Feature Story: The Unending Rivers We Need  

by Brooke Alexander, Rock River Coalition

I happened to go to a bar this past weekend – a jazz bar in Madison, for my friend’s birthday. My friend, Victoria, is from Colombia and the bar was having a Latin party, so I came ready to put my most awkward dancing self all the way forward. It was a feat that I made it out to the bar, honestly. The party started at 9, I live an hour away in Watertown, and I have a 9-month-old, so I’m tired. I hadn’t been to a bar at night in Madison in… years? I hadn’t been to Cafe Coda before. Walking in, I was excited to be out and socializing (holding and hiding my social intimidation), and ready to make one of those impressions you can only make when you don’t expect to meet anyone you actually know.

The atmosphere was both richly textured and authentically present. It said, dance, if you want to dance; sit, if you want to sit; listen, look, taste, feel. I googled the name “Cafe Coda” and found this about the jazz bar, “Our name and logo come from the musical passage. It signals the end of a composition, when musicians bring the piece to an end. It connects and unifies the piece and is symbolic for what we dream will happen with jazz in our community.” So, there I was. At the coda. Specifically, at the bar, at the coda, when I recognized someone (a shock, considering my narrow social network). I knew the man at the end of the bar. He and I met at another coda – tipping from a canoe into a river.

“Hi!” I said. “We canoed together!” Recognition came over his face and we hugged. I surely initiated it, but it’s so strange how we’ve only met once before and certainly didn’t hug then, but here, in this space and moment, we embrace, like old friends.

“I don’t remember your name,” I said.

“Joe!” said the man.

 

Joe (front, left) and participants on the 2023 Bark River Paddle. September 2023.
Photo Credit: Brooke Alexander  

Joe and I met about a month ago. I was helping lead a recreational paddle on the Bark River and Rock River with Rock River Coalition, Color in the Outdoors, Madison School & Community Recreation. Joe was a participant on the paddle. I was disabused of my notions of canoe stability on that trip. ‘I’ve never tipped a canoe’, is not something I can say anymore. I also can’t say, ‘I’ve never actually swam in the Rock River’.

In hindsight, my reaction to tipping was a little embarrassing. I love swimming. I was a synchronized swimmer in high school; I played water polo in college. When we tipped the canoe, I instantly snatched up my camera and bag and started treading water. I didn’t realize until we were halfway to shore with Joe’s 7-year-old daughter Nahya, crouching on the gunnels of the sinking canoe, that I could actually stand the whole time. Sink or swim? Swim. Stand or swim? Also swim. I’m not sure anyone noticed anyway. I’m honestly that good at swimming. The life jacket may have helped.

But anyway, as far as tipping a canoe goes, it went as well as it could have. Everyone was calm. Nahya was perfectly fine. It was a fall trip, but the weather was warm and sunny, so we dried off and weren’t too cold. And after a week in rice my binoculars finally cleared up. It was absolutely the best-case scenario for tipping a canoe in the river. And really, it was a joy to experience tipping into a river with a 7-year-old and witness her experience of it; to see her interact with nature in that way; to be scared and then joyful, her thrill and relief.

6 year old, Nia, on the Rock River, 2023

Seven year old, Nahya, on the Rock River. September 2023.
Photo Credit: Brooke Alexander

 

At the end of the trip, we went around in a circle and offered one word to describe our experience: Relaxing. Restorative. Welcoming. Energizing.

“Humbling,” I say. I was humbled by the tippiness of canoes, the wet of water, and the muck of the river. The attitude of a 7-year-old, which could be summarized as, “abundantly pleased with having survived.” When I left that trip, dripping wet, I thought, how nice to have shared that morning. How nice to have collided, however brief, with nature’s cosmic intensity. To laugh and be brave together. To have shared a river – something interminable and forever.

“One thing I would encourage everyone to think about,” says Chris, a trip leader and founder of Color in the Outdoors, “we go through school and we’re taught how to write, we’re taught to write about the who, the what, the how, but not nearly enough emphasis is put on the why. Why are we doing this? Why is this important? Why is it important to share this energy out? And I’m not saying make everyone paddle. I’m saying, allow the opportunity to take the good energy you took from this experience to share it out in other ways. Why did this impact you the way it did, and how do we do that with others?”

Chris shared one of his “whys” behind his partnership in the paddle and the participants he invited. “Creating community from the inside and cultivating and nurturing that community from the inside.” I think Chris would be happy to know that I ran into Joe at the bar.

“How’s Nahya?” I asked.

“She’s good,” Joe said, “she loved that trip. She told me how much fun she had all the way home.”

I love that for Nahya.

Why did this impact you the way it did, and how do we do that with others?

To me, there are so many reasons why. And there are so many choices how. But every once in a while, if you’re lucky, you get some affirmation. This is it. This is right. Here is the reason. Running into Joe at the bar was “reason” for me. Why and how. Here I am, in this bar, talking to you – we made community, we made culture, we made fabric. Everyone needs this. Everyone needs rivers in their lives. Everyone needs to experience something that flows unendingly. And when it meets at the end, a coda somewhere, it’s somewhere new.