It has been very hot all week. I go out to the garden only at night to water the young plants; this keeps them alive, but still, they do not get a really good drink the way they do from a good rain. The garlic tops are turning yellow, the pea trellises look unhappy. At night we open the windows to cool the house and in the morning we close them; the house stays cool most of the day this way, but not when it is in the nineties. Not when it is this hot, day after day.
By early evening when it is still very hot I go to the river for a swim. The ride there on my bicycle is tough, with no shade along the road, but I endure knowing that at the end I will be able to plunge into the cold river. There is a stretch of the lower Huntington where it is possible to swim laps, and to swim in place in the current where there is a small rapid. I swim through the shallows as far as I can before I am scraping bottom, then turn around and swim back around the giant boulders where the water is deepest and coolest, and into the white water, where I swim in place with my nose upstream in the current like a salmon headed home.
Yesterday the forecast said heavy rain in the afternoon, but the sky was clear when I headed out. It started raining as soon as I arrived. I swam the length and looked up to see the needles of rain etching silver circles on the surface, forming starbursts all around me as by now I was alone in the river. The couple who arrived when I did climbed out of the water and left. And the small group of bathers who were sitting on the giant boulder in their bathing suits, holding their drinks, scattered and ran to take cover under a large tree. I continued to swim, as I heard no thunder. I saw the group still standing under the tree. When the weather is hot like this it is the only time of day when my head feels clear, and all the tiredness and oppression of the heat is washed away. By the time I get back on my bike to ride home it is still very hot but my body has cooled off and I am in my wet bathing suit under my clothes and in ten or fifteen minutes I am home.
By then it is almost time to open the windows. We pick salad and make dinner –garlic scape pesto over pasta, or omelets with sorrel, maybe new potato salad or zucchini sauteed in garlic, maybe stuffed squash blossoms — and eat outside on our porch, watching a cardinal who has landed in the birch tree, listening to the high-pitched screech of the kestrel who flies back and forth between the barn roof and the tallest limbs of the elm. Or the blue jay who has set up house in our big white pine.
The Huntington spills down from the mountains through a spectacular gorge, where the canyon walls have been scooped by the passage of water over the years, and then disappears as it drops down over a lesser gorge. Before it reaches the valley floor where it joins the Winooski, there are a few nice swimming holes, as well as lonely stretches of shallow water where on a hot day there will be people sitting on lawn chairs with her feet in the cold water, alone or in groups. We used to go to a spot farther up river that required walking (riding bikes, in our case) down to the water a ways through the woods, where there was a large, deep clear pool and a little waterfall where you could wedge your body between the rocks to be pummeled by jets, and then let yourself be carried downstream. Tall cedars reached over the river from the far bank and shaded the stretch of sandy beach. There were downed whole trees forming pools of their own that had been yanked up by their roots in some storm with no one there to witness but there they were. We stopped going there regularly after the river changed its signature and the pool was not so long anymore, and then we discovered Stone Beach, the pool at the bottom of the river, refreshed by a jet of glacial spring water, a popular spot for good reason and so much easier to get to.
Just above the gorge there is a parking lot next to the most popular swimming hole on the river, but we have never gone there for swimming. There are often swimmers diving into the gorge. I have watched this: someone standing on a ledge where the canyon walls swell outward and the jumper has to fall through a narrow gap between the twisting walls of the gorge and then climb out without getting sucked down river into the maw of the treacherous rocks. It is sheer terror to watch this. I often see people down below the falls, sunbathing on the rocks, and I am not sure how they managed to get there. Many people have drowned in this gorge: on a placard at the site are the names of twenty-two who drowned there, but many more have drowned since the marker was put up in 1996. Among those who drowned were rescuers who gave their lives to save bathers who were sucked into the deep gorge. But despite all the warnings, “The current is deceptively strong and fast…” people continue to swim there, and to jump.
The last person drowned while walking along the edge of the swollen river when she slipped and was carried away. Last summer two women were lazily drifting downstream in the gentle current above the falls and were swept over the gorge but were rescued and survived.
Last year the road to the gorge was closed because a storm on Halloween night carved out a big chunk of the road. To ride Dugway Road you had to squeeze around two sets of fences and big mounds of gravel and dirt. The upper gorge was closed to swimming and parking, but people still went swimming there.
The other day there was a family there when I arrived at my regular spot near where the Huntington joins the Winooski. They were camped on a little spit of gravel down river from the boulders where I sit. A group of children were riding the ripples of white water where it is very shallow, the smaller ones wearing floatation wings, or life jackets, the bigger kids riding on tubes. Their heads bobbed in the ruffles as the current carried them along. The big kids in tubes would get stuck on the rocks and would have to rock themselves to get free. I saw limbs tossed here and there and little heads and bodies tumbling as the current carried them. The current was especially strong that day. Meanwhile Mom was holding an infant on the shore while Dad stood by and at some point he got a small fire going. Finally the Dad joined children as they climbed along the rocky river bank again but this time they kept walking up river to the next beach. I watched them as they floated down river, and then got on my bike and went home.