“It is generally considered the worst ‘carrying place’ in the Northwest, and judging from the great number of canoes which lie decaying along this part of it, having been abandoned in consequence of the difficulty experienced in getting them over, its reputation is well deserved.”
-Dr. J.G. Norwood, 1848
End of the Road on East Savanna River – September 8, 2012
Fallen trees turned the river into a maze of trunks, branches, and mud. It took me two hours to go a quarter-mile. I pulled and shoved the boat along until I reached a bridge and dragged it out to a gravel road that followed the river for seven miles.
People stopped to talk as I rolled the boat behind me down the road. They stopped to shake their heads and tell me it’s impossible.
“The roads all disappear back there,” a man said. “You can’t walk it across.”
“I know,” I said.
I’d seen the map, the roads all fade into the swamp like civilization tried and failed to reach across. Deadfalls or not, the road would end and I would have to get back in the water.
“But I’m going to walk it as far as I can,” I said.
One man stopped three times to check on me. The last time he looked at me like I was condemned, handed me his card, and asked me to call him if I got through.
After five miles of walking, after gravel turned to pavement and back to gravel again, one last man stopped. He knew where I was going. He’d lived at the end of the road for forty years and seen it before. He’d watched men come and go and always come back beaten.
“No one makes it through,” he said. “It’s impossible.”
“There has to be a way somehow,” I said. “It’s an old voyageur route.”
He laughed at me, laughed at the idea that men who lived two-hundred years ago made anything possible today.
“That was a long time ago,” he said. “No one goes back there now. There are deadfalls every twenty feet. The river turns into a maze. There’s nothing out there. You can’t make it through.”
He looked at me and then the boat.
“Let me give you a ride to Jacobson,” he said. “The Mississippi is there and you’ll be on it in the morning. That’s the easy way, that’s what you should do.”
I shook my head.
“I’m going to find a way through,” I said.
He sat back in his seat and stared at me, then told me to stop at his house.
“It’s the last one,” he said. “At the end of the road.”
A few hours later, I sat at his kitchen table as he drew me a map of what he knew. Forty years is a long time to live at the edge of civilization. He told me about abandoned homesteads, a dredging crane that sunk into the swamp and never came back, and how they once thought they could transform it all into hay fields. As he talked, he scribbled abandoned roads, creeks, old trails, the deadfall-choked river, all of it onto a piece of paper until he didn’t know any more.
“If you can make it to the beaver dams,” he said. “The water will get deeper and you have a chance, but to get there…”
His voice trailed off and he frowned, staring at the paper, looking for an answer that wasn’t there.
“It’s gonna be hell, isn’t it?” I said.
“Yes,” he said.
We both sat silent for a moment.
“Why don’t you just let me take you to Jacobson,” he said. “That’s the easy way.”
I smiled at him.
“Why don’t I just take bus back to Florida,” I said. “This has never been about being easy.”
I slid the map in my pocket, said goodbye, and walked back to my boat at the end of the road on the last bridge over the Savanna River.
I thought of Keith’s advice, something he told me about eating an elephant.
“You do it one bite at a time,” he said.
I stared up the river at the black water, glassy and smooth. Trees leaned and fell from one side to the other until the water disappeared in the distance.
“The beaver dams,” I thought. “One bite at a time.”
I felt days of moving upstream on my body, of walking in rapids, of pulling the boat for miles and miles. I felt the little bruises and cuts, the sore muscles and joints, the hundred places I’d scraped across rocks and logs. I felt thin and frail against the wild in front of me.
It looked like a place people disappear into and never return. It looked like the gates of hell.
“Who’s eating who,” I wondered.