Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Things Stupid Kids Do: Episode 2, Part II (The Journey Meanders)

It had never occurred to me that the smiles and words of encouragement I got from fellow undergraduates as I carried a heavy wooden canoe to a river in preparation for a 95 mile "day trip" might be anything but well-wishing. Within four hours of these smiles and words I knew that they were motivated by lust for the prime dormitory space that was on the verge of opening up due to the anticipated deaths of the current occupants.

FYI, a lazy river gets lazier when lazy canoe-ists enter its waters. Bugs (not the nice kind) come out for a lazy brunch (there isn't anyplace to go or hide when you are in the middle of a swarm in the middle of a canoe in the middle of a LAZY river); the lazy sun shines brightest upon the brows of the lazy people sweating lazy drops of sweat which trickle lazily down their damn lazy butt-cracks.

Why the emphasis on indolence? Turns out that four hours of laziness on a lazy river flowing lazily south is enough time to realize that we had made an enormous mistake. Hm, "mistake" isn't a good enough word. There was NO WAY that too lazy kids were going to paddle their lazy asses UP river in the humidity and heat to take-back their commitment to the canoe trip. By this time, we had defaulted into this river wedlock. Locked in. Death, Taxes, This Trip. No deposit, no return. We had traveled beyond the event horizon.

In other words, after a full day of traveling down the river, we finally beached our water craft below the Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park. We climbed the steep bank to the campground area and set up our tent in a place that was least likely to get us caught as non-paying guests of this fine resort. It felt good to have a place to sleep, and cooking up the little bit of prepared food we brought made us feel like Stanley and Livingstone or Lewis and Clark. Those cheap, crappy hot-dogs were outstanding! We dined and mused about our travels thus far. We figured we'd traveled about maybe 30-35 miles of the 95-ish total?

In actuality, it was probably less than 8 miles.

We had finished Day 01 (of 3?) in our grand adventure... ignorance of how little we had actually traveled wasn't exactly bliss; having devoured our provisions, we couldn't help but anticipate how hungry we were probably going to be by the time we got home (in maybe a day and a half?). Had we a GPS tracking device to actually tell us that we had closer to two weeks left to go, we might have panicked a little bit. So that would be bad because it could have distracted us from the class iv rapids we were going to hit mid-morning the next day.

We packed up that morning, relieved we had not been discovered by the park manager, and loaded the canoe with excited anticipation (we had little else to load, having eaten and drank nearly all our supplies). The day was cool but sunny and promised to be excellent for river travels. The water was smooth, gentle, and flowing. What else could we have asked for (except bug spray, drinking water, food, and sun screen)?

The next couple of hours were uneventful except for having to carry our canoe up a steep hill through trees and scrub then over a ridge that marked the eastern bank of the damn we had to get around. (If it hadn't been for the effort, scratches, swearing, sweating, and bruises it took to get around the damn, I wouldn't have spelled it the way I am spelling it.)

At some point as we drifted down the river post-damn, we started to notice that the water was picking up some speed... becoming rapid you might say. Then suddenly we were in it! White frothy water splashing and bouncing us left and right faster and faster usually between the boulders in the river, but sometimes toward them!

My friend sat up front, oar in the water trying to keep us from smashing on the rocks by poking at them, while also screaming navigation pointers like "LEFT!" or sometimes "RIGHT!"

My job in the back of the canoe was to try to steer the tiny craft safely between the obstacles he loudly (and with a slightly panicked tremor in his voice) identified. I couldn't see right in front of us, but I could see further ahead in the river where things were going to be getting a lot worse. There wasn't really a lot of time to think ahead because we were trying our super-duper best to stay in one piece and pointing the right way.

Then it happened. While my friend was screaming instructions, and just as we were heading into the bad spot, I pushed my old wooden oar against a boulder to keep us straight and the oar snapped. In one hand I was suddenly holding a stub of wood (handle and button) while the other hand automatically reached out to grab the blade as it bobbed up from the water. At the time, a significant part of my attention was used up by being impressed that I was able to snatch the broken bit out of the water so readily - I'm sure it looked cool. My friends repeated screaming "Right! RIght! "RIGht" RIGHt! RIGHTRIGHTRIGHTRIGHT!" refocused my attention, but I didn't actually know what to do.

Best I could come up with was to jump ship. I rolled out of the canoe and touched the riverbed pretty easily. My friend had felt the canoe tip when I jumped out and was on board with me being not on board and ended up joining me in the water when he saw the broken paddle. So we were able to physically push the canoe through most of the worst part of the rapids (sometimes having to swim) until finally a safer part of the river showed up. There was a short beach with people doing the whole white-water-rapids experience, plus some picknickers. We walked the canoe to shore and plopped down.

After a few minutes some of the professionals in the water approached us to ask if we were alright. They also offered some food and DRINKS! We accepted and wondered aloud what were were going to do now. We explained that we were on a trip from Plymouth to the Merrimack river close enough to home to be picked up by parents.

"Why?" Asked one of the younger enthusiasts. "To avoid the toll!" was the joke we added...

Mostly this is where we started to internalize exactly how f-ed up this adventure was.

What were the hints?

(1) We were hungry, and were told that our trip is probably going to take a few more days.
(2) We were thirsty, and were told that there were at least four or so more damns we were going to have to bypass. One of which for sure was going to be tough to do. (We kinda thought we did that one already, but no, that was the easiest one of them all.)
(3) We were told that these rapids were "nothing" compared to what was further down the river.
(4) The looks on the faces of the people with more experience than us... Like they wanted to memorize all of our features so they could remember us when they saw our obituaries in the news later. Or, if they ended up finding us drowned and down-river.
(5) The incredibly generous gift that they gave us! An aluminum replacement paddle! I remember asking if they were sure that they could part with it, and I was told it was just an emergency paddle. Not a very good one or one they would want to rely on because it was slightly bent. My friend and I looked it over carefully and were unable to detect even the slightest defect. That really made us feel ignorant and marked for a watery death.

This is where smarter people would have called it a day, phoned parents for a pickup, and gone on with their lives. But we were embarrassed and just wanted to get out of there. So we jumped back in our canoe and headed on down the river. Neither of us wanting to be the one to pull the plug on the adventure, but probably both wishing the other would.

After about two more hours of lazy floating, baking, and feeding small insects, the horrors of our near-death experience were forgotten like a boring dream. In fact, the trip was exactly becoming just like a boring dream. We didn't have a lot to say to each other at this point (I'm not much of a conversationalist anyway) and the river had gone pretty wide, meaning the river wasn't flowing all that fast. Most of our paddling was side to side to escape the larger swarms of biting bugs.

Then we saw something odd above the trees down the river. A giant plume of black smoke and a blue helicopter circling around it. The river was slowly bringing us to the end of our trip, which coincidentally would also be our next near-death experience.