected and death is a part of life. This was true, but from the perspective of the mother deer her loss was a loss no different than the loss of a child to a human mother. The coyotes obviously needed to hunt to survive, but that didn’t take anything away from the fact that on another level, I had witnessed them commit a brutal murder.
The experience closed the distance I had previously felt between myself and the animals, but not in a way that I would have expected. The coyotes became less ‘natural’ to me: I associated their hunting with emotions I had previously thought of as negative: human emotions like bravado, aggression and violence. As a result, the mother deer became more human to me than I would have previously imagined. I’m sure her mourning process didn’t last as long as a human mother’s but for that night, there seemed to be no distinction: There was no acceptance, only grief.
They coyotes, the deer and I were intimately connected by a common fabric of reality. Normally, I would be more alienated from this fabric through a constant verbal judgments of my rational mind, but the quiet days following my intuition and other senses, my connection to this fabric became clear and obvious. I had achieved a sense of equilibrium with it.
I was in the wild and the wild was in me. I saw green when I opened my eyes and green when I closed them: I found myself in the epicenter of this kill and I was transformed. I had gained awareness of the same dark predatory energy that the coyotes must feel; tapped into some sort of predatory force. The peaceful patterns of the green contorted before my eyes, infused with this new awareness.
I continued on for two more days along a beautiful and pristine stretch of the upper Mississippi. Eventually things became more industrial and the water got dirtier and dirtier clogging my water filter. My journey came to an end. I had to leave the Wild and become acquainted again with civilization. I went back to the workaday life I had lived before, but in a subtle way I had been changed.