We awoke to a heavy fog and decided to sleep in a bit. When we finally crawled out of our tent, everything was soaked. I started a campfire with a bit of difficulty, and made a pot of coffee. Then we drank coffee and ate peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast while the fog slowly thinned and faded away.
Tuesday, May 18th
We broke camp slowly, waiting for the sun to climb over the trees. Then we dried all of the equipment in the strong sunlight, spreading the tarps and the tent and weighting the corners against the breeze with rocks. We fished while we waited for the sun to do its work, but neither of us had any luck. The river was running running a bit lower and slower, and seemed clearer than the day before.
We headed downriver at the same brisk clip as yesterday. We rode past lovely springs in the gray rock walls, on fire with the morning sun as they dripped into the river. The day was gorgeous. The sky was clear blue above us; and the towering elms, oaks, sycamores, and cottonwoods that lined the banks were an incredible shade of green. Many of the sycamores, though, leaned dangerously over the river. And there were deadfalls in the water–sometimes almost all the way across the main channel–that made navigation difficult. This was, we realized, definitely not the lazy stream that the guidebooks had described. The river was running above floodstage. This was made uncomfortably clear by the water-covered docks we kept passing, and the broken boats and detritus from those flooded docks that littered the banks.
We made our cautious way down the river and started to look for a place to stop for lunch. But the high water made finding a suitable take-out spot difficult. Then, a little after noon, we rounded a bend and were faced with the choice of two channels. This was a pattern we’d seen several times over the course of the morning. We picked the wider and deeper left channel. But as we cleared the high ground between the two forks, we saw that two massive trees had fallen across the river, blocking our passage. Worse, the water was pouring down under one of the massive trunks and up over the other, creating a sieve. We paddled hard for the left bank, which was about four feet above the water level–but were swept by the strong current into the sieve.
The canoe flipped, and then I was underwater. I tried to surface, but something was holding me down. I realized that I was under the boat, which was pinned slantwise against the fallen trees. I found the bottom with both feet, bracing myself against the canoe; but the water was too deep for me to stand and reach the surface. So I fought my way clear of the boat, hauled myself to the surface, and breathed. Then I looked for Jerry. He had found a backwater against the bank, where the first tree had fallen. He hauled me over. The water was about chest deep, and Jerry and I got busy grabbing gear. He caught both paddles, and I snagged a couple of yellow waterproof bags which were bobbing and tumbling against the fallen trees like corks. The canoe was half-submerged, poking out of the water at a crazy angle with the bow up over the massive trunks and the stern buried underwater. The open side of the canoe faced the current, and the boat was wedged tight against the sieve. The current kept trying to pull me into the sieve as well, and it took all the strength I had to hold my position. It didn’t look good.
Jerry and I both took a minute to make sure we weren’t injured. Then I grabbed a bag and a paddle, and fought my way upriver to a place on the bank where I could climb out. I shoved the bag and paddle up onto the bank, and pulled myself up after them. Then I eased back into the water and went back for more gear. I got the cooler and the other paddle next. Miraculously, the cooler had remained sealed. So we still had all our food and our beer. After that I made trip after trip, taking more and more of our gear from Jerry (who rescued it from the sieve) and hauling it against the current to the safe spot on the bank. Once we had everything we could find, I pulled out all of the stuff we’d stowed in the “waterproof” bags and drained the riverwater out of the bags and out of our kitchen stuff. Next, I wrung out our sleeping bags. Finally, I made my way barefoot (having lost both of my shoes) through the heavy brush that was laced with poison ivy to the spot on the bank directly above the canoe. We had to get the boat out of that sieve, or it would soon be beaten to pieces. Literally.
Jerry handed me up the bowline, and I braced myself to keep from falling into the sieve. Then I started hauling the canoe out of the river. It felt like trying to lift a bus. But Jerry gamely shoved up from the bottom while I pulled from the top, and we got the canoe out of the current. Then we rolled it to drain out most of the riverwater, and I got the boat up onto the bank. I drained the rest of the water, then carefully lowered the canoe back down to Jerry. He helped me angle the canoe back into the river, where it floated just above where Jerry stood. Finally, I splashed back in just above the boat and hauled it against the current to a sloping spot on the bank above the place where I’d stowed our gear. Jerry, who had been chest-deep in the river helping out the entire time, made his way to the safe spot on the bank. Then we both took a minute to catch our breaths. When we had our wits about us again, we took a rough stock of what we’d managed to save. We were missing some things besides my shoes.
While Jerry started organizing to get ready to repack what we had left, I headed into the river again to try and find some of the things we’d lost. I felt around the trees that made the sieve, carefully searching the tree trunks and the riverbottom within reach. I found one of my lost river shoes (the right one). Then I climbed up onto the bank, slipped back into the river on the far side of the downed trees, and felt around below the sieve. Nothing. After that, I put my river shoe back on and slogged downriver a bit. But there was nothing more to be found. I gave up after a while and returned to Jerry. We made an inventory of all the things the river had taken: one of the waterskins, Jerry’s camp shovel, my left river shoe, the trash bags, and one of the tarps. We also lost the use of Jerry’s camera. It had been hanging from a chord around his neck when the boat flipped, and was now full of water. But neither of us had been injured, and we still had plenty of gear to get us down the river. We had been damn lucky.
We rebagged everything, despite the fact that it was soaked, and reloaded the canoe. I took special care to secure our one remaining waterskin. I thanked Jerry one more time for his quick thinking in saving both our paddles. Then I dragged the canoe upriver in the backwater near the bank. When we’d gotten far enough upriver to make it across the current to the right-hand channel, we shoved off. Then we paddled like hell to to the right bank. After scouting to make sure the righthand channel was clear, we pulled the boat through the very shallow water until it was deep enough to float the boat. Finally, we climbed back into the canoe and headed downriver.
We found a wide gravel island and stopped for the day. Then we unloaded and unbagged everything, and spread it all out to dry. After watching me limp along over the rocks with my one river shoe, Jerry insisted that I take one of his shoes. Luckily, we wear the same size. After a while, Jerry managed to make a kind of shoe out of his fishing bag. He had to pull on the handle as he stepped, but it worked okay. He hobbled around with that rig and did some fishing while I gathered firewood. Despite his fishing-bag-shoe handicap, Jerry actually managed to catch four nice smallmouth bass. Amazing. The island we stopped on was about 100 yards long and about thirty yards wide at its widest point. While Jerry cleaned the fish, I built a campfire. Then I set up the campstove, which was now dried out, and cooked up a delicious hash with the fish Jerry had caught, some canned diced potatoes, sliced fresh tomatoes, and diced fresh onions. I sauteed the mixture in olive oil and seasoned it with soy sauce, basil, salt, and pepper. We washed it down with several much-needed beers.
By the time darkness had started to settle, even our sleeping bags had dried in the sun and the light breeze that had blown all afternoon. We shut everything down for the night and crawled into our bags. After all we’d been through, sleep came easy.
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