Springtime on the Pulaski

FENNVILLE REEKED OF MUD when the Pulaski swelled and swirled during the spring thaw. Slabs of ice clogged the river above the dam, while below it the river became a roiling torrent. Roads along the river flooded to the point of being impassible. The farmland above the dam became veritable inlets, causing our school bus (or any other vehicle) to seek alternate routes.

This annual transformation marked the transition from the long, dark winter to a bright, blossoming spring. It was a time of promise and potential, a certain indicator that vacation was just around the corner. We knew that when the Pulaski’s water returned to her normal level, Ma would let us set out with cane poles and bait, and that we’d return with the biggest, most beautiful pickerel in all Ohio.

But until the water receded, the river was off limits. It was a dangerous place during spring floods. Anyone foolish enough to test her angry banks ended up drowning, their bodies rushed downstream to the bay, to be dragged out by the authorities days later, their limbs torn and bruised by rocks, their eyes picked out by fish.

So we watched the swirling water from the safety of the cliffs.

“Looket the water,” exclaimed Jude, pointing to the far side of the river where the ruins of a mill normally stood. “Ya can’t even see the old foundation.”

“It looks like chocolate milk being stirred around by a crazy lady,” I said.

“The Pooh-laski,” Jude chortled, “looks like chocolate, smells like poop!” (That was only part of the reason we called him Rude Dude Jude.)

“I’ve never seen the river this wild before,” I added.

“Wouldn’t it be cool to raft down it?” asked Jude.

What? Jay-Bird and I gaped at one another.

“Ya’re crazy,” Jay-Bird replied. “Go rafting on the river? When it’s like this?”

“Ya’re yella-bellies!” Jude taunted. “I’m gonna do it! I have nine dollars and I’m gonna buy me a raft. Just fifteen dollars down at Krevsky’s!”

“Where ya gonna get the rest of the money? Ya still need six dollars,” Jay pointed out.

“You guys can chip in,” Jude declared. “We can be co-owners. We can all go down the river together.”

Jay-Bird and I looked at each other quizzically. We looked at Jude. His eyes sparkled.

The die was cast!

WE COLLECTED FIFTEEN DOLLARS for the raft, plus another five for oars, plus enough extra cash for tax. Our legs were pistons as we peddled to Krevsky’s. We made our purchases from a plump cashier with a furrowed brow.

“You boys aren’t thinking ‘bout takin’ that out on the river, are ya?” she asked.

We shook our heads vehemently before plucking up our goods and high-tailing it out of the store.

It was a tricky ride home with the awkward paddles and the slick raft. But we made it back in record time.

We took turns blowing life into the large, yellow doughnut.

“Cool,” Jay muttered, wide-eyed.

“Let’s go!” Jude yelled, snatching the raft and racing toward the river. Jay-Bird and I each grabbed a paddle and took off after Jude.

THE GULLY LEADING DOWN to the river was slimy. A careless footstep landed me with a crash at the bottom of the ravine. Jude and Jay followed suit. We huddled together at the foot of the dam.

A cold, muddy mist rolled off the thundering wall of water, the roar of which swallowed up all other sounds.

Jude waved us to the water’s edge where he launched the raft. He motioned for me to hold onto its line. I grabbed the nylon cord, which strained under the force of the river. I was surprised to discover that my arms were shaking. Jude leapt in and was barely situated when Jay-Bird followed. The raft lurched. Jude’s mouth was moving but I heard no words over the blast of the dam.

“Get in!” he mouthed.

“Get in!” mimicked Jay.

My knees were suddenly shaking. I sucked in a deep breath, hoping to still the fluttering in my stomach, and jumped in.

Away we went.