Sometimes, as when the fishing’s slow or when the whole world seems cloudy and ominous, I like to stand peaceably by a river, throw the dead branch of a tree in the current and watch it go. I did this when I was a kid — so that my friends downstream would have something to bombard with rocks as it drifted by — and I did it as a dad when my children were small. I do it now during pauses in hikes. I do it now for the same reason some people call psychic hot lines — to see how the future might go.
I drop a good-size stick into the current, then try to keep my eyes on it as it floats downstream. If the branch flows freely all the way to some goal I’ve set with my eye — a bridge or boulder or perhaps the roots of a leaning sycamore 50 yards away — then I take that as a sign that things will go well in the next year.
If the branch gets hung up on a rock or in some brush, that tells me to keep my guard up, watch out for falling rock and other potential disasters ahead.
There’s an art to this driftin’-stick game. You can’t just toss the stick into the water and hope for the best. You have to study the stream and find the ribbon of current that will take you the farthest.
I did this one New Year’s Day, during a hike on a rainy, soppy, foggy afternoon along a creek on a friend’s snow-covered farm in Baltimore County.
The creek was a crooked little thing, full of water again from the rain and melting snow after two years of drought. I had never seen such a strong current in the creek.
We started calling the place Coffee Can Creek because a truck carrying coffee had tipped over and, as it crashed to the roadside, dumped some of its cargo into the water. My friend and his wife say the creek smelled like coffee for several hours. We hiked its banks and found numerous dented No. 10 cans of Maxwell House, their contents dry. We took a bunch home.
Coffee Can Creek is not the most conducive for my driftin’-stick ritual — too many bends, downed trees and beaver dams. It’s a challenge. But the challenge makes the outcome of my ritual all the more meaningful.
That New Year’s Day, I dropped a little Y-shaped stick, something like a divining rod, into the current and watched until it disappeared. It went as far as I’d wished it would go, and maybe farther. That year got off to a promising start. I don’t remember how it went, only how it began and how it began carried me for a while.
I love rivers — big, wide, rolling ones and little, craggy, fickle ones. I go to them, walk near them and wade through them. Sometimes I catch fish. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I stand there peaceably and just let things go. And I always feel better, even when the whole world seems cloudy and ominous.