Essay/Travel: The last paddle

Published in WaveLength Magazine, fall 2006

The Last Paddle
Lori Hein

Foliage is long past peak and many trees are already barren. The graying leaves that still hang on quake with age and inevitability. I push my kayak into the water and paddle over and around the stumps revealed each fall, when my lake is peeled back to show things unseen in summer.

Fishermen and weekenders have gone. Time to pull the stopper, inspect the dam and make needed repairs. By late autumn, the lake in its shallowest parts will be a ripe mud pool. In its deepest, a meandering, watery ribbon.

It’s the season’s last paddle. The low water can no longer host powerboats, and even the most committed bass men in their silvery, shallow-hulled craft have quit the lake until spring. When the lake is down, my kayak shows me things no one else is looking for in places no one else can reach.

I wear sunglasses. Burnished light glints off the ripples through which I ride. I tilt my face toward the sun, remembering how it felt in summer, and I try to soak it up and store it.

As I glide through this spare autumn waterworld, I discover a rock jetty, hand-placed a century ago, running long and low off an island’s tip. The line along the shore where earth’s fecund layer of forest soil ends and its granite underpinnings begin. Decaying logs and slender water grasses that house creatures, some who show themselves and some who scuttle away. I peer into their murky homes and breathe the deep, cloying smell of exposed algae. Hello, turtle. Let me sit and examine the pattern on your shell.

Like spotlights, the stillness and bare branches let me see or sense any moving thing. A few year-rounders putter about their cottages, canoes on shore, lawn furniture still arranged. Two fishermen are closing their place, pulling up docks and securing windows. Their dog explodes from the woods when he sees my blue boat, a burst of movement and color in this muted, going-to-sleep world, and he bounds along the shore next to me until dense trees stop him.

I eavesdrop on a couple in a birch bark canoe. They’re a quarter-mile away, but I hear their conversation—speculation about which yard a moose had called home for a while—as clearly as if I were sitting between them. Were I to confirm, in my normal voice, that they’d indeed found Lily Moose’s bed of now shrivelled flowers, they would hear me, crystal clear.

Dennis the dentist has been spending less time on teeth and more on the lake of late, and he poles around on a homemade raft, collecting slimy, untethered logs that poke from the mud near his dock. He’s a fit man with Ralph Lauren hair sharing raft space with dripping, brown butt ends of rotted trees.

When the water is down, the docks left standing in the muck become long-limbed flamingos, skinny legs and knees exposed. Can-can girls. Frisky ladies pulling up their skirts. The docks that have been hauled out and tied upright to trees show their shiny plastic barrel bellies.

Anything that can blow away has been stored away. Gone are wind chimes and floats, umbrellas and beach chairs. Lonely picnic tables, too heavy to move, dot beaches and yards. They’ve begun their slow, cold wait for weather that will again pull people back outside to sit.

At the marina, docks and boat berths are pulled out. The gas pump is gone. White shrink-wrapped motorboats sit on land like so many Sydney Opera Houses. In the extreme silence, my ears track the progress of a car as it travels from the lakeshore up to the top of a wooded mountain.

On this last paddle, I do things I don’t do when the water is high and others are about. I cross the lake at its widest point, slowly. Today, no need to rush. No worry about powerboats overtaking me before I reach the other shore. I cross and recross. I stop paddling and float with head back and eyes closed, stamping this serene time into my memory.

The loon that lives with his mate in a reedy shallow wants to play. He dives under my kayak and emerges, finally, twenty yards off its other side. The waterfall whose hums and trills are muted in season by the competing sounds of summer activity now has top billing. From my gently rocking seat, I take in its performance.

As I head home, the day’s last rays kissing the earth, I look down the lake and think of what’s ahead. Winter will soon bring its wonders. Like the long skate. If you catch it just right, after the lake freezes but before snow has buried it, you can skate on glass for seven miles.

© Lori Hein, who splits her time between Boston and the New Hampshire woods and is the author of Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America ( Her freelance work has appeared in publications across North America and online. She publishes a world travel blog at