Watchers — Thomas Bauerschmidt Sweeney

My childhood Eden was my grandparents’ lake house. Nestled into the heart of Bemus Bay on Chautauqua Lake, the big house and the little house as we called them, and a yard big enough to accommodate games of soccer, sunbathing, reading, a rope swing, and sprinting dogs all at once. In winter time the house was a warm refuge from the snow and cold, gathering in aunts, uncles, and cousins after long walks and sledding expeditions, but the lake house always reached its true potential in the summer. We would play in the lake, digging for clams and filling my grandfather’s hat with seaweed. As we stood giddy with anticipation he would dutifully plop the hat on his head over and over, each time spluttering with feigned shock and indignation as water and green slime soaked his face. Summer always officially started when the dock was put in, reaching out into the lake, a place for fishing and the departure point for many a boating excursion. This is where we often saw Hillary.

Hillary was our name for the heron that lived on the lake. A serene bird, of the Great Blue variety, she would periodically alight on the dock, resting for a while before taking off to survey other reaches of the bay. “Oh, look. There’s Hillary!” someone would say, and whoever was there would stop and watch her standing on the dock. Sometimes we would catch her winging over the lake, and we would fumble to pick up my grandfather’s binoculars, comically large in our small hands, and try to focus in (often unsuccessfully) before she disappeared behind the trees. I don’t know when I fully realized that the name Hillary applied to any heron we happened to see at Chautauqua, but I like to imagine that there was an original Hillary, a bird loyal to our particular plot of land on our particular puddle of water in upstate New York.

Perhaps it was this childhood affinity, but when I began working on rivers guiding whitewater rafts I found myself watching the herons, almost always Great Blues. I distinctly remember coming around a corner on the Shenandoah and finding myself no more than fifteen feet from one, quickly trying to hush my crew. We stayed quiet, watching the heron watching us as we floated past, knowing that we had intruded on her territory and clearly interrupted a search for lunch. She stood there, we moved on, and she continued stalking the shallows.

Chautauqua was a childhood paradise, a place of serenity. We joke about the “lake effect,” which causes the most motivated of visitors to sleep through the morning, nap on the lawn all afternoon, and then go to bed shortly after dinner. But it is also a place of sorrow. It is where my grandmother died suddenly, after the doctors had said the tumor in her lung was shrinking. It is where I saw deep-rooted conflicts erupt to the surface, and where I saw my grandfather begin a spiral that quickly bottomed out with a three-week stint in a hospital bed and a severely damaged liver. Unlike the biblical garden, though, the presence of sorrow and pain did not destroy the beauty and peace of Chautauqua, and for a time it became a place of redemption.

When I was in high school my sister and I spent a summer with our grandfather at the lake. I bussed tables at a local restaurant, admonished by my grandfather to always show up early and to be sure to be the best busboy in the place. It was a summer of reconnection. I saw cousins and relatives I had not seen in years. My sister and I spent days playing on the lake. We would wake early, dragging our grandfather out of bed to go waterskiing and wakeboarding before the sun had reached over the trees to touch the water. Those days are some of my fondest memories of my grandfather, days when he was truly present and engaged, acting as a day-to-day father figure for the first time in decades. He even grew out the ridiculous beard he wore when my mother was small, and he was happy. That summer was a special time, and a year later I decided to attend Allegheny College, just an hour’s drive from the lake.

One of the remarkable qualities of the Great Blue Heron is its range. They are found across the United States and into Canada, sometimes migrating down into Mexico and the northernmost edges of South America. I found them when I went to guide in Colorado, pacing through the edges of the Arkansas River, hunting the trout swimming upstream. They are observant creatures, watching patiently for an unsuspecting meal. They watch us too. It is one of the small comforts of river running to have a heron follow you through her territory. Standing tall on a rock or ledge, she watches as you pass, then swoops by at a careful distance to light on another perch downstream. The edges of her territory are often marked by shit-stained rocks, white streaks indicating where she waits at the beginning and end of her daily patrols. She is a vigilant observer, a gentle spirit watching over her particular piece of river.

After my first season in Colorado I returned to Pennsylvania for my senior year of college. A part of me wanted to take the fall semester off to raft the record setting flows pouring out of Summersville Dam into the Gauley River that year, but I returned to school, knowing how close I was to graduation and that the river would be there next year. As much as I wanted to graduate, I knew that it would mean almost as much to my grandfather as it would to me. He had put himself through college and law school while working in the Pittsburgh steel mills and supporting a rapidly growing family. When I finished school in May I would be the first of his ten grandchildren to graduate college.

That fall his doctor scheduled him for surgery in the early weeks of January. We visited for Thanksgiving, and at the annual family New Years celebration all ten grandchildren were able to be there for the first time in years. Then, in January I visited my grandfather in his post-op room a few days after his surgery. His immediate recovery had not gone well, but he was improving, and while he was in and out of consciousness, he was aware and able to talk a little. In one of his more alert moments he joked with me, saying “This is to pay me back for all those mornings I took you skiing.” A hospital visit hardly seemed adequate payment for all of the cold, early mornings spent on the lake, but I kept that to myself. I returned to school, but over the next couple of days my grandfather began to deteriorate rapidly. The next time I visited him my brother and sister were there as well, and he did not appear to be awake. My family and one of my aunts gathered in his room while my father led us in a series of prayers. Then for a moment we stood there watching him. Here was a caring, successful, wonderfully stubborn and playful man, a man who had lived fiercely and without apology, who despite any and all conflicts loved his family above all else. We watched as he lay there, poked full of tubes and fluids, attached to machines measuring his heartbeats in green lines and numbers. He lay still, covered from the waist down by a thick, warm blanket, his breaths coming slowly. All we could do was watch, until one by one we said our last goodbyes. “Goodbye Papa. Thank you. I’ll miss you. I love you.”

As planned, I graduated in May and returned to Colorado, diving headlong into the day-to-day life of the river. Before long the snowmelt came rushing down the mountains to our canyon and we found ourselves in the midst of a true high-water season, where the swollen river runs faster, the rapids are bigger and meaner, and even the guides are nervous before trips. It was the kind of season raft guides live for. But it came at a cost. One morning, my raft crested a wave to see empty rafts and customers washing through the biggest rapid on the river. Whistles rang out, and we quickly began fishing people out of the water. An empty raft was floating downriver, and I got to it first. Just as I clipped it to my raft, our safety kayak shouted, and I saw him holding a swimmer by the strap of his lifejacket. Already exhausted, and now towing the empty raft, there was no way my crew could paddle over to where he was to help. I saw another guide on the kayaker’s side of the river ready to help bring the swimmer into shore where several rafts were waiting, and managed to pull my two rafts ashore slightly downstream on the opposite bank.

As my crew and I situated ourselves on the far bank, the rest of our rafts pulled into the eddy on the other side of the river, and we could tell something was not right. Soon, I saw the unmistakable rhythm of CPR as the guides began pumping on the man’s chest. With two rafts, a tired crew, and a strong current between me and the only eddy on the far side of the river, any attempt to cross the river was more likely to complicate the situation than help. So I sat with my crew, and we watched. We watched as my river brothers pumped relentlessly, attempting to breathe life into the man’s fading body. We watched as my friend held back the man’s wife and children. We watched as the ambulance finally arrived and the paramedics took over. Eventually the commotion stopped, and a visible ripple went through the crowd of onlookers. We managed to ferry my crew and the empty boat across the river, and I was told that the man’s name was Van, and that he had died. The other customers were loaded onto a bus and driven back to the outfitter, while we remained behind to load the rafts onto trailers. We loaded the boats slowly, asking each other if we were alright, and answering that we were, despite the fact we were not. Across the river, bighorn sheep stood vigil as we quietly carried the rafts past Van’s blue body.

For all of their grace, herons are not particularly powerful birds. Despite their long necks and a six-foot wingspan, they weigh in at no more than five or six pounds. Their spindly legs are meant for stalking rather than snatching or tearing, and their pointed beaks pose little threat to anything other than the small creatures they hunt. Their slender bodies are ultimately fragile. On my first rafting trip, half an hour into the five-day journey that would inspire me to pursue rafting and become a guide, someone said, “Look, a heron.” I looked up and saw Hillary’s familiar form gliding along high above us. Then, “Look, an eagle!” I looked past the heron just in time to see the predator tuck its wings and dive. The eagle collided with its prey in an explosion of feathers, the heron screamed, and the two tumbled to earth.

Our few rafts were the only witnesses to the heron’s death, the eagle’s victory. There was a privilege to it, to see the death of a watcher, a creature who watches despite such vulnerability. But perhaps it is not in spite of her vulnerability, but because of it that Hillary watches. Perhaps it is the power of the vulnerable to stand unflinchingly against the violence of the world and rob it of its terror. It is a poignant act of bravery, for it exposes the finite nature of the terrible, and assures us that in our weakest, most helpless moments we are not alone. And in the moments when Hillary follows me downstream, I find comfort, and hope that perhaps watching can repay cold mornings spent on the lake.


Thomas Bauerschmidt Sweeney is a whitewater raft guide who has put a political science degree to good use by spending his days chasing rivers and playing outside. He loves anything that involves water and good friends. This is his first publication.