The Legend of the Dutch Man on the Whanganui River Journey

I can corroborate the following story as true to the best of my recollection.

I overheard its re-telling while eating a hamburger in a Raetihi fry shop. A gray maned proprietor handed butcher paper bags filled with chips to teens, and they took them to their corner table and tore them open, spreading the wedges amongst themselves. One mentioned a Dutch man, and the proprietor yelled from over his counter.

“He was here but a week ago. He sat where you sit now. You, child. Your seat. Your mouth is contorted with laughter, but feel underneath your ass that mold that did hold up his Hollander bottom. Your cheeks are now soft to it like the lips of the unworthy apostles that sealed over the Lord’s imprint on his Holy Grail.

“The seat hardly held him. He was twelve feet tall if he was a foot, with gigantic arms, shaped and iron hard like locomotive pistons, his hair was as wild and wasteful as the sea. His eyes were a tumult of bounteous beauty, and even I, when I saw them, alight like crystals with fireflies on cocaine trapped amidst the silica, was willing to volunteer the hand of that, my wife the buxom lass, over to him for bedding. Did you not feel the benediction that all of Nature gave at his coming? Trees went a clattering in the wind for him. Stones shook in the bowels of wells for they, so near his presence, celebrated in common fraternity the abundant fortitude he too fostered in his bosom.

“Aye, youths, there is too much of that youthful poison in you, the cynicism that corrupts young minds. Such certainty have you in your ignorances. You’re inclined to your believing, I’ll grant you that much, but you will recall this moment in ripe old age for the words I use here are verifiable truths. Let Beelzebub take me if I should utter falsehoods. I’d rather die in the flesh a thousand times by a Mongol’s lash than suffer such a loss. For I would lose that, my wife, the buxom lass heavy with child’s milk though the child for whose benefit it churns is two score and a few more departed from our home.

“This is the man, I thought then looking at the Dutch Man’s ginormous frame, that took canoe and passenger over the rising crest of that most infamous rapid on the Whanganui River.

“Hush yourselves, lads, close your mouths from gasping, for even here, a dozen leagues from that river that cuts through New Zealand’s north island torso like a small Mississippi out to the western sea, the Rapid deepens its deepest trough and rises its highest peak at our suggestion of its ferocity. It is like man in this sense, prone to swelling pride with even a whisper of its might.

“Yet its infamy deserves a recount, for ne’er was there a man who could conquer it without fear breeding fast in his mind. To a man these would be conquerors coaxed to abolition that inner mind’s picture of he, his visage and apparel, shredded on the stones of the Rapid’s underside. Fifty men who pass it are stalled within its maw they say. Fifty more may make safe passage, but they are changed men, for in their hearts, though clamoring with pride, is the loathsome fear still pumping like serpent’s blood. And it overtakes them, it is a more stunning defeat on their manhoods than a woman’s rolled and unsatisfied eyes.

“But then there was this Dutch Man. No man ever taken to water stepped into it like a babe returning to its womb. With deftness he handled his rudder at the canoe’s helm. With alacrity he poured over lesser currents. And he had his very own Sancho Panza, but Mexican-Irish, and also just as, if not more, handsome than the Dutch Man himself, powering him from the bow.

“The Whanganui River was ravenous for boats that day my boys. Its bottom foamed the top. Clawing grips of white water flushed over rocks and beat on the river bank, but it did not phase the Dutch Man, who flattened his paddle against the current, whittling his way expertly over the river top.

“But as he neared the Fifty-Fifty Rapid, he saw gathered on near and far banks the garish clothes of both cowards and those vanquished who wished to see other men falter as they did, for weak men must prop up their worths by watching the defeats of others. On this day, though, the Dutch Man would not satiate their schadenfreudic appetites.

“‘There flows the more traveled and safer path!’ Yelled the Mexican-Irishman, pointing to a calm section, and who, in fact, looked very fair skinned, like a Spaniard, maybe, and whose Hispanic surname rustled the brow of many a confused gringo. But the Dutch Man lifted his free hand, which was as still as a tempered iron wrung fused to a concrete pillar poured onto the bottom of a non-moving body of water and then enchanted with a stupefy spell, and assuaged the frightened man, ‘Nay, that will not make all the difference.’ And with aplomb he gripped fast his oar and flattened its blade against the current so that the boat’s bow aimed like an arrow at the dead heart center of the Rapid.

“I do not know, my lads, if any of thee have seen a rapid, but take this mental image and see it as clean and true as the smear of tomato sauce on that boy’s nose. A great rapid seems to move always yet stays still. There is a frothing vector at its beginning, and you must aim for its center point like a Mario go-cart going for a speed boost. Beyond that the rapid dips, and it moves you without regard to the pressures you apply to your paddles, rushes you through a skillet pan of water and thrusts you into a curved comber wall. This is the fatal slap, and many a broken canoe that appears as flotsam down river does so because they presented themselves sideways or at an angle against this wall. As the canoe tips, the terror that its paddlers had previously tempered rages like teenage acne after sleeping through a humid night on a dirty pillow. It’s man’s wont to turn from the object that threatens harm, but this reaction hastens their demise. The paddlers lean their weights away from the wave, and in so doing reveal their canoe’s open body to the river’s downward flow. Water floods the gunwales. The canoe flips and heaves belongings and bodies into bubbly depths and makes relevant travelers insurances.

“Knowing the nerves that betray lesser men, the Dutch Man commanded his Pancho to paddle harder. With brusque strokes at the fore and aft sending deep eddies wake-ward, the canoe sped mightily along. ‘Harder,’ the Dutch Man yelled, and with much gnashing of teeth the two men unleashed a fury onto the water, eyes fixated on the Rapid’s rise ahead of them like vegetarians who have had bacon for the first time looking at a platter of meat.

“It was done in a blink, and the canoe waned to a stop at the other end. The Dutch Man’s spectacular quiff of hair was alight with the gold of sunlight, and at that moment the dozen women on the shore banks fainted. All along the river rose a chorus of cheer. Pancho lifted his paddle in triumph. The Dutch Man stroked his chin. ‘That was too easy,’ he said and dipped his paddle again into the river and drifted into legend.”

One of the youths shook his head, “That was a lame ass story old man.”

The proprietor perked his heavy head, “I’d like to hear you tell it better you little shit.”

Another youth stepped between them to ward off the argument. “Let’s stop this,” he said, “I’d like to order another bag of chips…” He looked sternly from his group of friends to the proprietor, “…with mayonnaise,” he whispered.

“For the Dutch Man,” another youth said.

And the proprietor and the boys in unison whispered, “For the Dutch Man.”

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