The Speed River

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As a boy in Guelph, Ontario, I loved the Speed River… though I did wonder how it got its name. It wasn’t in any hurry at all. It meandered along between grassy banks, pausing to play here and there among the cat tails. When it entered Riverside Park, however, the river was given firm direction by a wall on each side made of rough, gray chunks of limestone held together by mortar. 

At several places a rusty iron ladder was fastened to the stone so that, if anyone ever did fall into the river, they would have a way to climb out. (I did see a man climb down a ladder once and stretch way out to grab a struggling dog that had fallen in. It was tired and wide-eyed with fear by the time it was rescued.) 

Within the park the warm summer sun was transformed into cool dappled light as it filtered through the giant maple trees that had grown there for hundreds of years… long before the park even had a name. They must have liked the river too, because they lined its banks, occasionally dipping the tip of a branch into the cool water.

One of my favorite spots on the Speed River was just upstream from the park, where a large drainage pipe crossed from one side to the other. With fishing pole in hand, I loved to walk barefoot across the sun-warmed metal of the pipe to a spot about halfway across. There I would sit for a few minutes listening to the water gurgle as it rippled over a shallow limestone shelf. 

As I stared into the amber water, I was barely conscious of a crow calling from the top of a cottonwood tree, the frantic barking of a dog circling a tree in pursuit of a squirrel, and the rise and fall of laughter from a group gathered downstream for a picnic.

I was startled out of my daydream by a dragonfly that darted past my nose, its body shimmering blue and brilliant green. Time to fish. I pulled my favorite bait out of my pocket… a slice of white Wonder Bread. I loved its velvety texture and fresh smell. The fish liked it too. 

I tore off a piece, put it in my mouth, and rolled it into a soft gooey ball with my tongue. It was much more pleasant to put on the hook than a wriggling, slimy worm.

With a flick of my wrist the doughy bait went “Plop” into the water. I fed a lot of fish in the Speed River. They were far more skilled at getting the bread off the hook than I was at catching them. But every now and then I would jerk the pole at just the right time and feel my excitement rise as I felt a tug, saw the flash of silver, and watched the line zig zag through the water.

But I don’t think I am a true fisherman, because my excitement quickly ebbed the moment I grasped the trembling fish in my hand and looked it in the eye. I felt like apologizing to the fish rather than doing a victory dance. 

As I released the fish unharmed into its watery home, my joy in just being there returned. The river welcomed it back, just as it had welcomed me.   

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