Tag Archives: journey

go with the flow

We woke up to the first sun we’ve had since arriving up north, a very welcome thing! packed up camp and headed to the next landing so as to avoid a small bit of the river that even the DNR warns is tricky to navigate, figuring it would be good to avoid a repeat of yesterday’s adventure. the idea was for Mac and I to split the day’s paddling, so Mac put in and had an untroubled run to the next landing, and then I suited up and put in for what we planned as a quick four mile stint to the next landing, Pine Point. we met Andy and Bettina, who were heading out for the same patch of river, and Andy warned us about the part after Pine Point landing, which he and the DNR agree is really tough to navigate. so the plan was that Mac and Richard and I would all meet at Pine Point landing, pull out, and head to Bemidji for internet and laundry and a night in a motel. cool.

so I get in and start paddling and pass Andy and Bettina and the man I assume was Andy’s dad (I didn’t meet him properly) and say goodbye, and it’s really great out, sunny and warm, and I strip down to my bathing suit and I’m happily paddling away, and I pass what I think might be Hennepin Creek, marked on the map, and I keep paddling, and I keep paddling, and I don’t see Pine Point. there IS no Pine Point. and I keep going and going, and the wind comes up and it gets overcast, and I put my shirt and lifejacket back on, and at one point I begin to think I am paddling around in circles, but I know that’s simply not possible, because I am always heading downstream, and at another point the wind is coming straight at me and the tops of the reeds are blowing upstream and the only way I can know I’m going downstream is by looking at the underwater reeds, which always do point in the direction of the current, and I keep paddling, and by now I’m sure I made a wrong turn and I’m on Hennepin Creek, and I look at the map and there is a bridge over Hennepin Creek about six miles down so I figure I’ll pull out there and flag down a car, and I’m working hard not to fret about how much the guys will be worrying about me not arriving at Pine Point, and I just keep paddling, keep losing and finding the channel in this reedy swamp, keep getting my hopes up when I get close to a stand of pines, and keep having my hopes dashed, and then suddenly there’s a campsite: Iron Bridge! not four miles, but twelve miles from where I put in! and I’ve made it through the un-navigable part of the river, the part that we had decided to skip! and I’ve done it basically without a map because I thought I was somewhere else entirely! and I feel TOTALLY proud and great about this and simultaneously really worried about Mac and Richard, who are probably completely freaking out that I haven’t yet arrived at Pine Point.

SO I flag down a car, and it’s Maureen, who calls the cops to have them go to Pine Point and tell Mac and Richard to come get me here, and she waits with me til we’re sure the guys are on their way, and she is totally kind and generous and interesting and fun and seems not to be in a rush at all. Maureen, if you read this, THANKS AGAIN for your kindness!!!

so the guys show up and we head into Bemidji for the fabulous Super 8, which feels like a totally luxury hotel: shower, internet, and bed. What more is there?!?

scary, but not dangerous

well, after all these weeks of departures, the trip has actually begun for real! we got up to a very cold morning, got suited up, and Richard left on the bike for the headwaters, while Mac and I drove to the boat ramp we’ve been using for our practice runs and I put in to Lake Itasca and paddled about a mile over to the headwaters. There was a pair of loons this time: couldn’t get a picture because it was too windy and I was too excited and the combination made me sure I would capsize the boat if I tried to turn it broadside to get a shot. Mac and Richard were waiting at the tourist spot: we did the standard photos, and then carried the boat down a few yards and I put in again. it was so shallow and narrow, and there were a few downed trees, so I had to get out a few times to pull the boat. then there’s a culvert that I’m not skilled enough to paddle through, so we portaged around that, and then I was finally on my way.

oh my god. it’s just amazing. starts as this creek almost, not much bigger than sugar hollow brook, the stream that runs through my land in VT, but it’s totally overrun with reeds to the point that you are completely surrounded by reeds with no visibility and just paddling downstream and hoping for the best. it’s a little scary, but it’s not really dangerous: the perfect combination, in other words. the kayak is really too big for a river this size: it sort of like trying to maneuver an american car through the streets of say, siena or something. but it is very maneuverable, and as I begin to understand how to control it with just shift of weight and stuff, I manage better and better with the turns in the river. and there are amazing amounts of wildlife: birds, turtles, levolulia (dragonflies: there are 30 different species of dragonfly here), and even a river otter or a beaver or a muskrat or some such (a swimming furry mammal: I am too ignorant to know which) and it is much more wilderness than I was expecting: no mile markers, no signage, no sign of human habitation AT ALL until you suddenly come to a bridge and the county road and there’s Mac standing there to make sure I’m good, and I take a bit of a water break and then start again and go maybe another three miles to this absolutely beautiful campsite, Wanagan’s Landing, which has water and a shelter with a picnic table, and the guys have set up the tents and are reading away and I festoon the car with all the wet stuff I can find, eat some lunch, and now have set up a beach chair right at the river’s edge where I am writing this.

The idea is to start with half days at first, until we can get acclimated, and I am very glad to have done an easy day like this: not more than six or seven miles. I would be happy to hang out at this campsite for the next month, to tell you the truth, it’s really just a magical place. The access from the road is over about two miles of rutted two-track, so while it is possible to drive the car in and we don’t have to pack in tents and food and stuff, it’s remote enough that I don’t expect we’ll see anyone else at all until we leave here.

I wish we had thought of staying here rather than at Itasca State Park, which is sort of like tenement life transposed to the outdoors, PLUS they charge you for the opportunity to camp cheek by jowl. if you are going to do this trip, forget about the State Park campsites and stay in these great free sites instead!

anything really worth doing is worth doing slowly

I figure it’s useful to follow Mae West’s advice whenever possible, even when it’s applied to shopping, which is one of my least favorite activities and induces a kind of anxious narcolepsy in me, if such a thing is possible. “Outfitting” is just a fancy word for shopping, after all, and getting outfitted for a sport at which I have pretty minimal experience is a competition between salesmen who have comparatively expert knowledge and foolish me whose only advantage is that I simply don’t have the budget to do what they would bid me to do. $3000 kayaks, anyone?!?! I don’t think so! (it IS a very sexy machine, I can tell that even without knowing anything about it!)

The interesting thing about our endless shopping day yesterday is that we revised the plan somewhat, in a way that I think will alter the trip in a very rich and useful way.

The original plan had been that we would get a tandem kayak and on any given day, two people would be kayaking down the river while the third of us would drive down and meet us. That way we would have the support of a car, each person would have a day off the river once every three days and could scope out interesting off-river stuff, find groceries and water and internet, and carry all the camping gear and ancillary stuff so the kayak wouldn’t have to. The idea was to procure a tandem kayak that could be adjusted to serve as a solo kayak for times when there are only two travelers instead of three.

It turns out that an adjustable tandem kayak is not a good choice for a long touring journey. So we agreed that the better choice is to buy a solo kayak, and then on any given day, one person will be paddling, one will be biking, and the third will be driving. I am totally LOVING this revised plan, partially because it means that each of us will in fact be taking parallel SOLO journeys down the river, gathering after each day’s travels to compare notes and hang out together. In general, I think a solo journey is a much more interesting way to travel. In my experience, you’re just much more OUT there, and strangers interact with you much more freely, and in every way it’s really preferable. But doing a parallel solo journey WITH other people prevents the loneliness and extremity that would be sort of unavoidable if I did a four-month solo trip down the river.

So rather than feeling like we’ve compromised the plan by changing to a solo kayak, I’m really feeling excited about the new balance between alone and together we’ve created for the journey.

But we still have to go back and actually BUY everything today, and I wish that part could just magically be finished! Hopefully by the end of the day today!!!!

leaving Brandon too


View Birch Hill to Bess in a larger map

I woke up this morning spontaneously at around 4 am: the combination of just getting back from Europe and real excitement about this river journey makes it really pretty impossible to sleep. Watching the dawn here on the land is always such a great pleasure: this morning the clouds and fog kept alternately shrouding and caressing and obscuring the mountains. I could happily sit and just watch the shifts not just at dawn, but all day long. But Mac and I got going taking down tents and packing up gear, and now we’re at the Brandon Library for a small internet fix before we head out for Rochester, where we’ll be staying with my friend Bess tonight.

I’m finding it harder to leave Brandon today than New York yesterday. It’s really just so beautiful here: I can’t imagine that any landscapes we’ll be seeing on the River will be any MORE excellent than this spot. (I’m giving a shout out to my friend Heather Hitchens, who found it for me on a gorgeous fall day in 2003; yo, Heather, THANK YOU!)

When I first got the idea of doing this trip, it was a solo journey, some sort of quest. I think it still is some sort of quest, but now it’s turning into a collaborative journey with a shifting cast of fellow travelers, which I’m really really happy about. The first fellow traveler is my man Mac, a trombone player and adventurer I met a couple of years ago doing a workshop for a dance piece with multiple trombones at Mass MOCA. We don’t know each other very well yet, but I bet we will in a few weeks!

And part of the reason I’m keeping this journal as a blog is to invite those of you who aren’t going to physically come to river to join a virtual trip with me. So I’m really eager to hear your comments and questions, and if you find I’m not telling you about stuff you want to know, or telling you too much about stuff you don’t care about, TALK TO ME!!! Let’s do this thing together!!

And although I didn’t plan for it to happen, I’m also really enjoying that we’re embarking on 22 July, which happens to be my birthday. There’s a Book of Days piece for 22 July, you can listen to it here if you like.

getting started


View NYC to VT in a larger map

I’m leaving NYC for real this morning, heading up to my land in Vermont to meet up with Mac, pack up all the gear I can think of needing, and then start the car trip west to the headwaters of the Mississippi. Here we go!!! We’re not really ready: don’t even know what kayaks we’re using, but I’m trusting in the “just in time” approach to doing this journey. I keep reminding myself that we’re headed to a major city in the heartland of America, not some unpeopled outpost, so we can outfit ourselves as we go, which is better than lugging half the planet with us anyway!

My departure playlist for this trip is gonna be a mix my friend Cori the dramaturg put together for me as a parting gift: River music along with the rain coming down right now seems the exact right atmosphere for leaving on this trip. Normally I would be disappointed to do the VT drive in the rain, but for today it seems exactly right. I embrace the water.

Where Do I Live?

Getting organized to be on the road for a year has been kind of a lot of work, especially because I only got news of the McKnight funding a month ago, and without that funding as a basis, I don’t know that I would have had the courage to take on this River Project in its full incarnation. Getting everything settled in NYC for a year away, catching the Ethan Allan to Rutland Monday, and sleeping in my tiny cabin on my land in Brandon the last two nights has been a really THRILLING first step! I feel such a strong sense of finishing one phase of my life and beginning anew. It’s pretty great to wake up along with the brightening sky and lie here looking out at the clouds and the mountains and the sun gradually adding light and heat to everything.

Last night I started reading a book about Dorothea Lange’s fieldwork in 1939 for the Farm Security Administration. One inspiration for my River Project is the idea that I want to understand this country at this moment in history. For so many years, I didn’t really feel like this was my country, exactly, and the election changed that. And the current financial crisis made me think a one-person WPA project (since even Obama’s administration is unlikely to imitate FDR and hire artists to travel around the country documenting and interviewing!) might be a really worthwhile thing for me to take on. And since I’m a musician, my documentation will start from sound rather than image, and my relation to words is also different from a writer or historian…

So last night, I was reading about how in 1958, Dorothea Lange taught a course at the California School of Fine Arts called “The Camera, an Instrument of Inward Vision: Where Do I Live?”

“To ask ‘Where do I live?’” wrote Lange, ”presupposes that one lives in a house, or a trailer, or a house boat or someplace with a certain amount of things–personal things. ‘Where do I live?’ could also suggest a type of dream-land full of ideas and ideals, or a social structure which seems to have established a guiding class ethic. Yes, this is where I live: in a land of road markers and guide posts; yet every man must still find his own way.“ [p. 45]

When I think about the question ‘Where do I live’, I realize that on one level, I have lived in the same apartment in NYC for twenty years, and I am rooted there about as deeply as a person can be rooted in a place. On another level, I really don’t have a clue where I live. And I hope this journey will help me find out.

down the river

Welcome to the blog for The River Project, my year-long journey down and then back up the Mississippi River. I am very happy you have found your way here, and I’m hoping this will turn into a gathering place for everyone who is joining me on this journey, either physically or vicariously.

I have posted an overview of my thinking about The River Project that I wrote in March of 2009 as an application to the American Composers Forum for a McKnight Visiting Composer’s Fellowship, and I’m delighted to tell you I GOT that fellowship, so the project is now officially real and for sure going to happen.

I’ve set up The River Project to be open-ended enough to support multiple collaborations and agendas, some of which I’ll be talking about right away, and others of which will only develop once I’m on the river.

For now, I can tell you that in late July I will be meeting up with Richard Steadman-Jones and Mac Walton in Minnesota, and we’ll head up to the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca to start kayaking down the river!

More very soon…