As 1990 fades, I'm thinking of Kathy Bolyn's face, still numb with pain, as she rested by the Savage River in Western Maryland after her near-deadly brush with fate.
Bolyn, world-class kayak racer and whitewater instructor, was on a practice run before the World Cup competition in July when the Savage threw her a mean hook.
At Memorial Rock, toughest rapid on the five-mile course, she miscalculated the power of the current running toward a newly fallen tree and was swept against it and pinned.
Instantly, Bolyn went from river master to powerless victim, which is how it goes sometimes in the great outdoors. We are pawns in this game, after all.
So the Savage buckled her flimsy boat and trapped her legs inside, cocked at a horrible angle. The current raged against the hull, pushing it under as she struggled to keep her head above the surface.
The cold quickly drained her strength but Bolyn was lucky. She'd been with a pack of boats and her rivermates rushed to the rescue. Showing astonishing resourcefulness, Bolyn helped map a salvage plan that took 20 minutes to execute.
She devised a rope brace to support her back and head, then isolated the root of the problem. Over the river's roar she told Paul Grabow, who'd tiptoed out onto the downed tree with a borrowed saw, where to cut away at a limb. When it gave with a "crack!" Bolyn's boat swept free and paddlers on both shores rejoiced.
She was in no shape to race that week, her knees so ravaged by the ordeal she could barely stand on crutches, her body reeling from shock. But she'd be back on the river soon, she said, which is how it is with something you love.
I see Bolyn's pluck and perseverance as a symbol for all outdoors. It's not always fun out there, rarely easy, not always safe, but it's as real as anything gets, far more interesting than TV, always beautiful, always a challenge. So you take your chances. You go back.
Now comes a new year, and all of us who love the outdoors should be thankful to be around to go back and savor it again, and hopeful it proves as diverse and full as the ones just past.
Last year will be hard for me to match, actually. From bass fishing in April with President Bush to rockfishing with Mike Sullivan the week before he died in October, from bucking the Gulf Stream to Bermuda to gobbling lobsters in Casco Bay, from rabbit hunting in Spain to wading the autumn Shenandoah for smallmouth, 1990 offered more riches than a working fellow probably deserves. Here, then, are a few baubles worth sharing:
January: The year started auspiciously enough. After being shut out during deer season in Maryland, I took the long drive to Bob Kinzie's farm in Appomattox, Va., the weekend after New Year's on the off chance a buck might stray my way during the last few days of the seven-week deer season.
Not one, as it happened, but two came ambling down the field edge to me, one the first evening and one the next, an eight-pointer and a six, and in two days I went from deer season goat to hero. They were the only deer any of us had a shot at and we cleaned them by the front porch together, split the meat four ways and went home to our separate venison feasts, as delighted as astonished by our unexpected good fortune.
February: A brutal month for outdoorsmen, yet the news from down south was bright. "Plenty of mackerel here," said Karen Fuller at Virginia Beach Fishing Center when I phoned.
Boston mackerel aren't supposed to move inshore for the migration north until spring, of course, but warm temperatures evidently lured them in early. My son Willie and I drove down on a day so wild and windy we thought sure the car would blow right off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge- Tunnel.
Yet morning dawned calm and warm the next day and the fish were so close inshore you could see the high-rises on the beach from the boat. Willie caught four on the first drop; I spent the day unhooking fish for him. We drove home with big smiles.
March: I rode the Pan Am bird south to Uruguay to see the Whitbread 'Round-the-World sailboats roll into Punta del Este from Cape Horn, Earth's most feared headland. The seafarers were full of swashbuckling tales, as befitted their achievements, and I watched one having his ear pierced and a gold ring installed, international symbol of a seaman who's rounded the Horn under sail.
The sailors I liked best, though, were the ones on Maiden, the first all-women's crew ever to tackle a 'round-the-worlder. Their ears already were pierced, so they skipped that ritual, and they bypassed a lot of other bluster and bravado too.
Basically, it was very lonely and a little boring out there in the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties, Dawn Riley confessed. She was tired, sore and damned glad to be in port. Her confession had the ring of truth.
April: The President of the United States and I took a little boat ride on the Potomac, where he caught two largemouth bass and a huge carp on plastic worms. He was good company, funny and self-effacing, and I don't think it was all Yale charm.
He was the first President since Teddy Roosevelt to fish the Potomac, which made it an important symbol for this rejuvenated river.
On the way home, I convinced Glenn Peacock, our guide, to let the President drive his overpowered bass boat. The chief exec put the throttles up to the firewall and nearly launched me onto the Maryland shore when he hit a wave at warp speed. Oh, my aching back . . .
May: Whit Holden called to say he'd located the finest panfishing in the East at Lake Prince in southeastern Virginia, which was full of bluegills and crappies as big as dinner plates. He'd organized a father-son camping trip there.
But evidently Holden told more people than us about it, because when we arrived cars were backed up at the lake entrance and the only rental boats left were the ones we'd reserved. It looked like Woodstock out on the water.
The fish were as conspicuous by their absence as the anglers were by their abundance. Willie and I caught two or three bluegills before giving up about noon.
But the stars shone like diamonds that night through the tall Virginia pines and we had plenty of hot dogs to go around. Who needs fish on a fishing trip, anyway?
June: Jack King's rebuilt 60-footer, Merrythought, was ocean-ready and her first big test would be the Newport-Bermuda race across 650 miles of the Atlantic. King offered a spot and I snatched it. It's been my lifelong ambition to sail offshore, the further the better.
But nobody said anything about pounding for two days into six- and eight-foot seas and the resulting confusion to the inshore sailor's tummy. "Feeding the fishes," the old-timers call it, and I did my share.
For four days and four nights we hardly slept as we crashed and hammered into headwinds, slicing southeast through warm Gulf Stream waters. Eventually my stomach woes subsided and it was everything I'd hoped for -- fast, eerie and close to the edge. When do we go again?
July: Manuel Munoz-Carrasco's 200-acre farm in southern Spain is a rabbit paradise. He keeps it that way because he is a rabbit-hunting nut. In the morning we walked the river edge for rabbits, in the hot noon sun we stomped the brush and in the evening we walked the river-edge again, hoping to jump bunnies on their way to the wheat fields to feed.
In between, we worked a bit, took our siestas in the heat of the day and ate like royalty. The shrimp from Huelva were so fresh they jumped from the box; lettuce and tomatoes as big as grapefruits came from the garden daily; fresh gazpacho, cucumbers, olive oil and garlic graced the table, alongside wine so rich it's known as "blood of of the bull."
Walking back from the fields one noon, Chi-Chi the fence-mender pointed to a shady spot beneath a live oak tree. "A beautiful shade," he said, "for a gazpacho." Indeed.
August: Trudy Putnam invited us aboard her 20-footer for a day-sail around Maine's Casco Bay, the finest small-boat cruising grounds in the East. The wind was up, the air fresh as ice, the water clear as gin, the combination intoxicating.
I wrote a column about it that fueled the wrath of locals on the island where we stayed. They said this place was too fragile to let the world in on the secret. Know what? They're right.
September: We drove up to Jim Clay's place on the Shenandoah's South Fork one hot day and met him in a driving thunderstorm at the Twin Bridges Motel in Front Royal. By the time we'd gone the 20 miles to the dirt road into his place the storm was over and the evening proved as warm and gentle as a Caribbean sea breeze.
I caught a fish on my first cast and one on my last, and on every third or fourth cast in between as we wet-waded up a mile or so of the hip-high waters. We watched dusk gather from the bank and the bass began rising to emerging flies. Clay took out his fly rod for one last try and hooked a beauty.
October: Mike Sullivan learned he had raging cancer in the summer, but he hung onto life until October for one last shot at his favorite Chesapeake quarry, rockfish. Maryland reopened the rockfish season after a five-year moratorium and Sullivan hobbled to his boat opening day on crutches, eyes clouded with pain. We fished hard that day for Mike, and we found what he'd come for.
Sullivan, 51, one of the finest rockfishermen on the Bay in the days of plenty, fished every day he could of the brief, nine-day season. The day the season closed, he died. We'll miss him.
November: Alan Cady invented a boat called the Electra-Ghost, an electric-powered canoe so stealthy he can sneak up on ducks, herons and ospreys.
We towed Electra-Ghost to the headwaters of the Choptank River and went exploring on a blustery, cold day. We were the only ones on the river. We ran the battery dead poking up the marsh creeks, spooking the birds and fishing with no success at all, and had to paddle the last few hundred yards home. It was an uneventful day, an utter delight.
December: The county opened a skating rink in a beautiful park near our house, an outdoor rink where the night wind blows in unimpeded off the Chesapeake. We took the kids one evening and I skated a while, then took a perch on the wall and watched the people going by. They looked so happy.
When we came home, I disconnected the TV. It's still sitting there, blank and dead as an empty grave. Who needs it, anyway, with all outdoors out there, free for the taking?