Poking about the rare manuscripts section of UNCA's Ramsey
Library this morning, I was amazed to discover a fragile
package wrapped in a thin sheet of translucent yellow
parchment. What caught my eye was not the package itself,
which was just one among hundreds hidden away in a row of dusty
wooden file cabinets marked "Southern Appalachian Culture," but
the precisely rendered line drawing of a kayak on its cover.
Intrigued, hands trembling, I carefully unwound the rotting
string binding the package shut and read with growing
excitement the following lines:
In our family, there was no clear line between religion
and paddling. We lived at the junction of great
whitewater rivers in western North Carolina, and our
father was a Presbyterian minister and a paddler who
built his own boats and taught others. He told us
about Christ's disciples being boaters, and we were
left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all
first-class paddlers on the Sea of Galilee were hard-
boaters, and that John, the favorite, was a steep
"Wait! How can this be? It sounds like Norman Maclean,
but it's not, he grew up in Montana" I exclaimed aloud.
Incredulous, I sped through page after crackling page at a
furious pace. I read of the Maclean brothers, Norman and Paul,
natives not of Missoula but of Asheville, not fly fishers but
Norman and Paul learned to read water from their father, a
circuit rider whose travels allowed him to combine preaching
with scouting promising rivers and creeks. While their father
was graceful and bold and wore a stylish metal flake helmet,
the skills of the elder Maclean's sons soon surpassed those of
their teacher. Paul proved to be especially gifted; when he
played a hole, it was as if the rest of the world stopped and
held its breath:
Around him was the multitudinous river, and, where the
depression had parted it around him, big-grained vapor
rose. The mini-molecules of water left in the wake of
his paddle made momentary loops of gossamer,
disappearing so rapidly in the rising big-grained vapor
that they had to be retained in the memory to be
visualized as loops. The spray emanating from him was
finer still and enclosed him in a halo of himself. The
halo of himself was always there and always
disappearing, as if he were a candlelight flickering
about three inches from himself. The images of himself
and his paddle kept disappearing into the rising vapors
of the river, which continually circled to the tops of
the cliffs where, after becoming a wreath in the wind,
they became rays of the sun.
Paul was particular about who he'd boat with, a trait he
may have inherited from his father, about whom Norman wrote,
"If our father had his say, nobody who did not know how to
paddle a kayak with style and grace would be allowed to debase
a river by running its rapids upright." One person neither
brother could stand was Norman's brother-in-law, Neal. The
following exchange occured after Norman was trapped by his wife
and mother-in-law into taking Neal on a trip down the French
After I gave him the news, my brother said, "He'll be
just as welcome as a dose of clap."
I said to my brother, "Go easy on him. He's my
My brother said, "I won't paddle with him. He comes
from Montana and he's a rafter."
I said, "Cut it out. You know he was born and brought
up in North Carolina. He just works in Montana. And
now he's coming back for a vacation and writes his
mother he wants to boat with us. With you especially."
My brother said, "Practically everybody in the Rocky
Mountains was born in the Southeast where they failed
as paddlers, so they migrated west and became doctors,
lawyers, librarians, clinical psychologists, or NOLS
I wasn't sure he was about to buy a drink, but he had
already had one.
Despite his artistry with a paddle and a thirty-five pound
boat, Paul's personal life was like an abandoned open canoe
careening down his home river, the Narrows of the Green. An
inkling of Paul's fate is foreshadowed in this exchange between
the author, summoned in the middle of the night to retrieve his
brother from the Asheville City drunk tank, and a desk
Not wanting to see him without a notion of what I might
see, I kept repeating, "What's wrong?" When the desk
sergeant thought it was time, he told me, "He hit a guy
and the guy is missing a couple teeth and is all cut
up." I asked, "What's the second guy suing him for?"
"For breaking dishes. Also a table," the sergeant
said. "The second guy owns the restaurant. The guy
who got hit lit on one of the tables."
By now I was ready to see my brother, but it was
becoming clear that the sergeant had called me to the
station to have a talk. He said, "We're picking him up
too much lately. He's drinking too much." I had
already heard more than I wanted. Maybe one of our
ultimate troubles was that I never wanted to hear too
much about my brother.
The sergeant finished what he had to say by finally
telling me what he really wanted to say, "Besides he's
behind in the big stud poker game at Hot Springs. It's
not healthy to be behind in the big game at Hot
"You and your brother think you're tough because you're
hair boaters. At Hot Springs they don't play any child
games like bouncing around in boats. At Hot Springs
it's the big stud poker game and all that goes with
In the end the efforts of Paul's family to save him fail,
and they are left with only with their love for him and for
each other to hang onto: "Are you sure you have told me
everything you know," Norman's father often asked in a
conversation that lasted for years. "Everything," his son
would reply, "but you can love completely without complete
understanding." "That I have known and preached," was his
father's usual response.
Clearly the manuscript I found was a memorial to a lost
brother, but it was more, it was an elegy to a world gone by.
"What a beautiful world it once was," Maclean wrote,
At least a river of it was. And it was almost mine and
my family's and just a few others' who wouldn't steal
beer. You could leave beer to cool in the river, and
it would be so cold when you got back it wouldn't foam
much. It would be a beer made in the next town if the
town were a few thousand or over. So it was Kessler
Beer made in Asheville or Highlander beer made in
Bryson City that we left to cool in the West Fork of
the Big Pigeon. What a wonderful world it was once
when all the beer was not made in Milwaukee,
Minneapolis, or St. Louis.
Clear too was Maclean's love of paddling, the one thing he
had left to connect him to his family and youth. "Poets," he
wrote, "talk of 'spots of time,' but it is really paddlers who
experience eternity compressed into a moment. No one can tell
what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is the
peak of a pirouetting ender and suddenly it is over."
My discovery of the faded manuscript in a seldom-visited
corner of Ramsey Library is puzzling: could this be the
original draft of the classic novella A River Runs Through It?
Could a misguided editor have convinced Maclean that no one but
the Western "hook and bullet" crowd would be willing to buy a
story with "water and trees" in it? Was Outside magazine
unwilling to review a story set anywhere but Montana? What
other reason could there be for Maclean to hide his true
Whatever the answers to these questions, the manuscript's
lyric closing passage bears the mark genius:
Now, nearly all those I loved and did not understand
when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to
Of course, now I am too old to be much of a paddler,
and now of course I usually boat the big waters alone,
although some of my friends think I shouldn't. Like
many paddlers in western North Carolina, I often do not
put on until the cool of the evening. Then in the
Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to
a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the
Nolichucky River and the rhythm of linked 360's.
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs
through it. The river cuts through the world's oldest
mountains and runs over rocks from the basement of
time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops.
Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words
I am haunted by waters.
posted for Chris Bell, be...@unca.edu
But then .... there are redeeming qualities to your account. For
instance, you're certainly right about those Rocky Mountain paddlers.
They'll steal anything, especially beer. A scurrilous group from near
Missoula crept into my camp a couple of years ago while I was out
backpacking in the Bitterroots, waiting for my launch date on the Selway.
They lifted my entire supply of Bass Ale, which my rafting buddies had
agreed to convey down the Selway, along with my camping gear and other
provisions, so I could enjoy paddling an unburdened hard boat. The greedy
brigands drank every drop of my two cases on their way to the putin.
(Their launch date, I was soon to discover, was the day before ours.)
Accustomed to the micro brewery stomach wash for Yuppies so abundantly
available in the Rockies, their gastrointestinal tracts were immediately
thrown into mad disarray by the rich, malty English concoction which they
had filched from my coolers. But there is divine retribution. When we
launched next day, Ranger Rick advised my group to be on the lookout for a
gang of sick derelicts from Montana who had launched late the previous
day. Vomiting profusely, he averred. Vomiting some vile brown substance.
We ran up on them before noon. A pathetic lot, they were. Bearing
countenances not unlike those worn by all-night poker habitues stumbling
from the saloon outside Hot Springs at daybreak. Red-eyed, badly
dehydrated, but nonetheless still losing fluids. Though no longer from
the oral orifice. Losing it now, at frequent intervals, from their nether
regions. What a sight. And smell.
Acute diarrhea is no fun under the best of circumstances. But in kayaks,
on a wilderness river, and suffering severe guilt pangs after the
merciless reprimand I delivered, they were weak puppies indeed. One ol'
boy in a canoe was doing somewhat better than his decked boat buddies. He
had improvised a technique of squatting in his boat while propping one
haunch over the starboard gunwale. Except for major discoloration down
that side of his boat, he seemed to be making out okay. As a group,
though, they were in sad shape. Which, I will add, is exactly what they
The only worse-looking crew I've ever seen was that gang of redneck
paddlers in the Obed/Emory system last spring. They surprised me at that
little campground near Nemo Bridge. They stole my beer, too, but unlike
the Selway thugs, I never caught up with them. And the bad thing was: the
water was so low last year on the Cumberland Plateau that I really needed
the beer they took.
Norman was right. The waters are haunted.
Come visit us at our website
(If you are grouchy irritable or just plain mean,
there will be a $10.00 charge just for putting up
>water was so low last year on the Cumberland Plateau that I really needed
>the beer they took.
>Norman was right. The waters are haunted.
We were on the Selway last year and saw something red on the shore not too
far from a runway about half way down. We paddled over o see what it was,
imagine our surprize to find a red net with a full case of beer hanging in
the river. We were sure tempted, but if it was a poisonous as your beer,
then I am glad we just laughed about how pissed we would be if some
scumbag took our beer and we pressed on without it.
Hmm, I see I have typed my message below my signature, that's interesting.