Rocks and Rivers

the most fun you can have doing almost nothing

Mike Paulus

You try to find the biggest rock. Within reason. After all, you’ll need to carry it to the water’s edge, and you must toss it a visually satisfying distance into the deep. The “biggest rock” is not a boulder. It’s a size and weight you can handle. The biggest rock is just right.

Don’t worry about skipping it. Skipping rocks is a kettle of fish of a different color. Skipping is very, very cool – but it’s not why we’re here today. Don’t worry about flat rocks. Don’t worry about the shape at all. Worry about the girth.

All that really matters is the sound it makes.

I like a rock I can hold in one hand, heavy enough to make my muscles work. I favor an  underhand lob with a good back swing. It’s not pretty, but it does the job. And it feels good. I let my arm swing back and forth a few times – so I can feel the weight of the stone pull at my shoulder. I swing it back one last time and then forward as fast as I can.  As it curves up, almost to my shoulder, I let go, and – poof! – my whole arm feels weightless. The rock is sailing through the air.

This is not an elegant throw. It’s wild and strange. I might even grunt a little bit.
Top over bottom the rock tumbles into the queasy, open space high above the water. It goes as far as it can before swerving down, back towards the earth. And then?

Plernk!

Yes, sometimes they plunk. And sometimes the plink. And often they KER-PLOMP! These are all fantastic options. But I like the p-l-e-r-n-k–plernk! It’s a refreshing slap against the water’s skin, but with a surprise finish – a slightly metallic ring before the water swallows the rock whole. 

My son likes to find the absolute heaviest stone he can wrap his little fingers around, needing both hands to hoist it up under his chin. “Watch!” he yells and we all watch as he throw-drops it, just a few inches beyond the shoreline. It doesn’t make much of a splash in the shallow water, but it’s still awesome. And now he’s got a tiny island he can try to balance upon.

As my wife will tell you, there’s just something about that sound. It’s magic. You’re making something disappear – pretty much forever – in the blink of an eye, with a delightful sound effect. It’s rewarding.
For all of this, I like ponds better than lakes. But I like rivers better than ponds.
As it is for many things, the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers is a top-notch spot for rock pernking. When the water’s low, the tip of Phoenix Park stabs deep into the wide joint of the rivers, and it’s strewn with rocks of various sizes, shapes, and personalities. The shoreline is easy to reach, and the greenery is plentiful.

If you’re a certain kind of (wonderful) person, you could stay out there all evening, tossing rocks and hearing your reward. (Sure, you might see the occasional nine-year-old ne’er-do-well chucking rocks at passing ducks, but a few stern words will take care of that.) Just stand out there and keep tossing as the sun slips down next to the old railroad bridge, and the summer sky melts into a murky purple. The water gets very still, and the acoustics are delicious.

There must be something buried deep in our brains to make this so gratifying. The heavy swing of your arm, the release. The small pause as you watch something earthbound fly. The anticipation. The water. The sound. It’s some kind of ancient pattern resonating through our bones. It’s an experience you have without talking. It’s a personal deal you strike with gravity – where gravity agrees to stop working for just a few moments.

In short, it’s fun.

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