Life is like a dogsled team. If you ain't the lead dog, the scenery never changes.
-- Lewis Grizzard

Friday, April 1, 2011

Once upon a River

It was mid-July, 1996 and the Weather Channel promised it would be another blazing hot, bake-in-the-sun day.  The sun was just peeking over the horizon when I headed off to meet some friends (Todd*, Mike* and Nora*) for an all-day, much-anticipated, 10-mile-down-river canoe trip.  By the time I reached their house, they had the mini-van stuffed with coolers, life jackets, inner tubes, Super-Soaker water guns, and other miscellaneous gear.   Everyone still had that “it’s what time?” puffiness sagging under their eyes, while I hummed and buzzed along amped up by my continued consumption of un-holy amounts of coffee.  I popped my ‘Weezer’ CD in the dash and cranked it up.  Soon, the minivan was a cacophony of voices singing along to “If you want to destroy my sweater, oh-oh-oh-oh-oh, pull this thread as I walk away”.  By the time we reached the canoe rental place, everyone was awake, smiling and ready to embark on what would surely be a great day.

The four of us paired off, split the day’s supplies and loaded up the canoes. One canoe was a putrid, pea-ish green color with what looked like dried seaweed matted to the bench seats (a.k.a. “Nessie”), the other was off-white, had red sun-faded number 5s painted on the sides, and looked as though it could possibly defy the odds and sink on land with the amount of dents it had (a.k.a. “Kujo”).   Vessels aptly named, we set off for the 10-mile adventure.

The river was running abnormally high for July, but none of us complained.  This meant we wouldn’t have to push “Nessie” or “Kujo” at any point of the trip.  We could amble along un-hurried, stopping for as long as we wanted and then be able to make up the time with the speed of the water.

It was a perfect day.  The sun was up and bright and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  We were four carefree, laughing, jubilant fools soaking up some good old summer fun.  We splashed each other with the oars as we paddled downstream, we tied the canoes together and took turns challenging one another with daring rounds of varying balancing acts and ‘canoe-hopping’.  I, being the most daring one of the bunch, decided I could land a jump in the other canoe, without capsizing either boat; then proceeded to place a bet to make it more interesting.  I squatted down, visualized the jump in my head, pumped my legs a few times and took off… I landed the jump, but as I was landing, my foot hit the edge of one of the coolers and I lost my balance, thus tipping the canoe at such an angle, half it’s contents fell right into the swiftly moving river.  I, without good judgement, quickly reached over trying to rescue my jean shorts before they sank to the bottom, and in doing so fell out of the boat, cracked my shin bone on the side of the canoe and was forced to abort the rescue of my shorts.  I couldn’t do anything but laugh as I hauled my wet rear back into the canoe because I had managed to create all this chaos without flipping the canoe…I had won $50!!   I lost my shorts, gained a giant bruise, and won $50… so at this point I was ahead of the game.

We banked on a sandy outcrop to rest while we ate lunch.  We cooled off wading in the shallow water, squirted each other in an impromptu water gun fight, and spent a good half an hour trying to catch a turtle that had been sunning himself on a nearby log.  None of us knew how far we had gone, but we were all banking of the fact that we were ahead of the time frame due to the swollen river.  We spent another hour or so soaking up the sun, chatting and laughing.  Finally, we decided it was time to push “Nessie” and “Kujo” back into the water and continue on.  We tied the canoes together and attached two giant-sized inner tubes behind them and shoved off.

Todd* and myself were floating along behind in the inner tubes while Mike* and Nora* steered the boats.   I could hear them exchanging banter up front, “steer it this way”, “no, not that way….you have to paddle on that side”….and on and on it went.  A few minutes more of this gentle teasing and differing opinions and then their tones changed slightly.  Todd* decided to swim back up to the canoes and help out, as the water was beginning to speed up a bit.  I was quite comfy in my tube, so I decided to stay put and enjoy the ride.  Todd* restored harmony to the captains and along the river we continued to travel.  I was thoroughly relaxed when I heard one of the guys say, “hey, head’s up…the water is getting kinda rough up ahead”.  I sat up a bit, pushed my sunglasses back onto my nose, and started singing Weezer’s “Sweater” again, in attempts to re-create the sing-along from the morning drive.  To my surprise, no one joined in, and my voice was the only one echoing back from the high limestone walls on either side of the river.  They all seemed to be seriously focusing on the paddling, so I craned my neck to see in front of the boats at what was demanding so much of their attention.  I noticed we were drifting to the right side of the river, even though they all seemed to be paddling intensely.  Todd* turned around and pulled the empty inner tube into the canoe, pulled my tube closer and tied it off so I wasn’t as far behind as I had been, and told me to “hang on”.  “Can do, Skipper” I chirped.   Our boats picked up some speed and began to move toward the limestone wall, I stuck my legs out to push off the wall, just in case.  Just before I braced for impact, my inner tube rotated some and I was now parallel with the wall, and BOOM!  Luckily, I was able to keep balanced on the inner tube, and after a minute of dragging along the wall, we were headed back in the direction of the middle of the river.   Todd* looked back to check I was still in one piece.  I waved back and began singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, to which he only shook his head and smiled.   He told the other two that we needed to pull off somewhere and pointed back in my direction.   One by one they took turns looking at me, shaking their heads, and grinning….I decided to lay back and enjoy the rest of my floating, but as I re-adjusted myself I noticed something red running down the side of the inner tube.  What the???  My arm was bleeding.  There was a 10-inch swath of raw, bleeding, scratched up skin…and now that I had seen it I realized why the others were shaking their heads at me…I could just hear them re-telling this one… “and, of course, guess who got hurt?”

We were moving pretty quickly as we came around a bend in the river.  My captains decided on a clearing up ahead on the right and aimed our canoes for it.  We started in one direction, then another, then another and there were heated discussions, some conflicting instructions shouted and a few choice opinions on how best to steer a canoe as we changed course back toward the left side again.  From where I was sitting it was almost kinda humorous, that is, until I noticed we were on a speedy collision course with a rather large stretch of overhanging trees on the right bank.   I got another “hang on” shouted back to me from some genius in the boat, and suddenly I found myself bouncing and smacking into a large mass of branches and trees.  Before I knew it, I was lodged under a fallen tree totally submerged under the water and in desperate need of oxygen.  I clawed, pulled, and kicked at the inner tube, figuring I was better off without it at this point.  I finally dislodged myself and managed to poke my head up out of the water and gasp for fresh air.  I was totally encased in veritable jungle of branches and trees, twisted and tangled in every direction. It was at this moment the wisdom of that last “hang on” began to register in my head.  I grabbed onto a tree branch and clung to it for dear life, terrified I would go back under the water and not be able to get out again.  The river was so strong and moving so fast that the muscles in my arms began to ache from the strain of holding my upper body out of the water.  I struggled to free my right leg then my left.  There I hung, plastered to that tree, upside down, dangling there like a sloth.  My head, arms and legs were out of the water, but the rest of my body remained in the rushing water.  As I was trying to come up with a plan of escape, I began to notice the water pulling the bottoms of my bikini downstream.  Now I have never been one for public nudity, but at this point in the game, I was not about to let go of that tree and go after them.  So there I hung, muscles aching and beginning to twitch, with the bottom half my swimsuit flapping in the swift current around my knees!  One thought led to another and I suddenly became aware that the triangle parts of my triangle-style, American flag, bikini top were now located somewhere under my left armpit.  With nothing better to do, I found myself hanging there, naked, having this mental image of myself being rescued, with a crowd of local reporters giving the play-by-play, live on all the local news channels.  As they pull me out, the crowd claps and cheers, and then the collective GASP!…..

I’m not sure how long I clung to that tree, or how long it was until my friends realized I was no longer attached to the canoes.  Honestly, I am not really sure I remember how the whole thing ended.  The one thing I do know is that by the time I was retrieved, I was no longer in possession of an American flag bikini.  Good thing I won that $50--  I not only had to replace a pair of jean shorts, but I had to buy a new swimsuit as well.

(*Names have been changed to protect the innocent)

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