By John Hopkins
"He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before - this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again... The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated... he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea." -- From `The Wind in the Willows,' by Kenneth Grahame
The fabulous thing about traveling on the river is that no matter how many times you cover the identical stretch of water it is never the same twice. Currents, wind, changing water levels – all conspire to alter the character of the river from day to day, or even within a day. A stretch of highway will look and feel the same from the comfort of your car day after day, but a stretch of river in a canoe or kayak can always throw up a surprise.
Nancy and I spent almost every day on the river this summer, either in canoe or kayak, and we both agreed that at no point did we feel bored, even though we were traveling along the same stretch of water most of the time.
It is this changing, sometimes unpredictable nature of the river that gives fresh perspective to the adage: "It is not the destination, but the journey." Our expeditions were almost always leisurely, with no set speed or timeline in mind. We traveled as quickly or slowly as we liked, and returned home when the mood suited us. The satisfaction in our trips came not from the distance we traveled, but what we experienced along the way.
In fact, I found out that when the focus did change to the destination, suddenly the satisfaction of the journey seemed diminished. One Saturday morning I decided to kayak, on my own, as far up the river as I could get in two or three hours. My goal was to reach the lake that feeds our particular stretch of river. The trip was not nearly so satisfying. While I covered new territory that I hadn't seen before, I also felt I was missing things in my haste to get to the lake. Sometimes, as I came to a bend in the river, I found myself, almost unconsciously, paddling with extra exertion to try and get around the corner and see how much closer my destination was.
After a couple of hours I had come to a convenient landing point, close to the lake, and while I was pleased with my endurance and the distance I had covered, my paddle hadn't been quite as enriching as I had hoped.
Later, Nancy and I took the canoe on a similar route to that I had covered on my own, and she pointed out interesting natural features and riverfront properties I had missed on my solo run in the kayak. I noticed a couple of them were at curves in the river where I had been more preoccupied with going around the bend than taking in the scenery immediately surrounding me.
On another occasion we were in our kayaks together and Nancy was setting a leisurely pace while I was powering along as if I had an urgent appointment to make. She was ahead of me, and suddenly looked up, put a finger to her mouth and gave me a scornful look. She pointed to the reeds by the shore and there, not 10 feet from us, was a green heron, a magnificent looking bird neither of us had seen before.
At my "race pace" I would have swept right past the bird, not coming close to spotting it camouflaged in the shoreline vegetation. But Nancy, taking the time to observe the surroundings, had spotted it.
It was a good life lesson. We rush through our days, our weeks, our months and our years, focused on some destination in the future while we disregard the magic that is taking place in the present. We slog through our workday grind, anticipating the weekend, vacation, or perhaps even retirement, the same way I hustled my way around the bend in the river, trying to see what lay further down the path. Of course, when we do this we miss the green heron right in front of us.