ArticlesPersonal Essays

Where the Road Ends

Life is not separate from death. It only looks that way. -Blackfoot proverb

Greenland Skin-on-frame kayak
Greenland Skin-on-frame kayak

Yesterday, I took my new West Greenland
skin-on-frame kayak to the flooded Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area in the middle of
Iowa – little did the Inuit know that their type of watercraft would be used so far
from Artic waters. This 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 has 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 by 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?


Where to?

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, that the moon was still
higher than the water. Grass, he remembered, covered the moon.

I can do better than that, said Cormorant. I know of the last placel 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 moon. 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 moon 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 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 became the black crow of
the sea.

The Broken Paddle

Cormorant and the Moon
Cormorant and the Moon

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 by
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
went to never come back up. I sat there a long time. I didn’t know what to think. I
had just killed this rabbit. I started back towards land with my half paddle – I was
using it like a canoe paddle – when 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 and 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 is for the rabbits and the cormorants, and that paddle
brought my color back.

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