A River Runs Nowhere

By Esther C. Baird
First Published in the Tri-Town Transcript

Boxford —
For my birthday this past March my husband gave me a Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP).  I’d been renting them the past few summers over in the Adirondacks, so I was thrilled to own one I could use here on the North Shore. SUPs are magical mini-islands, the perfect escape when terra firma grows tedious with snack requests, dinner needs and trips to Costco. 
I couldn’t wait to use mine . . . so I didn’t.
The weekend after my birthday, when the snow was mostly (but not totally) gone, and the marsh in our back yard was mostly (but not totally) unfrozen, I geared up in my Wellies and hip length winter coat and propelled myself out onto the water.  I had to break ice to get anywhere, so it was a short ride, but it was still wonderful.   Not a single frozen reed asked me for the iPad or to find its shoes. I couldn’t wait for summer.
This past Saturday I finally got my chance, and, since I drive along the Ipswich River 10,0000 times a day I decided it was ideal for my inaugural Tri-Town SUP outing.  I studied a river map full of cheerful symbols indicating landmarks, bird sanctuaries and bridges with comments that promised a well traveled, easy, river.  I decided to paddle the two mile stretch between Thunder Bridge on 62 in Middleton, and the Salem Road Bridge in Topsfield. 
My husband and daughters dropped me off at the Salem Road Bridge and watched me muck my way through the wet, grassy bank and take off.  I had a backpack with a bottle of water and my phone, safely ensconced in two zippy bags, just in case.   I waved at them and paddled away into serenity.
Right away my serenity was interrupted by water bushes, submerged logs and trees that cropped up with low hanging branches every few feet.  I paddled around bush after bush while scanning ahead for the break where, surely, the river cleared out.   Where was the map symbol for ‘extremely annoying spot on river’?  Further, where was the symbol for, ‘here there be spiders,’ because as I trawled through the watery jungle they skittered across my board, crawled up my legs and fell onto me from the tree branches.  That wasn’t normal, was it!?
How had I go from New England river to Louisiana bayou?  What on earth was going on?  Better yet, where on earth!?  After about twenty minutes of paddle-based, bush whackery, I pulled out my phone from its zipped layers and called my husband. 
“I can’t find the river.” I announced.
“What?” he said trying to make sense of my statement given he had left me  . . . on the river.
“I’m paddling through shrubbery.” I flicked a giant brown spider off my shoulder. “There is something really wrong with this river.”
We agreed that I’d return to the Salem bridge, if I could find it, and hung up.   I next flicked open my Google maps to sort out where I was in relationship to, well, just anywhere normal.

At last, clarity. 

It turned out, I was SUPing in a field, mayhap a meadow, somewhere in Topsfield. I know some of you hearty, outdoorsy, Regular Readers may be rolling your eyes at this point (to which I say:  this is print, roll as much as you’d like).  Obviously you know that sometimes after historic rainfalls (like the one we had the day before my paddling adventure) the river floods into nearby fields.  I, and about twenty million stranded spiders, did not know that.

Now I do.

When I finally made my way back to the launch bridge, and found the real river, it was, of course, lovely, fast and wide.  It was spider free, and full of happy people meandering along.  I waved and pretended I hadn’t just paddled through a cow pasture, and in return, they didn’t ask me for a snack.   I think I’m ready for summer!