In mid-May, I attended my cousin Samantha’s wedding in Mondovi, Wisconsin. The ceremony was in a small Methodist church. The minister stood before the couple and talked to them in a casual yet thoughtful tone, as if we were all gathered around a dinner table. He said that when he was growing up, living on a nearby farm, they had used baling twine for many purposes. He had learned that you could braid three strands of twine together to make strong rope, but you couldn’t braid two strands. He likened those two strands to the couple, and the third strand to God.
A couple weeks later, on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I took to the St. Croix River with my wife Katie and our black lab Lola. Katie and I have been paddling on the St. Croix for years. I don’t remember when we first went, but it’s been several times a year for at least the six years we’ve been married. And I’ve been canoeing the river since I was a junior at Stillwater Area High School, when biology teacher Jeff Ranta took a group of us that spring to see a Great Blue Heron rookery near Copas.
Memorial Day weekend, the water was high and the current moving fast. Weaving amongst narrow islands, we drifted and talked about that metaphor the minister had spoken of at the wedding, of the twine braided to rope. It came to me that the St. Croix River is a third strand, braided into our lives. There are surely other strands, too: our families, friends, compassion, words. But the river possesses a mysterious combination of constancy and fluidity. And when there is just the two of us and the dog in the canoe, and the river carrying us forward, I sit silently in awe and wonder at it.
We went back to the river last Saturday. This time there were eight people: four couples, two married, two not, split amongst three canoes. And, of course, the dog. We happened to float the same stretch of the river as Memorial Day weekend. The water was down a couple feet from May, and warm for swimming, but still high enough that beaches and sandbars were few. We let the current carry us, we saw eagles and osprey, a musky was caught and released.
On the trip was myself, fretting about logistics, safety, sandwiches; Katie, gracefully duffing in the middle of the canoe, eating cherries most of the way; Wade, making a sombrero look sensible; Audrey, her fingernails painted red, white, and blue; Slim, often reclining, face to the sky; Nel, not only smart enough to bring coffee but generous enough to share it; Gabe, who dedicated the day to his fly rod; and Liz, steering the angler downstream with a saintly smile. And there was the river, the third strand of twine.
At another wedding this summer, in the woods of Afton, my friend Sunday delivered the sermon for Doug and Heidi. Sunday spoke about what Spiritual Humanism has to say about relationships. It came to mind again as I traveled down the St. Croix on Saturday, in the company of three other devoted couples. Sunday spoke of Plato, and said, “In searching for and recognizing the divine within your beloved, one discovers the divine in oneself, and comes to recognize that, in all its forms, divinity is one and the same.”
That might call to mind the words of Norman Maclean, at the end of his famous story, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” It also makes me think of another concept in that story (which is arguably about relationships more than fly fishing): that to love is to seek to understand, though we can love fully without fully understanding.
The skies last Saturday were blue and clear. A mile from the take-out, we stopped at a small beach and swam and sat in the water as the sun dropped toward the trees on the western bank. The water was perfect and the silence absolute. I said I thought I might just stay there. But then I figured the mosquitoes would be bad and my own bed sounded better than sand. We got back in the canoe — a wedding gift from our friends — and headed on down the river.