On the Water – Nathaniel Stone


On the Water: Discovering America in a Row Boat – In the spring of 1999, Nat Stone set out in a row boat from near the Brooklyn Bridge in Manhattan to row his way around the Eastern half of the United States – up the Hudson through the Erie Canal, down the Alleggheny and then the Mississippi, around Florida, and back up to Brooklyn and up the coast of Maine. The trip was motivated by a lifelong love of the water and boats, and by the need to fulfill a dream of following the route of Howard Blackburn, a nineteenth-century Gloucester fisherman. (Blackburn had lost his fingers after the froze to his oars while he rowed for 5 days straight to come in from the sea in a storm. Blackburn subsequently taught himself how to sail and rigged a boat that took him up the Hudson, down the Mississippi, and around Florida.) Nat’s trip included one 9 mile stretch of portage, in which, hooked up to a harness, Nat pulled the boat over land. The trip was also broken up into two parts. The first part took Nat all the way down to the point that the Mississippi empties into the sea, begun in April 1999 and completed in August 1999. To complete the ocean journey Nat would need a boat that wouldn’t so easily capsize in ocean swells. He returned to the Bayou in January 2000 and picked up his journey again.

When I close my eyes at night I see the Mississippi River. No shore, no boat, no sand bars. Only water, silty brown and swirling, so close in my mind it seems I could reach into it with my hand and watch my fingers disappear into alluvial opaqueness. The river melts the land and carries it. It is a river of water and soil, Ol ‘Muddy, running southward through the continent, starting so far to the north you’d have to drive through Pennington, Minnesota, on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, hardly seventy miles from the Canadian border, to cross the country without bridging it. Yet it is not a still frame of water I see with closed eyes, but an endless shifting of myriad sub-currents, of whirlpools the size of saucers, smoothly flowing mushroom domes of upwelling water thirty feet wide, and countless other zephyrs of liquid movement, constantly morphing and eddying, an ever-changing puzzle of water. Looking down from a bridge one sees the river as a single, steady whole. But its flow is in fact incalculably complex, and it is this motion that puts me to sleep.

The friend who gave me this book described it as “lyrical”. I think that one word says it best. Stone is clearly a gifted writer; often his prose reads almost like poetry. It is a quiet book, consisting mostly of descriptions of the interactions he has with people he meets on this journey. Reading the reviews posted at Amazon.com, someone wrote, “not a lot of action.” Yep, that’s right. Stone rowed every foot (save 9 miles – in which he pulled overland) of a 6000 mile plus route. I would imagine that time slows down and even stretches out a bit when you’re rowing around the country. We lead such hectic, noisy, multi-tasking lives, it’s hard to slow down our own senses to appreciate the pace that results from simply rowing without an hourly timetable of commitments.

Quiet and inspiring, highly recommended. Thank you Beverly!

Nat Stone’s website with photos from the journey