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Along the river's edge

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Graffiti on a fallen tree along the Assiniboine river walk (GREG GALLINGER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS 2014)

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Graffiti on a fallen tree along the Assiniboine river walk (GREG GALLINGER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS 2014)


Being a verbal photograph of these Treaty One prairielands in summer, the first of an intermittent series. Taken with a long exposure along the banks of the Assiniboine River, near where it makes heedless pilgrimage past the Manitoba legislature. There, the river makes no visits, and pays no deference. It is bigger than that building and, in its long a muddy view, older than it by forever.


Asini pwaan: stone people. An Anishinaabe word, taken by white traders to name the Nakoda who lived closer to the source from where the river springs.

Our provisions for the footfall journey on this first Wednesday of June: one bottle of Green Carrot juice, cold-pressed. Apple, pineapple and mint.

One small cup of iced Thom Bargen coffee, familiar toasted black.

One boyfriend, cheeks sprouting an intermittent thicket of summer whiskers, one camera over-shoulder slung and another tattooed on his right arm. Also: two notepads. An iPhone. A belly full of Sri Lankan take-out and sun-worn sense of calm.

We begin this word-picture at the end, where the cemented ribbon of the riverwalk is consumed by the muck. This marks where the river rose, before it remembered that rivers have other places to go, and raced to lose itself at the famous terminus of its rippling road. There, not 200 metres hence, The Forks will see the river diffused and dissembled, though its water will survive. It will take another name, another guise: become a different river, then become a lake.

Deconstructed, absorbed, recycled and thus revived.

Here, where the mud splays out thick and crazed as elephantine hide, fourteen geese peer up from the ascended bank with glittering dark eyes. Their six goslings are downy dressed in mustard jackets, and gobbling bits of baking flung by human hands. "I brought you more," one man says, lifting a plastic bag in offering. Life is fat for geese, when humans wield bread instead of violence.

The path ends just west of here, the river spoken up for the place the riverwalk ought to be. Or at least, where human architects gave it a most ephemeral claim, one not recognized by the laws of nature, which simply shrug and periodically swallow it up the same.

For want of our journey along the river's edge, we plunge deeper into the trees, tricking out paths where paths whisper they can exist. Underneath train tracks reeking dank of oil. Past an empty two-litre bottle of Growers Orchard Berry Cider stuck beside a broken branch. Its label is just faded enough to proclaim, it belonged to some lazy drunken day (or night) of middle spring.

Through the mud paths, under the bridge. Stopped there where the path disappears into broken-jaw rock, and then nothing but racing water beyond. Back up to Main Street, where cars buzz toward the crosswalk and screech to a narrow halt. Back to the manicured green of Bonnycastle Park, to the stairs that should lead to the river. They are blocked politely with a chain, and on the chain there is a sign, blaring one blunted phrase:


So we part there, river and human feet, meet again near the legislature. In the concrete plaza just above the river's grasp, a three-year-old putters on a royal blue bike. His parents, watching close, remind him the training wheels will come off with more practice. "I'm practising, right?" he squeals, in a rush of fresh delight.

His mission has a soundtrack, streaming up from the stairs that descend behind another chain: a man strumming a ukelele, another on the guitar. Their only witnesses are the tips of a toothy stone sculpture, mud-crusted and just tall enough now to pierce the surface of the water. The music will play us deep into the rivermucks.

More paths, uncertain themselves of where they lead, more cans of booze, more fallen trees. One is stripped bare of bark, looming naked over a well-trodden path, its corpse mottled with marker. A drawing of an octopus. Stephanie Hearts Joshua. Bob Was Here 7/11/13. It serves as an entry arch, of sorts, to the underbelly of the Osborne Street Bridge. And then, and then...

The meadow field that tumbles down from the Granite Curling Club -- how much longer did it stretch toward the bank, when that building was first raised up? And more geese, hissing startled then herding their goslings into silence. Cyclists glide unpedalled down the path above, we break south from them and towards the rivermuck, the place where brush and brackish mud disclaims its want of us.

We find these trails cautious, we find these trails as strangers. But the river knows us familiar, innumerable and anonymous as flies dancing along its edge.

On one fallen tree, two young women sit in paisley sundresses, hidden well from any path or street. Their arm tattoos are bared for creation alone to see. Seeing this, we take our leave, picking out from the rivermuck, up from the brush. Make our final northward turn to meet the immobile rivers of sidewalk and street.

There, on a stone ledge, four people sit crushing beer cans in some listless reverie. One of them, a man with narrow shoulders and black cap on his head, he turns and looks at me. "Hey girl," he shouts, though his voice be lost in a gathering wind. "You got nice legs."

Burned, sweated and shoes filled with muck, we pass by without recognition and return to the ordered places again.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 7, 2014 D3

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