On the River
The day arrived with a hint of coolness in the humid air that would burn off by late morning. We didn’t hurry. We would float the river mid-morning, pull out at the farm and drive to Will’s grandparents’ house. We’d be in plenty of time for dinner in the afternoon. The idea of dinner made my palms sweat. Will had spent most of his childhood with his grandparents, Jordan and Caroline. He was their adored first grandchild, his grandfather’s namesake and his grandmother’s pride. She would be looking at me with the keenest appraising eye on the planet: the scrutiny of Southern lady fixed with laser precision on the girl with designs on her dearest. Appearances mattered. I ditched my usual ratty t-shirt and cut-offs for a nice white blouse and madras Bermuda shorts, topped off with a straw hat adorned with a fake white chrysanthemum. And my good Birkenstocks. Don’t judge. It was the ‘80’s. Truthfully, a zebra-striped leotard would have been more suitable for the river than that get-up. But it was a lovely day, and recollections of punting on the Thames with a mop-haired English almost-gentleman floated through my head. The green Saluda with my intended would be even better.
Miraculously the shuttle plan went off smoothly and we arrived at the put-in at Buzzard’s Roost as the sun began to heat the muddy banks. The buzzards were ripe. For reasons unknown to the non-avian world, any buzzard in a twenty mile radius hangs out in the trees at that spot with dozens of its closest friends. The smell of carrion drifts along the breeze for a mile. At least they weren’t circling. We slid canoe on the muddy bank, and I daintily stepped in, saving my good Birkenstocks from the mud. Will hopped into the stern. The duct tape held! We were seaworthy. Jon gave us a shove off the bank and a thumbs-up, probably laughing his ass off all the way to the truck. We were off. The river was beautiful that day. We pushed out into the current, paddles working in fluid concert. The sunshine and water gleaming silver off the paddles, the light resistance in the dip-and-swing of paddling, and the synergy with my partner felt beautiful. My psyche took a long stretch and settled, relaxing into the rhythm. Soon we had rounded a bend and out of sight.
Wildlife in and along the river is abundant. The banks are green with trees: oak, sourwood, poplar, willow, and wax myrtle curve low branches over the water. Hardwoods and pines climb the bluffs. A canoe slips quietly through the water, giving little disturbance to the daily goings-on on the river. Yellow pine warblers flit in groups through the pines, cardinals fight in a flurry of red wings over the berries on the wax myrtles. We paddled a little ways further until we spotted a blue heron standing one-legged in the cattails close to the bank. We lifted our paddles and drifted as the heron stood stock-still, stalking minnows. The canoe put us nearly eye-to-eye and we sat silent, marveling at the steely blue feathers, the sinuous neck and long bill perfectly designed for hunting. The canoe drifted closer and before we could get a paddle in to correct he spotted us, unfurled wide wings and flew. He landed, highly offended, on the opposite bank.
We paddled on, and we moved downriver among broad rocks and eddies. Rows of cooters lined the rocks and logs, sunning themselves. The water was growing shallower, and I looked into the water, hoping to spot the silver flash of a bass or the broad head of a catfish. I was rewarded with the swirl of a school of minnows boiling the water in a shallow spot near a rock. A rock. Dang, nobody was paying attention. The hull scraped along the rocks but Will got a paddle on in time and pushed us off before we grounded. Eyeing the bank I noticed erosion exposing tree roots several feet from the water. The water level was low, and as we moved downriver was getting lower. The current began to disappear, and we had to work harder, maneuvering together to avoid the rocks and stay in deeper water. This was work. The thick branches and brush hemmed us in, and we were ducking to avoid the low limbs reaching across what little deep water remained. There is another kind of abundant wildlife along the Saluda. Snakes. A swimming snake is mesmerizing to watch, head just above the surface, body undulating in waves behind it, the head fixed in its direction and miraculously steady despite the rippling motion. Fascinating, until its direction becomes fixed on you. Thick black water moccasins love rivers. They swim, hunt, and drape themselves in ropy loops from the low-hanging branches. A bite puts you in the hospital. Sodom on the Saluda is a long way from a hospital. You see where I’m going with this. Hit the wrong branch and it’s moccasin death from above raining down on your head. In an open canoe you don’t have much in the way of self-defense from a snake in the boat. NB: if you are in possession of a shotgun and moccasin death from above rains down into your boat, restrain yourself. Pee yourself. Grab a paddle and fling it overboard. Do not shoot the snake. One family member, and I will not name took up arms and blasted a snake to oblivion. Victory over the snake. However, a shotgun blast will seriously compromise the integrity of your vessel. He and his fishing buddy could swim, but the shotgun took a hit. Fortunately there were to be no snake attacks on us this trip.
Are We There Yet?
Unfortunately, the river got shallower and shallower until we were drawing a couple of inches of water. Portage time. Definitely not punting-on-the-Thames. The good Birkenstocks were toast. The white blouse was sticking to the sweat running down my back. To our credit there was minimal cursing and infighting and we made our way in a slow muddy slog up the river. We’d find a stretch of deeper water and paddle without the aid of a current. The pleasant stretch in my arms became an ache, then a burn. In a stroke of genius, we had decided to save ourselves the trouble of hauling water. We’d only be out a couple of hours after all. The sun that had been beating down overhead, sunning the cooters on the logs and making the snakes happy, was frying us. It was also beginning to skim the tops of the trees. A couple of hours had long come and gone. We were hot, thirsty, muddy, and I had no clue where we were. I was certain that my intended who had grown up on this river knew it like the back of his hand and would soon guide us to the farm. I was one-third right on that. When I asked, ever so gently where the f*()K we were and when the f())()&k we’d be where we were going, he reminded me of his congenital lack of a sense of direction. He looked around at the tree-lined banks, that to my bleary eye looked just like all the others, scratched his head and announced that some rocks looked familiar. The “soon” part was not to be. We were still in his estimation an hour or so yet. Maybe. He was unperturbed, and although wishing for a cold beer seemed pretty amused at our situation. I’m sure he was mostly amused at the now-bedraggled white chrysanthemum drooping from my hat, ornamented by a few leaves left over from branches that had been whacking me in the head. I felt my sense of humor evaporate. I was officially, seriously over it.
It was not pretty. Finally, muddy, sweaty, exhausted and bug-bit, we reached the bluff above the river at the farm. Thanking the river gods I forgot I was exhausted and we hauled the canoe up the bank with the strength of ten, plus three (sorry Dr. Seuss). The canoe was intact, duct-tape and all, and in much better shape than we. In fact, it seemed to be mocking us. We ditched it and started through the woods along the path that would take us to the car. The car! Air conditioning! Warm beer! Just through the woods, to the edge of the field, and . . .no car. At that time in my life you could say that I was struggling with a barely contained rage problem. The rage problem broke through its flimsy container. My companion stood slack-jawed, and his good nature dissolved into his rage problem. We must have parked farther down. Back we went into the woods, thrashing around at the edge of the fields. It was beginning to get dark, and if it got dark were screwed a thousand ways. We scrambled through some tall brush and broke out into a road. Up the road a little ways was the car! The car! And parked next to it a beat-up Toyota pickup, with Jordan, Will’s grandfather, leaning against the hood. His strong-featured face looked set and stern as usual, but his eyes twinkled and smile hung at the corners of his mouth. “When ya’ll didn’t show up for a couple of hours and we didn’t hear from you, I figured I’d better come looking.” He knew his grandchildren well. Much of his free time was spent in the truck or on a tractor, hauling vehicles out of the mud. Well up in eighty, he was wiry, strong, and got things done directly. Directly meant using as much firepower at his disposal, quickly, without regard for consequences. He lit fires by splashing a mason jar of diesel fuel in the fireplace and tossing in a match. Singe an eyebrow and it’s your own damn fault. He looked at us with amusement and a dash of impatience at our sheer stupidity. We made sure the car started. It wasn’t stuck, thank the river gods. Beat and bedraggled, we crept into the car and a wave of intense relief washed over me. And the air conditioning. He climbed back in the truck and took off. We hauled to keep up and followed him out.