During a visit to my
hometown in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, I made a nostalgic trip to the Shenandoah River. The river has always evoked memories, and one definitely stands out from all the rest—my first canoe
On that lovely summer
day many years ago, six of us met on one of the bends of the Shenandoah River. The
north fork of the river runs adjacent to the Massanutten Mountain in seven almost perfectly formed horseshoe bends. We planned to canoe downstream, winding lazily around the bends for several miles and camp overnight.
Although I would be the
only novice in the group, Fred, my husband, had great faith that I would rise to the occasion, and I was determined not to
embarrass or disappoint him.
Around 8:00 a.m., our
three canoes pushed off. We were second in line behind the leader. Fred
paddled while I sat in front and marveled at the beauty of the tall, old trees on both shores with their massive drooping
limbs touching the surface of the river. Our silent gliding allowed us to be
unusually close to deer, bobcat and small ducks. There was a symphony of bird
songs. I settled down on the bottom of the canoe with my legs propped over the
bow, using the seat as a backrest, soaking up the sights and lovely sounds and wondering why I had never gone on a canoe trip
before? It was glorious.
I had fifteen minutes
of total relaxation, the longest of the trip. Fred gave me the first bad news
of the day by announcing it was my turn to paddle, as he wanted to fish. This
seemed like an easy task. We were drifting down the river slowly; all I had to
do was keep the canoe pointed straight ahead. More bad news came quickly, however,
when I sighted churning, swirling water. Before I could panic, we glided easily
through the small rapids, and I was thrilled. I could do this.
In each canoe now, the
wife paddled; the husband fished. The men tossed a small lure box back and forth
in the water. It floated between canoes, and Fred assured me it was unsinkable. I kept one eye on the unsinkable lure box—until, without warning, and to the
dismay of the fishermen—it sank. I knew better than to laugh. Fred had already chosen his favorite lure, and since it wasn't his lure box, he was the least upset. He continued to fish until we approached the first submarine bridge. At this point, my husband informed me expert paddling would be needed, and he took over. I was to look out for any obstacles or debris in the water.
For those unfamiliar
with the term, a submarine bridge lives up to its name when there is a flood. It
is a narrow, concrete bridge with archways that allow the river to run under the bridge.
Families living on the inside of the river bends must drive over the bridges to go to town. During floods, they wait for the water to recede or use the swinging bridges that span the river.
The submarine bridge
archways provide openings large enough for small boats to get through if debris doesn't block the way. Our leaders in the first canoe chose the archway on the far left.
Fred and I followed until
they hit something and turned sideways. We immediately veered toward the next
archway. In my new role as lookout, I dutifully yelled, "You can't go in there
because of that tree limb." My husband responded, "Duck!" We crashed through, limb and all, except for half of Fred's fishing pole.
I no longer had to paddle while he fished.
The sun went in and out
of gathering clouds. The air was wonderfully warm. We decided to have lunch on a tiny, three-foot-wide island. The
six of us barely fit on the strip of land where we had cheese, crackers, apples and juice and discussed the upcoming evening
meal with great anticipation. The men had planned a feast: steaks, homemade rolls,
wine and cherry pie concoctions that we would make in the campfire for dessert. The
only misadventure on the small island was mine. I killed a snake when, using
my paddle as a crutch to help myself out of the canoe, I broke the poor thing's back.
Everyone seemed so impressed at my snake killing ability that I didn't mention it was unintentional.
Back on the river, we
had to paddle through the archway of another submarine bridge, which we did skillfully.
I felt quite proud of myself. My husband was praising me for being a good
sport. I had endured a few mishaps without complaining and even killed a snake.
Soon, however, we noticed
debris and tree branches floating past us. Since the day was still warm and beautiful,
it wasn't apparent that the river was slowly rising—until we saw the next bridge in the distance. The water was almost to the top of the archways. There was
no way we were going to get under them. It would be necessary to land and carry
the canoes over.
We were now last in line. The first canoe went smoothly up the bank, and our friends jumped out and pulled it
ashore. The second canoe did the same, and then, it was our turn. Paddling hard, we slid up the riverbank, hit a large rock and bounced straight back into the water. By
the time we had the canoe under control, the bridge was only a few feet away, and we hit head on. Frantically, we grasped the top of the bridge and hand over hand pulled the canoe toward shore. The side of the canoe began to tilt slowly toward the water until….
As it tipped over, I
instinctively wrapped my legs around the canoe seat and hung on to the bridge. Fred
dived under the water and began pushing me upward. I didn't understand what he
was trying to do and kept my legs firmly attached to the seat. He surfaced, sputtering
and shouting, "Why can't I get you onto the bridge?"
"Because I’m holding
the canoe!" I shouted back.
"Let the damn thing go!"
he yelled. It broke my heart, but I did.
Our friends, now on the
bridge, quickly pulled me up. Fred swam to shore.
Although I banged my knee on the top of the bridge, I ignored the pain, and the minute my feet hit the surface, took
off running. I had one thought—save the canoe. In retrospect, I have no idea why this seemed perfectly logical to me.
I ran along the riverbank in soggy tennis shoes, bleeding from my cut knee, with the canoe always a little ahead of
me. I chanted a simple prayer, "Please, God, let me catch the canoe." He heard me. I slid down the muddy bank, dived into the water,
swam to the canoe and grabbed a dangling rope. Behind me, I heard my husband
shouting, "Let it go, let it go!" Nothing short of pending death could have convinced
me to do so. Although the current was dragging me downstream as I swam toward
the riverbank, I was suddenly able to touch bottom. I spotted the limb of a fallen
tree and threw the rope over it. The canoe and I came to an abrupt halt. By now, Fred had reached me and together we pulled the canoe up the bank.
Our friends paddled madly
past us chasing our tent and other supplies that were floating away. Everything
of importance was rescued except for one box of food—the box with the goodies.
The soggy homemade rolls and cherry pies drifted downstream. The bottles
of wine were never seen again. Fortunately, the steaks were in another canoe.
Despite everything, I
felt wonderful, humming under my breath the lyrics of Helen Reddy's song, "I am Woman, I am invinsible!"
My husband was less enthusiastic,
insisting I had risked my life for a canoe that we would have eventually caught up with anyway. I ignored him, reveling in the newfound feeling of power. By
the time we set up camp, treated our wounds and changed into dry clothes, he had calmed down, probably because he was exhausted
from chasing me. We sat around the campfire and ate our steaks while everyone
bemoaned the loss of the wine, except me. I was so proud of myself that I was
flying high without it.
My euphoria lasted until
I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of thunder rumbling down the mountain toward us. The claps of thunder grew louder and closer together. By the
time the lightening was making our blue tent white, I was inside Fred's sleeping bag.
I awoke one more time
during the night. The storm had settled into a steady downpour, and I had to
go to the bathroom. I knew the drill and did what I had to do. When I crawled back into the tent, I decided to check on my glasses.
I hadn't thought about seeing because it was pitch black both inside and outside.
I reached into the corner of the tent. They were gone. I fearfully searched for them, finally waking Fred. He found
his flashlight and started looking around the tent. As soon as the light restored
my vision, I became aware of a surprising and embarrassing truth. I had my glasses
on. In my distress earlier, I had automatically put them on, and in the pitch
darkness and my panic, I'd forgotten. I nervously reached over and tapped Fred
on the shoulder. Needless to say, he did not invite me into his sleeping bag
again that night.
Morning dawned wet—very
wet. From the relative dryness of our tent, I watched one of the other wives
cheerfully prepare bacon, eggs, cantaloupe and coffee. I ate the delicious breakfast
and listened as everyone joked good-naturedly about the "great" weather as they began to break camp. Finally, chastened, I stepped reluctantly out of the tent into the rain, attired in a large garbage bag.
On the muddy, rain-swollen
river, we silently paddled to the next bridge where a discussion ensued as to whether or not we should continue farther. Forgetting about being a good sport, I planted my feet firmly on the bridge and refused
to budge. The minority of one and common sense ultimately prevailed.
So why do I remember
this daunting canoe trip so fondly?
Of course, the beauty
of the river and the mountain captured my mind and heart. But I also discovered
resources within myself that I never knew I had, and I developed such respect for people who could be bleeding, wet, muddy
Consequently, I promised
myself that one day I, too, would get up at the break of dawn in the pouring rain and prepare scrambled eggs with a smile.
I'm still working on