Thursday, June 3, 2010

A River through Time

There are a lot of things I’d like to see, places I’d like to go, and things I’d like to do someday. I think we all have those so-called “bucket lists” in the back of our minds, hoping that someday we’ll enjoy experiences like hiking rim to rim in the Grand Canyon or a whale sighting in Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska or a Camino de Santiago de Compostela Pilgrimage in Spain. I know, at least, that these are the kind of things we dream about in my house.
But this past Memorial Day weekend, it was the Skunk River, as it passes through Oakland Mills, Iowa, that caught our fancy as the place to be.
The Skunk rises in two branches in central Iowa, joining in Keokuk County and flowing southeast to the Mississippi below Burlington. According to the 1865 Iowa State Gazetteer, Shippers' Guide and Business Directory, “The Skunk River, or Chicaque, as the Indians called it (meaning polecat) is a stream of pure water, averaging about 100 yards in width. This stream affords the most ample water-power, sufficient to drive all the necessary machinery that may be demanded by the surrounding country for all time to come. Suitable mill sites occur on it at frequent points, four of which have already been improved, and have extensive saw and grist mills in successful operation, while others are in course of erection.”
The area we visited--and have visited for years, now--is called Oakland Mills, a tiny, unincorporated village a few miles south of Mount Pleasant, where I went to college.
Oakland Mills was the site of a hydroelectric plant built in the 1920's that provided electricity for the area for nearly 40 years before being abandoned. Now, the dam is used as a fishing pier on the Skunk, with water pouring over one section to create a fast-moving, muddy current that attracts campers, a few adventurous boaters and fishermen hoping to wrestle giant catfish from its murky depths. Located in a deep wooded valley, the area can be hot, humid, dusty (from the gravel road that runs along the river) and an excellent breeding ground for championship-size mosquitoes.
So, naturally, we love it.
Because, as is usually the case, it’s not the place, but the people that make for extra-special times. We used to meet college friends for Memorial Day “reunions” on the Skunk each year. Camping and cooking out in a large riverside lot, we’d share and compare stories of jobs and activities while introducing our growing families in a sort of rite of passage welcoming them to the clan. No, we did not require our children to walk on hot coals or undergo ritual scarification to become full-fledged members of the tribe, but certain customs and traditions were passed down, all the same.
“That’s where I learned to eat catsup on my eggs,” noted one of my sons. “And where to go if you’re going to the bathroom outside.”
Those probably aren’t the sort of cultural rites that will give anthropologists and sociologists something to think about and study at length in the future, I suppose, but they made for wonderful, funny things to remember and enjoy.
Over time, though, life kind of got in the way of our Memorial Day powwows. We didn’t completely lose touch with those friends of ours, but other activities, like school, sports, jobs, graduations and vacation trips muscled aside the yearly visit to the Skunk. We were happy to hook up with our friends for a visit just over a year ago, and happier, still, to make plans for a re-reunion, of sorts, near the banks of the mighty Skunk this past weekend. The old campsite is no longer available, nor is there as much mutual interest in sleeping on the ground. But one of us found out about a pair of cabins, recently built by the county nature park, high on a wooded bluff overlooking the river, that were just right. We met a new son-in-law and a newer grandson. We reintroduced ourselves to young-adult children who we hadn’t seen in years.
We talked and sang and ate and laughed.
And we learned.
We learned that some friends stay that way because that’s the way it’s meant to be. We compared some notes on the phenomenon of growing a little older, while enjoying how young we remain in our hearts and minds. We learned how little the essential values and beliefs that made us friends in the first place have changed over the years.
And we learned, I think, that we like being together and that we’ll do it again next year.
I hope so.
You see, I have some grandchildren I’d like these friends of ours to meet.
And I think it’s just about time they learned how to eat their eggs.


  1. Positively lyrical and evocative. John, I loved it. It makes me sad and happy at the same time...the march of the generations.