Recently, I was asked, “Just what is a river rat, anyway?”
In the fly-leaf of ‘Journeys Across Niagara’, I describe myself as growing up on the Upper Niagara River, as a ‘river rat’—(I didn’t think anyone actually read fly-leafs anymore.)
Well, let’s go to the source for the answer—Wikipedia:
“…a large, herbivorous, semiaquatic rodent and the only member of the family Myocastoridae. Originally native to subtropical and temperate South America, it has since been introduced to North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, primarily by fur ranchers. Although it is still valued for its fur in some regions, its destructive feeding and burrowing behaviors make this invasive species a pest throughout most of its range. There are two commonly used names in the English language for Myocastor coypus. The name “nutria” (or local derivatives such as “nutria- or nutra- rat”) is generally used in North America… In Italy the popular name is “nutria”, but it is also called castorino (“little beaver”), by which its fur is known.”
Quoting from Elvira Woodruff, The Christmas Doll (2000):
“To her horror, she discovered that the rope she was holding was not a rope at all, but a tail. And attached to the tail was a large river rat that scrambled frantically in midair, thrashing to get away.”
Whoa – let’s just wait a minute there fella– ‘a large rodent’?– ‘an invasive pest’? - that ain’t a gonna do it. ’A semiaquatic rat’ called “little beaver”? That’s not what I want on my tombstone. What do they know? Who reads the lousy Wikipedia anyway? And,we all know how shallow internet research is, — don’t we? (see ‘Research-the Writer’s Mantra’).
Let’s check another source – one that understands real people. How about the Urban Dictionary?
“Someone who either lives or represents El Rio, California. Usually low life wannabe gangsters who frequent Wal-Mart stores and attempt to steal sh_ _ only to be caught and think they are bad ass mofos. They start fights only to run away from it.”
Say what? I’m either a hairy wet rodent or a Wal-Mart wannabe gangsta?
Well—how much can a dictionary that calls itself ‘urban’ know anyway? Bet they never even seen a real river.
Ok – let’s go to the master book of definitions itself – Webster’s Merriam Dictionary.
Nothing. No entry – it’s not in the dictionary.
They’re kidding right? Now, I don’t even exist? Wait – here’s something in the Expanded Webster Merriam (so, I do exist – I’m just rare):
“…one who spends his leisure time on or along a river.”
Ok, that’s getting closer, but, it’s rather bland, isn’t it?
Wait a minute…what do we have here? This looks more like it:
“Trademark Search > Trademark Category > Clothing Products > WHAT IS A RIVER RAT? DEFINITION OF A RIVER RAT (RI-VER RAT) N. Mammal, Unique and rare breed. Thrives best on or near water. Usually travels in groups, but may be spotted alone. Capable of consuming mass quantities of adult beverages. Peaceful by nature, respects others, loves life. Heavily concentrated in Louisiana, but can be found worldwide. WARNING: APPROACH WITH CAUTION IF PROVOKED.” Legal Source
Now we’re getting somewhere, or as Betty Bryant wrote in ‘Here Comes the Showboat!’ (1994):
“While other children were learning how to walk, I was learning how to swim, and I knew how to set a trotline, gig a frog, catch a crawfish, and strip the mud vein out of a carp by the time I was four. Dad called me a river rat.”
That a girl, Betty! Ride that boat!
Being a ‘rat’ on the Niagara River (actually it’s not a river at all, but a ‘strait’, see ‘The Niagara River – a Wonder of Creation’) I wasn’t in wonder of the mighty Niagara Falls, located downriver. I feared it greatly, viewing it as a threat—as the ultimate and final judgment for my escapades. More than once, I found myself fighting to escape the swift current, carrying me to that huge, misty cloud ahead, as various capers went astray. Rather than captivating me, like it did the crowds of ’ohhing‘ and ‘ahhing‘ tourists, it scared the living daylights out of me. I’d look downriver and loath that huge cloud on the horizon, knowing that while I tinkered and toyed along the length of the river, it was always there, beckoning and calling to me with open arms to enter its eternal embrace.
Not that I ever did anything stupid, you understand. Things just seemed to happen for no reason of my own. It was the ‘river gods’. They were out to get me. It’s true. I’ll give you an example and you’ll see what I mean. How about an ordinary Bass fishing trip?
The current along the island is fast, around 8 to 12 miles per hour, picking up speed as it approaches the abyss ahead. It’s also home to one of the best Smallmouth Bass drifts in the entire river (some great Musky fishing too). Get in a boat, shoot to the upper tip of the island, put the motor in neutral and drift the length of the island and you’ll tangle with some of the most beautiful three to five-pound smallies anywhere. Great fishing – if you have a boat, but make sure your motor is running - you wouldn’t want to stall here! The picture below shows the downriver end of Grand Island, with Navy Island off to the left and the Falls above it.)
Well, at the time of this fishing trip, I was 16 years wise and did, in fact, have a small, 12 foot aluminum Jon boat with an old, beat up 18 horse outboard on it. It was dinged up pretty bad and wasn’t much as far as boats on the Niagara go, but it worked, and to me it was the Queen Mary luxury liner. Unfortunately, at that time, it was sitting on the bottom of Lake Erie at a place called Sturgeon Point, after a Coast Guard Officer emptied a full clip of .45 hollow point bullets into it (but that’s another story).
Meanwhile, it was the peak of the Smallmouth bite and I was determined not to be left out. I managed to get possession of a 10 foot inflatable rubber raft that had a 3 ½ HP motor on it, a friend used on a small, inland lake. I tested it out – the raft didn’t leak and the motor ran good – so I was going bass fishing.
At daybreak, on the shore of Grand Island, I pumped up the raft with a foot pump, fastened the motor to the mount, loaded up all my gear, and pushed off for Navy Island. It was slow going, cutting across the swift current, to cover the half mile to the upper tip of Navy Island, but I finally made it and was elated and feeling quite pleased with myself that I was going to get in on the fishing. I cast out a chartreuse Mister Twister, topped off with a live crawfish, and got ready for the action as I started the first drift.
It didn’t happen.
Unless I was trolling for birds, the drift was too fast for the lure to sink as it skipped across the surface. I put on a half ounce drop sinker—no go. One ounce – no good. Two ounces – still not working. The inflated raft, riding on top of the surface, having no hull friction below the waterline, skimmed across the surface – like a surfboard catching a wave at Maui. By now, I’d drifted down to the end of the island and it was time to motor back up to start another drift. Those 3 ½ horses barely moved me against the current, but after enough time to read “Crime and Punishment” a couple of times through, I arrived back at the head of the Island, ready for another drift, and – I had a plan. The slow journey back up the river had given me plenty of time to figure out a solution. I untied the anchor rope from the five-pound mushroom anchor, and strung the rope through the hole of the anchor. I then tied one end of the rope to one side of the back of the raft and the other end to the opposite side, with the anchor riding free in the middle. Ready to start the drift, I tossed the anchor overboard. It quickly sunk and I could feel it bouncing along the bottom of the river as the raft drifted.
It worked great! The dragging anchor slowed the raft down to enable the perfect drift, and if the smallies cooperated, it was going to be a great fishing day!
I had boated (rafted?) a nice three-pounder and was setting the hook on a second one, when all hell broke loose. The anchor snagged the bottom of the river and didn’t bounce – but held fast. With the raft anchored firm on the river’s bottom while being pushed hard by the current on the river’s surface, the ten-foot raft instantly became a five-foot raft as it buckled in the middle, with the back half going completely underwater – motor and all.With half the raft underwater, and the river claiming the rest, inch by inch, everything that was in – went out – into the river and either sunk or floated, carried off by the current. Tackle box, rods, lunch – everything. When the bait box of crawfish went down, I had a fleeting thought of seeing the largest smallie in Niagara inhaling it and flipping me a “Thank you” with a smirk on its face.
But I was losing the raft fast. In a panic, I began sawing through the anchor rope with my pocket knife. When the last strand finally let go, the back of the raft popped up out of the water, like a jack-in-the-box. Whew—tragedy averted! Everything was gone, but the motor was still mounted on the back of the raft. Thank God!
Yanking on the starter cord, it didn’t start. Again – nothing; and again—and again. Nothing. Not a purr. Not a putt. Not a cough. Water ran out of the housing. Looking around, no boats were anywhere in sight. The shore of Navy Island was only about 70 feet away, but the raft was surfing by it and would soon be past the Island. Again I panicked—once past the Island, there was nothing between me and those thundering cataracts downriver. Looking ahead, I could see that ominous cloud on the horizon and I swear it was grinning.
Holding the rope in one hand, I dove into the river and began swimming for Navy Island. I knew if I didn’t reach the shore before the current carried me past the Island, I’d be fish food. I swam as hard as I could. But swim like I did, I was losing ground. The raft was flying with the current – and was taking me with it. I let go of the rope and swam like the devil for the island (believe me, the devil can swim).
Nothing in my life ever felt as good as when I felt ground under my feet as I was about to past the end of the island.
Pulling myself onto the shore, I sat there, watching the raft skimming along the surface, until I couldn’t see it any more. After fulfilling my need to scream and kick a bunch of trees and rocks, I started waving and hollering for help. Finally, another fisherman came along (having a real boat), who gave me a ride back to Grand Island.
I never did know what happened to the raft.
So you see, it wasn’t anything on my part that caused me to fear and dislike the Falls – it was those river gods that didn’t like me and were out to get me. You can see that—right?
Later in life, I made amends with the Falls. Upon going down into the gorge below the cataracts, I was in wonder of the great canyon, the awesome rapids and the lush beauty of this glorious place that was right under my nose all these years. I was consumed by the mystery of it. I realized Niagara was actually two rivers, the “Upper” and the “Lower” Niagara, and they were as different as night is from day. One is an open faucet, emptying the ‘Great Lakes’, with a roar and thunder in a cloud of mist. The other is a living monument, craving across the earth, leaving a trail of beauty and attitude.
Much has been written about Niagara over the years, most about the mighty cataracts—little about the Niagara Gorge. This is truly amazing, when one considers the beauty, the challenge and the extensive, exciting history that engulfs the lower river .
Regardless of where on Niagara – Upper, Lower or the Cataracts themselves, my heart resides in the River, watching—listening to the “water”. When the time comes for me to depart this life, my ashes will finally fold into those beckoning arms of Niagara, and like the ‘Hermit of Niagara’, I’ll be ‘one with the water‘…
Until Next Time:
Embrace Life’s Bridges – For they Define Who You Are