Setup: The following is a short excerpt from my autobiography Gathering My Life into Feathers. I was 35 years old at the time. Although I had not become an invalid, I was still functioning at about 50% normal capacity due to fibromyalgia. That didn’t stop me from living the life I would choose, but did mean that I had very definite limitations physically.
The Ice Flow:
My brother John and I began a practice of gathering medicine outdoors within a year of his first shamanic workshop. To gather medicine outdoors, we first needed to find an outdoor area worth exploring. Riverbeds were highly prized. Our external job was to find objects for our medicine bags: a stone, a feather, or other natural object that spoke to us in a personal way. We had a rule: if any natural objects were removed we also had to remove all the unnatural objects. In other words, we became literal custodians. The internal goal was to stalk Mind, to enter a shamanic way of perceiving and read the omens. Whether we found objects or not, the exercise was always enlivening.
One of our favorite medicine walks was our yearly pilgrimage to Reeds Landing. For 10 years (from 1987 to 1996), we’d journey to Reeds Landing to stalk Eagle. At that time, eagles were on the list of endangered species, and a rare sight. But every spring they would gather at Reeds Landing in route to their eventual migration north.
Reeds Landing is just south of Lake Pepin on the Mississippi River. In early spring, Lake Pepin stays frozen, but the more narrow river water at Reeds Landing thaws so that the eagles can fish. That’s why they gather there. The islands and land across the river in Wisconsin were quite wild, so we’d load a canoe for access.
The trick was to time our visit so that the river by Reeds Landing was open, but Lake Pepin to the north was still frozen. Once Lake Pepin started to thaw, large chunks of ice began flowing down river. The current became quite strong at that point, propelling the runaway ice at speeds that were faster than what we could paddle. Many of those blocks of ice would be the diameter of our canoe (17 feet) and would weigh nearly a ton. Any canoe caught in the ice flows would, sooner or later, become trapped by ice. The canoe would either capsize or become crushed by the enormous pressure. The canoeists would likely drown in the freezing water as they tried to stay afloat on the unstable ice. Because of their intensity, the ice flows would make the river unusable to boats for several days at least. After that, the eagles were mostly gone.
Our ritual went something like this: canoe across the river to the Wisconsin side, hike a short distance to a hidden spot which had become sacred, set up an altar, and smoke a pipe to Eagle. The pipe we smoked had come to me in a special way, and was a good substitute for the drum when we didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves. Then we’d hike around looking for eagle feathers or other objects. Of course, we also brought binoculars to do some eagle watching. We never failed to see large numbers of eagles.
Finding feathers, however, was not so easy. As with pottery shards, John had a knack for finding the hidden feather. The best feathers were fresh from immature bald eagles. These large feathers would be undamaged by the terrain. My best finds were always intuitional, an inner voice guiding me in another direction, and then: “Eureka!”
The area, by itself, was beautiful, almost primordial. It was forested on sandy soil that was sculpted in high water. The beaches were clean, and at the center of our pilgrimage was a 50 foot hill of sand.
In March of 1990, we encountered the ice flow from the wrong side of river. When we initially canoed across the river, the water was completely clear of ice. While on the wild Wisconsin side we had spent much of the day hiking out of sight of the river. When we returned to our canoe to re-cross, the ice flows were in full float, like miniature icebergs. Chunks of ice filled the river. Their speed and determination were awesome, like witnessing a mighty storm raging laterally over the water. It was impossible to cross. John and I looked at each other. We both knew how large Lake Pepin was. Now that the ice flows had begun, it would be days before it was safe to cross. John offered his assessment:
“We can’t cross. We can hide the canoe somewhere and come back for it another day. There’s a road a few miles east. We could hike to the road, hitchhike or walk to the bridge (about a mile south), then hitchhike or walk back to the car. That’s only about 4 to 5 miles.”
The plan sounded reasonable to a healthy hiker. But to me, at the time, it was absurd. I had already exhausted my meager resources with the day’s walking. My back and body simply wouldn’t allow it. I calmly told my brother that I had nothing left. I could not make the hike.
“You wouldn’t have to walk the entire distance. If you could just get to the road, you could wait for me there while I retrieved the car.”
The plan was sounding more reasonable, but it wasn’t. A few years earlier, John told me he came to this area without a canoe and hiked in and out from the road in question. He said the few miles back to the Wisconsin highway were nearly impassable, and felt more like 10 miles. He had described the experience as an ordeal, something he would never do again. Reminding him of his previous experience, I told him I simply wasn’t up for that. The situation was starting to sink in. John was getting nervous.
“Well, what are we going to do? We can’t cross here.” He was speaking in a deliberately calm voice to mask his anxiety.
I looked upstream at the seemingly inexhaustible supply of ice headed our way. But for some reason I wasn’t nervous. We had been on a medicine walk; we should use our Medicine. The words came from the tip of a feather to my tongue:
“Go with the flow.”
The words had a calming affect, and I let them settle before continuing. “We’re here to do medicine work. Let’s go to our sacred spot on the other side of the hill. There, we can sing our Power songs, smoke to Eagle, and vision a way through the ice flows.”
John suspended belief and judgment. He agreed without discussion. Mindfully, we retreated to our sacred spot, remade the altar, and began to conjure. Somehow, the very real danger I was in made the ritual that much more exhilarating. I felt it in my bones. While nature may not always balance on the head of a pin, that day, we would. We smoked and sang for perhaps a half an hour. Then I knew.
“It’s time,” I said to John. We silently gathered our objects, dispersed the altar, and walked to the canoe. I let out a war cry. “Aaaa-iii!” The river had opened up for us. The opening was large enough so that if we paddled with mild determination, there would be time to spare. Filled with Spirit and purpose, we loaded the canoe and paddled across. It felt like the parting of the Red Sea. Once across, we sat and watched as our pathway across the river collapsed into ice. It took only a few minutes for the river to become dense with ice flows once again. We looked upstream: no end in sight. We had crossed at our only opportunity, and took a moment to thank the spirits.
Afterthought: I smoked the sacred pipe for many years in private ceremony, either at my house in the garden or in nature. When my parents moved to Arizona in 1996, they gave me my grandfather’s pipe, and I began to smoke this pipe in much the same mindful/spiritual manner. I put the old “two-piece” pipe away. Today, I no longer smoke any pipes, as I have several lung disorders (they are the least of my problems). Now, the breath made visible is alive in clouds.
Link to Gathering My Life into Feathers eBook ($1.50): http://musingsofaspiritualtraveler.com/gathering-my-life-into-feathers/