Monday, August 02, 2004

Paddling By Moonlight

The idea for a midnight paddle came up as Sambar lunched with S and I about two weekends ago. Chowing down on the Vendekkyapuli and the Matki chi Usal, proved to be rather inspiring. We had done all manner of trips over the last year. Short sallies over the lake in the afternoon, overnighters on the Delaware, a morning’s paddle on the Chesapeake Bay. What more could we do… short of throwing ourselves into a chumming rapid.

I guess, that was the point, the Vendekkyapuli kicked in and Sambar came up with the brilliant idea of a paddle by moonlight. A quick consultation of the calendar told us we had a full moon in two weekends. That was it.

It took a while to sort out; and while we varied from the original script in location and the number of kayaks, by Thursday morning, Sambar and I were certain we were going out on the Schuylkill on Friday night.

Sambar picked up a kayak for me from Eastern Mountain Sports on his way back home. I saw the moon, a giant white saucer low on the horizon, just as I was driving into Sambar’s complex – An auspicious omen in indeed.

I got to his place, just as he was cooking up his Boca-burger surprise for dinner. After shooting the breeze about the tensile strength of 19th century swords, the oratory of Sivaji Ganeshan, the genius of the Tamil Sangam and other similar esoteric subjects that often come up at Sambar’s place, we loaded up the kayaks and set out toward the put in.

A short distance from Phoenixville, we turned off a bridge, down an incline, onto a road that skirted the Schuylkill Canal. We turned left into a smallish parking lot and pulled the kayaks off the carrier. The last minute checks – the paddles, the LED lights, a liberal spray of DEET and we carried the boats onto the river bank.

It was not much of a put in -- just a mucky slope. Being less adept of the two, I got into my kayak and Sambar launched me into the water. He soon joined me and we set off. The flick of the paddle and we moved from the shadows of the trees on the shore, into the shimmer of the moonlight. The moon, now high in the sky was no longer large, but it was bright as a flashlight. There was a fair current and the boats moved along with barely a paddle.

The sounds of the night were amplified. The air was somewhat warm and the humidity hung on my upper lip. There…that was the plop of a frog launching itself into the water, and there… the sound of a bird taking off from the branches above.

The night air conveyed all manner of sounds – cars, their tires hissing on distant roads, the trains running across the trestles of a bridge somewhere downstream. The steady booms of cannon fire… perhaps the historic re-enactors at Valley Forge was practising their skills… The river carried us fast and easy. Sambar, who has done this stretch of the river by daylight, led the way, picking his way around strainers, submerged rocks and under the spans of bridges.

The light of a fisherman’s lamp cast a small circle of light on the near bank. We could just make out the form of a man in waders hunched over his fishing rod. The moon followed us through our trip down the river, peering at us occasionally from between the branches, sometimes coming out into the open for a clear look at us.

I had brought along a disposable camera and I went trigger happy (until the flash conked off). We did not say much, Sambar and I, just drifted along, a paddle splash now and again.

An hour into our ride, Sambar began scanning the near bank on the left-hand side intently. Overhead, I saw the power lines, he had earlier said, marked the point where we had to pull out for the canal. I had, frankly, expected the canal to connect to the river. But here, we had to pull out and carry the kayaks fifty yards or so, to the canal. The luminous dial face of my watch said 10:30 pm.

Take out was another mucky affair, but it went through much better than we feared. We walked through a path cut in the tall undergrowth (by Schuylkill Canal volunteers) till we reached the canal. A road and a street lamp stood on the other side, beyond the towpath. We launched into the still waters of the Schuylkill Canal. We paddled steadily into the night. The canal was lined on both sides by trees. Occasionally houses came up on the right-hand side. On one occassion we saw a restaurant. Gardens fronted the canal, and we could smell fresh blossoms.

The mirror of the canal’s waters was only broken by our paddle strokes. The reflections cast by the houses and trees along its edge made it seem like we were floating above an underwater world.

The moon cast its perfect likeness on the water and Sambar was reciting the Mantrapushpam. Just the right subtext for the evening.

Yopam pushpam veda / pushpavan prajavan pashuvan bhavati|
Chandramava Apam pushpam|
Pushpavan, Prajavan pashuman bhavati||
Ya Evam Veda / yopa mayatanam Veda
Ayatanam bhavati. Agnirva Apamayatanam / Ayatanavan Bhavati/
Yo gnerayatanam Veda / Ayatanavan bhavati/