And then, three nights ago, with no fanfare or fuss, no bustle or bedlam, she made her graceful exit. Slowly, silently, on a beach on the Tennessee border, she slipped into the night. In water gently lapping against the eroding sands in rising water, she gradually headed southwards. Pausing on rocks, swaying in the current, she carried on without us.
We awoke early, pre-dawn, ready for another 50 mile day. We were averaging over 50, and had spend a lovely evening on this remote island beach enjoying the sunset. “Enjoyment!” we had remarked – “it’s so good to have fun!” The past few days had been hard, with slow current or no current, and long hours in the boat. But this island was perfect. We had had a great day – paddling across Kentucky. We watched the leafless trees in Tennessee turn purple and pink under the setting sun, made a fire, and listened to Christmas music on a local radio station. We went to sleep content.
When we awoke, we joked about the canoe being gone, as we often do. I unzipped the tent and looked out over the Great River, in its pre-dawn twilight. Something was wrong – suddenly the Great River was much closer than I remembered. And it was moving much faster. The night before, we had been sheltered by a rock wall, a dyke erected by the Army Corp. There had been no current; it was virtually a slough. But now – the river was at least 10 feet closer to our tent. Where we had sat by our campfire the night before, driftwood was gently lapping against the shore. The beach was gone. The water rushed over the rock dyke. And the canoe was gone.
With our headlamps, me with my boots on backwards, we ran, stumbling, down the length of the island. The island was small – maybe a half mile by 15 yards wide. It was mostly sand, with a few trees higher up where the sand hadn’t eroded. Tortuously, we could see a canoe-shaped glimpse of white shining in the distance, downriver. It glided backwards and forwards, taunting us. Kevin considered swimming for it, but thought better of it. I’m glad he did. The canoe mirage slowly disappeared.
We took stock of the situation. Georgette gone. All our camera equipment: gone. Our laptop: gone. Our water supply: gone. Our “utility bag”: gone. And more frivolous things – our salted nuts! Our favourite baseball cap! Our energy drinks! My sunglasses!
We weren’t sure what to do. Were we in trouble? Did we actually need help? The shipping channel, where the barges travel, was a half mile across the river.
As we realized the canoe shaped mirage was slipping out of our fingers, we became more desperate. When a barge went by, we jumped and waved and flailed, waving Kevin’s inside out CBC hoodie as a white flag. It blew its whistle, but evidently didn’t take us seriously.
As the day passed, we signaled more barges. No-one noticed. Our minds raced with ideas to help ourselves.We made a signal fire, used white garbage bags from Alison in Grafton to make distress flags, wrote SOS is sharpie on my orange air mattress, waved around a washed up detergent bottle (it was bright yellow). We yelled for help, jumped, flailed. Nothing.
We let Mississippi water sit so the silt could filter down, then scooped it off the top and boiled it – and boiled it well. We made lunch, not sure how much to ration our food.
Throughout the day, the water level continued to rise. We made marks in the sand. One after another, they disappeared. We made new ones, higher and higher. They always disappeared. The whole beach was gone. We had to move our signal fire. We moved our tent to higher ground and tried to ignore the irrational worries that the water might sweep the whole island away. Driftwood piled high against the trees at the highest point – where it had been left behind in higher water years as the water blew by in a fury.
Painfully slowly, one after another, at least fifteen barges made their way past us. As the night set in, some were lit up with Christmas lights. Civilization so close, yet so far!
We went to sleep worried, and lamenting the loss of so many material things. What would happen to our trip? Our goals?
I slept fitfully, as the wind picked up and it began to rain - our second night on the island. Would the water rise more? And another worry – our tent poles snapped in the cold not long ago. Fixed with a curled-up lid from a can of beans and some duct tape, it wasn’t a permanent solution. (and our duct tape: gone). The tent became more of a lean-to.
I woke up many times to lean out of the tent and check the water levels. Rising, but not engulfing. I tried to plug my ears and ignore the sounds of waves crashing.
We awoke in more disbelief. I should add: we were calm and safe, but even after only 24 hours, the forced isolation seems caging. We felt dumb. So many tiny simple mistakes! So many what-ifs. So many if-we-had-onlys.
We decided to flag down more barges, taking turns so the circumstances looked more dire if we were spotted. We thought we might try to swim for mainland the next day (painfully only about 50 yards away, then a good fifteen mile walk to any semblance of a town). Early in the morning, a barge blew its whistle again, but hours passed and nothing happened.
As Kevin sat with our SOS sign and out white flag at one end, I sat at the other. In a lawn chair we pulled out of the sand, one plastic leg snapped but repaired carefully with a 2×4 and screws. Staring out at the cresting waves, I felt lonely. All was fine, even oddly fun, until I sat there as time passed by slowly, just thinking. How much longer? Was anyone looking for us? Would we ever find the canoe? Would we find our camera equipment? Remoteness, desolation, time alone – all can be fun… when they feel optional.
When Kevin returned late in the afternoon, he had one foot in the tent when we heard a high pitched whir. An airplane?
A speed boat!
I ran out of the tent barefoot, flailing and waving like a madman. Kevin held the SOS sign high. The speedboat was going fast – past us. It seemed like a mirage, but it looked like it was slowing. A few tears of relief came to my eyes as it turned towards us. We flailed and waved until it was only a few feet away, not wanting to let go of this chance. I ran out into the water to greet them, wet and cold but not caring.
I have never been so happy to see four men in blue jeans and camo in all my life. With a mixture of war-like face paint, baseball caps, and grim faces, they were more than a bit intimidating. Over the loud engines and the ever-increasing gusts of wind, they said “y’all lost yer boat?” “hurry up”
We threw all of our camp in a frenzy into bags and carried it to the boat. An unspoken understanding – they were rescuing us. At one point I yelled over the engines “Are you hunters?”
I was confused, but with very few other words, and in a matter of minutes, we climbed up into the giant army-green tank of a speed boat and were crashing over the waves at top speed. Silently, we headed down the river.
To be continued! (but we’re fine!)