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 trip.
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.
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.
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?"
I’m holding the canoe!" I shouted back.
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
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
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
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 and…cheerful.
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 that one.