I entered the crystalline river a little cautiously. Yes, it was blazing hot day in late July but the waters of the South Yuba are known to run fast and icy in the winter and early spring and for some reason, I was still expecting an electric shock of freezing water on bare skin. Instead I felt the kiss of the River Goddess when the temperate gentle water lapped my ankle, as perfect as can be – almost as comfortable as bathwater but with just enough coolness to be refreshing and easy to dive into. There was no building up to it or needing to psyche myself into putting my head in. Within moments I was under.
There beneath the surface a watery nirvana greeted me. Clear enough to see perfectly through a good pair of goggles, I found another world. Smooth round granite stones created a ‘city’ scape lovely enough for even the most exacting of river sprites and water nymphs. Vibrant green algae wrapped itself around the rocks and trailed off it in wispy streams of mermaids hair that twisted gently in the current. Water dreads! I tried to bring one to the surface but it instantly transformed upon meeting with the air into a long slippery strand of river weed. Not quite as bright green and all the lyrical movement of it suddenly gone. The magic belonged under the water.
The current of the river was just fast enough to keep things interesting, pulling me away from the bank and into a gentle float downstream, but ceded it’s power easily to a mild breaststroke. Swim upstream and then, release, and be carried into the flow back downstream again. Repeat.
I felt the healing energy of this river as soon as I entered it. The velvety softness of the water held me it’s embrace whispering inside my mind “it’s okay, you can let it all go now“. And I did. Over and over I dove and swam just to revel in the pleasure of it. From time to time I would pull myself up onto one of the hot granite boulders on the shore like a seal woman and lay in the sun, feeling it baking my body, my ropey hair spread over my face like a fan. I imagined myself as some kind of amphibious creature washed ashore, aware only of the glinting dancing light on the surface and the sound of the gurgling rapids further downstream. And with the natural instinct of a water creature, when the sun became just a little too hot or when the longing for the pleasure of cool river became too strong, I would slip silently from my rock back down into the comfort of the deep.
Swimming into gentle circles watching over my new found realm, I could see fish as big as my forearm darting in and out of their hiding spots among the rocks. I followed one just to see where it would take me, emerging only for the occasional gasp of air and then descending again hoping not to lose track of him. But that fish wasn’t going anywhere. Feeling no threat from the creature floating above him I suppose, he swam lazily into deep pockets of the river floor – revealing with his movements the pools within pools, naturally seeking the lowest, safest point. I wished I didn’t have to come up for air and envied his existence. How can I stay here too? I wondered before being forced to the surface to fill my non-aquatic lungs with a gulp of air.
The lull of being enveloped by the ‘just right-ness’ of the water, the sun dappling through the water and flipping onto my back, the view of the sky above and the grey walls of the granite canyon. I thought about those myths that run throughout many an indigenous culture, the ones where the maiden walks off into the water (usually to join her otherwordly lover) and is never seen again. Gazing off down the bend in the river, where the current traveled over a shallow stream bed and off around the corner daring me to follow it, I could understand the impulse. I could see the fish-woman bride within me.
Diving under again, I tried to put words in my mind to the sensation of being beneath the water. Nearly silent except for the gentle clinking of my bracelets, a sound so diffused and muffled by the watery environment that it seemed to be coming from somewhere else far away. For as long as my breath would hold it was peaceful and safe under there. Watching the rocks in their eternally patient state. Watching the minnows darting in and out of hidden crevices in the rocks waiting for us humans with our kicking and splashing and jumping to clear out and leave them to their home.
The sun began to set behind the ridge casting shadows onto the river but not changing the dreamy temperature or my desire to be immersed in it. I could have stayed in that water forever. I wanted to live on the banks with some kind of nomadic summer tribe; wake in the morning to swim all day and forage for wild blackberries in the evenings. But eventually the waning sun and the growing shadows demanded that I come crawling out back onto land. My friends and I prepared to pack our things up and say our goodbyes to the rocks and the river. Vowing to come back as soon as possible and as often as possible, we did what humans will do when trying to communicate our thanks and reverence to the majestic beauty of nature; we left our own indelible mark in the form of a handmade creation.
The rock towers were at once symbols of our worship and our place-holders marking the spot until we came back; a prayer to the river gods to allow us to return in good fortune to the benign and gentle waters on another perfectly sunny day.
Long live the Fish People!