Shifting cotillions of vessels explore the ribbons and coves of the river and test its hidden currents. Always, there are canoes. Commercial ones joust and plunge in a bright parade of reds, greens, blues and yellows. Kayaks, exuberantly isolated and small, dip and dart against the white water. Flat-bottomed boats, air motors whirring against warm summer winds, whirl upstream against the rapids, sputter and catch in the shallows of razored ledges. Tubes, commercial orange and truck-sized black private ones, bounce into the waves. Inflatable rafts bulge and buckle in shades of grey and red. Balanced and calmed by a wide midsection, private canoes of sonorous grey or green-brown camouflage slide regally amidst the Shenandoah's gawky play.|
Once on a magic sunny afternoon, where Indians through a millenia scraped and shaped stone tools and strung from bank to bank their V-shaped traps of mounded rock and boulders, a coterie of eighteenth-century bateaus passed us by. Long and raft-like, toward the front rose a covered porch-like construction; toward the end, high on a pole, waved a torn multi-colored flag. A few men stood, wending long poles, straining against the river, guiding the barges downstream. Children ran and splashed their legs in cooling waters; adults chatted and waved as bankside bystanders gazed entranced.
Like the bateau people, many river travellers share their boating trips with dogs. Sometimes the animals sit quietly curious and intent in their transport. Others paddle, heads sinking and rising through the riffles, or they race along the shoreline and dash into rock-ringed pools.
At the old ferry crossing, three commodious twentieth-century wooden rafts, homemade with railings and motors, float on salvaged and secured 55-gallon drums. Perhaps a dozen adults and children, in the company of a few large and well-trained dogs, comfortably sun and fish from the floating decks that drift and churn on deep water channels.
Near dawn, a few river-locked workers still pole and paddle to the eastern bank, catching their rides to city commerce, returning to the river at dusk.
Over the years, we have had many boats. First, there was an aluminum canoe, then a flat-bottomed, square-ended vessel. Many variations have followed. A great, one-hundred year flood unleashed and battered one; more earthly marauders took another. Once we rented our watercraft to passers-through who returned it, gaping and gashed, after a sideways shipwreck against unforgiving river shoals.
Today, we keep dry-docked by the house a beaten and peeling green fiberglass canoe and a shiny aluminum fishing boat. Chained to a large sycamore at the river's edge lies a water-worn rowboat of molded wooden planks. Beached by the low water of drier months, it serves for storage and seating, as we absorb the river's summer processional. Later, when days cool and contract, the river rises and the rowboat floats, straining downriver, circling on its chain.