Where the Road Ends and the Water Begins
by Bryan Hansel
"Life is not separate from death. It only looks that way." (Blackfoot proverb)
Yesterday, I took my new West Greenland skin-on-frame kayak to the flooded Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in the middle of Iowa. Little did the Inuit know that their type of watercraft would be used so far from Artic waters. The WMA is made up of pools and wetland created by the back up of water behind the Coralville Reservoir and usually is only a couple of feet deep, but with the flood water the WMA had gained six to ten feet of water. It had become a real-sized lake with real-sized water. Just the other day, we played in two to two-and-a-half foot rollers on this flood-made lake.
To the Trees Filled with Cormorants
But yesterday, I put in on a road that ended where the floodwater began and paddled out to our usual location – some barkless dead trees where Cormorants nest. I eased my way towards them trying to keep my bow pointed at the trees so they would think I was smaller than I really was. They didn't buy it and many of the birds soared away doing circles around their tree and me. They blurted out a sound from their long black necks half between and goose's honk and a duck's quack. In the nests sat Cormorant chicks, they tried to make a sound like the older birds but came up short, and the orange flap under their bills called out, "Feed me." That colorful flap under their bill reminded me of the story of How Cormorant Lost His Color, and little did I know, I would lose my color in the same way later in the day.
How Cormorant Lost His Color
One day when the world was young before we, men and women, spread across the planet, and before we, men and women, had a voice to speak with, Cormorant sat perched, hill belly full from fishing, his wings were stretched out towards the sun to dry off from a full day of fishing and eating. He felt good, because he had caught many unusual insects and even a crawdad in the water today. This was the time of the great floods, and during that time many insects, fish, and other aquatic things spread out across the land.
"What shall I do next?" Cormorant asked himself. He started to preen himself and his beautiful golden orange feathers. He was certainly the most colorful of birds, he was the brightest of birds of all the birds that he had met, and he was very proud of the colors of his feathers. He often thought, "I am the greatest of birds, I can do anything." And to prove it to himself, he lofted into to the air and soared up high above the water. He soared and soared and soared. He climbed higher and higher and looked out over the flooded land. He looked at all the trees with their tops just sticking out of the water, and he thought, "This land was built for me. I can perch wherever I like, and the food is plentiful." With that thought, he headed out away from the trees and over the great lake, and there he saw it, a log with some type of creature on it. The animal wasn't moving, and it didn't have wings.
"I better go down and see what is going on," said Cormorant.
And as he got closer to the lake and log and animal, he could see that it was Rabbit. He had heard of Rabbit and knew that Rabbit usually caused trouble.
"Hello," Cormorant called down to Rabbit.
"Hello," said Rabbit.
"What are you doing down here?"
"Wherever this log takes me?"
"Because I'm not a good enough swimmer to make it to shore."
"There is no shore anymore," said Cormorant.
"I know," said Rabbit. "I'm hungry. Can you bring me food?"
Cormorant thought about it, and remember from his travels, a hill that was still higher than the water. Grass, he remembered, covered the hill.
"I can do better than that," said Cormorant. "I know of the last hill that is above water, and it is full of grass. I will let you get on my back, and I will fly you to the hill. There you can eat grass until flood ends and the land comes back."
"Are you sure you can carry me?" asked Rabbit. "If you drop me in the water I won't be able to swim for long, and I will die."
"I am Cormorant. I'm the most beautiful bird in the world and you ask me if I will drop you."
Cormorant landed next to Rabbit on the log, and Rabbit crawled onto his back. Cormorant flapped with wings covered with beautiful golden orange feathers and lifted off of the log. He shot straight up into the air and away from the log that Rabbit was safe on. The last hill rose above the water in the center of the lake, so they had a long flight to take, but Cormorant wasn't worried. He climbed higher and higher.
"I will show you the clouds. Have you been in the clouds?" asked Cormorant.
Rabbit said, "No." He was shaking from the height. He was terrified. He didn't want to drown. They flew up towards the clouds and the second they hit them, Cormorant's back shook, and Rabbit flew off. Feeling the lightened load, Cormorant realized that he had lost Rabbit, so he twisted his flight and dove as fast as he could. Rabbit hit the water and disappeared below the surface. Cormorant felt a tug at his heart. What did he do? That tug welled up inside him and sucked all the feeling from his wings, his bill, his feet, his heart, and then Rabbit surfaced.
"Are you okay, Rabbit?"
Rabbit didn't respond; he just looked up with his soft rabbit eyes that were filled with panic.
"I'll save you," Cormorant called. "I'll land in the water and you can get on my back." Cormorant landed next to Rabbit, and Rabbit clawed as hard as he could, trying to climb onto Cormorant's back, but it was no good, he couldn't do it. Cormorant swung around to try and use his bill to help Rabbit, and as he did he saw Rabbit sink below the water. Rabbit sunk in slow motion. In really slow motion. Cormorant dove to find Rabbit, but the water was too muddy to see. Rabbit was gone. Cormorant surfaced and still with water in his throat yelled out a scream that sounded halfway between Goose and Duck, and then he felt that tug at his heart again. He felt that tug well up inside again. He felt that tug suck all the feeling from his wings, his bill, his feet, and his heart. He felt that tug suck all the beautiful golden orange color from every single feather on his body. All the color was gone, and he turned black.
Cormorant didn't see the change, but he felt dreadful. He flew back to his tree and sat and sat and sat. More rain came, the water rose, the water fell, and Cormorant sat. Finally, when all the water left and the land came back, Cormorant looked around and saw Creator walking across the land.
"Cormorant, you are all black," said Creator. "I made you colorful. What happened?"
Cormorant looked at himself, and, indeed, he was black. "I…I…I killed Rabbit." Cormorant recounted the story of how Rabbit met his watery grave.
Creator said, "I will give you your color back. You can't do everything, Cormorant, you are good at heart." Creator waved his arms and squinted, and grunted, and tried as hard as he could, but he could only give Cormorant color back onto the underside of his bill – under his bill where Cormorant couldn't see it.
And that is the story of how Cormorant lost his color and become the black crow of the sea.
The Broken Paddle
After thinking about that story, I paddled off and paddled the flooded trees until I saw a rabbit sitting on a log in the middle of the water. How long had it been sitting here, I wondered. I paddled over to it causing it to jump into the water. The rabbit swam away from me towards water, and I decided that I had to rescue it. So, I took off after it. I paddled up to it and maneuvered my boat around him. I grabbed him and put him on my deck. He jumped off. So, I paddled around for a second go, and as I pried, drew, and braced my paddle broke in half. As it did, the rabbit disappeared under the water. I took half of my paddle and pulled the water up near where he went under. Then the rabbit popped back up. He was swimming on his side towards me as fast as he could he his eyes filled with panic. I tried to get closer, but with my broken paddle, I turned my boat too quickly and hit the rabbit. Under it wentnever to come up again. I sat there a long time. I didn't know what to think. I had just killed this rabbit. As I headed back toward land using my half paddle like a canoe paddle, I saw another rabbit. I grabbed it and held it on my deck until it stopped trying to get away. It turned and looked at me, it gazed at me as I paddled. When I hit land, it didn't move, so I backed off and went towards a hill. The rabbit must have seen land this time, because it ran towards the front of my boat and waited there until I hit the shore. Then it jumped off onto land. Half on shore and half in the water, it started eating grass.
A New Paddle
When I got home, I started on a new paddle. I laminated a strip of ash between
western red cedar and then I added ash armor around the tip of my paddle. I
drew centerlines, and cut the taper in the blade. Then I redrew the centerlines
and tapered the blade from the center to the edge. I worked on this paddle non-stop
with a block plane. Piles of cedar curls amassed at my feet. Twelve hours and
two days later, with blisters on my fingertips, I finished my paddle with a
coat of Watco oil. The oil brought out the color of one of the most beautiful
paddles I had ever seen, and I had made it. That paddle was for the rabbits and
the cormorants, and that paddle brought my color back.
© 2006, Wesley Kisting