The ice on the Kennebec River is forming in its now typical winter fashion – with an irregular surface reminiscent of a roughly frosted cake. It was not always this way. Before Edwards Dam was removed in 1999, the river froze more evenly, like a lake’s surface. With the removal of the dam, frozen chunks from lively waters upstream now careen together and freeze haphazardly. Every year as the river freezes like this, I am brought back to the passing of my wife’s grandfather.
The first year I saw the Kennebec freeze this way in Augusta, my wife’s grandfather lay in the now vacant hospital overlooking the river. Though I’d never known Mr. Pruett when he was truly vigorous, I had heard the stories of fishing trips gone by. I’d also seen him getting the most out of a cane, wheelchair, garden trowel, or whatever tool he employed. Though slowed by time, he was definitely all there.
This night in his hospital room, he was not all there. As I would discover, his mind was still sharp, but I could tell his body was on the verge of breaking. After waiting for others to speak with him, my wife and I approached the bed. He had the fragility of the near dead.
I don’t recall all of our short conversation, but I’m pretty sure a lot of my talk could have been summed up as awkwardly polite small talk. Had I directed our entire conversation, it would have been regrettably stale, even though I knew and respected the man who was passing. Thankfully, Mr. Pruett cut through the uncomfortable haze with a piercing question. “Have you been to any wild country lately?” As he asked, his voice grew resonant and his eyes widened. The inquiry was powerful and swift, like a thick-sided salmon snapping a fly off a calm pool. My answer lacked his potency, though I was able to throw out a couple of quick anecdotes. He seemed to appreciate the new direction of our conversation.
Mr. Pruett was laid to rest in a hilltop cemetery overlooking that hospital and that icy river. The north wind bit into any skin not guarded by scarves, hats, and upturned coat collars. A bagpipe player began to play amazing grace, until the frigid air flash froze moisture in the mouthpiece. As the struggling bagpipe player produced whimpered bleats from his defeated instrument, I had the oddly pleasant thought that Mr. Pruett might appreciate the situation. I knew what this wind had traveled across to get here. It had blown fiercely through deep forests, across winding rivers, lonely bogs, frozen lakes, and knobby mountaintops. Wild country – places he was talking about from his deathbed.
Wild places spoke to my wife’s grandfather. I know they speak to me, and I strive to give my children the opportunity to listen too.
The Kennebec is only one of many Maine rivers drawn from wild, enchanting watersheds. As I have had the chance to work and play in places such as Moosehead Lake and its surrounding mountains, the Moose River, the Bigelow Preserve in the Carrabassett Valley region, and other inspiring places whose waters flow into the Kennebec, I occasionally think about a man at the end of his life besides a river that is continually moving water back to the sea. I think of him recalling the places and times upstream. It is a powerful thought. It is a thought that hearkens back to countless generations. It is a thought in line with the wild spirit still embedded in Maine’s woods and waters.
Finally, as life gets busy and complicated, Mr. Pruett’s asking, “Have you been to any wild country lately?” is a reminder to return to the grounding presence of wild places and open spaces. I hope to carry his question with me forever as a repeating alarm reminding me of the magic lurking out there in the wild.