Nighttime paddle

Rowley River, Massachusetts, 10 P.M., under a new moon

You slip the kayak into the nighttime water.  Despite the chill in the air that necessitates a sweatshirt, the water is warm.  You push off and paddle against the gentle rising tide, towards the Plum Island Sound and away from the few house-lights along the river.  Behind you the tall September grass of the marsh banks is silhouetted against the light created by humans. 

In front of you, a great blue heron takes off but you can’t see him against the darkness of a new-moon sky.  It is his strangled, wretched call that announces his departure. 

Around the first bend your eyes adjust to the near darkness.  On your left, to the north, the Big Dipper sits so low on the horizon that it looks like it could tilt down and scoop up the entire river in its celestial mouth.  When you’re far enough, you stop paddling and lean back to take in the pure openness of the sky.  A sky so littered with stars that you wonder how many places in the world are left where you can find this isolation and see so much.  You wonder if you are seeing light that maybe no one else is seeing.  Light that raced across the universe at the speed of itself, across such an expanse that it’s incredible that nothing blocked its way.  Light that was created when two hydrogen atoms combined – in a place of heat and pressure, where elements and light are born – and raced across the universe to your eyes, just to show you what it had done.  You wonder how many stars, despite their best efforts to get our attention, have been ignored since the invention of the light bulb.    

A shooting star in the east!  You know it’s a charlatan, jealous of the true stars.  But it’s still a show to see.

The river, though rising and flowing, is flat.  The tale of the night sky is retold on the glass of the water.  

Not to be outdone, the river tells it’s own tale.  They barely catch your eye at first, but when you look at the water you see them.  Twinkles of green.  A burst there.  And over there.  Microscopic plankton called dinoflagellates producing their own light – bioluminescence – the light of life.  A small stir of the paddle and small green lights swirl in the vortices.

You let the current carry you backwards until the stern of your kayak rubs against the marsh grass and you stop.  You stare at the stars and the darkness downriver.  The tide starts to pull your bow around.   

The last train of the commuter rail rumbles.  You turn the kayak around and slowly paddle back, the stars and dinoflagellates swirling your wake.

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