To celebrate our anniversaries, my wife and I have agreed to alternate between romantic getaways and outdoor adventures. She, the hopeless romantic, prefers the former while I, the hopeless, prefer the latter, but we both just really prefer to be together. Two years ago, we celebrated by camping and canoeing the Greenbrier River. Last year, I planned a romantic getaway which included seeing a performance of Macbeth at the American Shakespeare Center and a day–long visit to Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello. Based on the rotation, this year was again time for an outdoor adventure.
Most years, only the two of us celebrate. Anniversaries are special moments between husband and wife. Although our children are a vital part of our love, our marriage, and our family, our anniversary trips are just for us – until this year. Due to unforeseen circumstances, both of our boys would be celebrating with us. Not quite as romantic as we had hoped, but still… we were going to have a good time.
I’m a planner. I like knowing the whats, whens, wheres and whys of everything. But with potential severe weather, several unknowns in our plans, and a wide variety of possible activities, I decided to enjoy this adventure “by the seat of my pants.” I can still hear my wife laughing at me every time I said this phrase. After four years, she knows me better than I do. We planned to camp at the New River Campground at the confluence of the New and Gauley Rivers, paddle the New, paddle the Gauley, and then leave for another campsite along the Elk River.
On Tuesday, as we drove to the campground, Misti repeatedly checked the weather forecast. Severe thunderstorms were rapidly approaching the Gauley Bridge area, ensuring that the entire campground would be drenched. With a 16’ Mad River canoe strapped to the roof of the Honda, two boxes and a cooler strapped to the hitch–haul, the entire cargo area packed tightly with camping gear and a week’s worth of clothing (including a wedding dress) and food, and two boys strapped in their seats, I eased the peddle a bit closer to the floor as we straightened the curves of a highway through the mountains. We arrived well before the storm. We off–loaded the Honda, pitched the tent, and prepared for the worst. I used 550 parachute cord (click here to read about the many uses of paracord) to attach a tarpaulin over the center of the campsite, providing us a semi–dry area for our gear when the storm arrived.
After feeling confident that we were ready for adverse weather, I built a fire and proceeded to grill franks for hot dogs. Just as the franks reached a perfect crispy brown exterior, the wind swept through the valley. The cold rain drops fell on my boonie hat (click here to read about boonie hats for outdoor adventures) and arms as I carried the hot dogs to the makeshift shelter. Although a bit cramped under my small tarp, the dinner was a success. Our family grew closer as we sat huddled together eating hot dogs while the wind and the rain engulfed the valley.
I was intent on paddling the canoe, but due to the severe weather and camping/fatherly/husbandly duties, I accepted defeat for the day.
On Wednesday, we awoke at 6am for some family fishing by the campsite. Between storms we managed to catch several decent small mouth bass. After a bit of fishing, we enjoyed a breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, and sausage cooked over an open fire. Shortly thereafter, I finally got my way. We eased the canoe into the murky waters of the New River and began paddling towards the opposite side to an area that locals call “catfish heaven.” I’ve spent many nights along these river banks and was excited to show my family my boyhood stomping grounds. After paddling across the New and docking on the other side, I pointed out various features that I thought the family would find interesting. “Here’s where I dropped a Mag–Lite into a deep pool and left it overnight. The next morning, we got it out, put new batteries in it, and believe it or not, it actually worked. Here’s where my grandfather, my uncle, my cousin, and I got hungry camping one night and grilled the crawfish we caught for bait.” I left out the part that we had been drinking.
“Were they good?”
“No.” I said laughing. “But we ate them.”
“Over here is where I spent a day chasing an otter along the rocks. And here’s where Italian stoneworkers carved pictures into the boulder (click here to read about and see pictures of the carvings).” As I continued my dissertation on New River history, my wife interrupted. I loathe being interrupted, but in this instance, my wife was justified. “Hey, baby. I think it’s getting ready to rain.”
From my vantage point, I couldn’t see the darkness consuming the valley and couldn’t see the virtual wall of water falling from the sky just downriver. I stepped over onto a rock outcropping and commanded, “Go get to the canoe. Go NOW!”
Within a minute, we were floating atop the New River’s wind–chopped surface. I turned the canoe and paddled toward the campground. Misti paddled harder than I’ve ever seen her paddle. The big waters of the New make her nervous, and the impending storm made her nervousness much more apparent. We had crossed about a third of the river when the first drop hit my arm. I smiled. And then the heavens released their fury upon us. The rain crashed down on our family as we tried to paddle across the rest of the river. Within seconds, my shirt was soaked… then my hat… then my shorts… then every part of my existence was covered with water. I silently laughed. We were all drenched with the frigid water falling from the sky. I looked up at my sons and wife who were all dripping with water and paddling for dear life, and I began to chuckle. The chuckle turned to laughter then turned to an all out cackling which echoed across the valley. Misti called back, a bit frustrated, “What are you laughing about?”
I just kept cackling as we approached the riverbank, docked the canoe, and dashed to camp. Of course, I hadn’t expected rain so I didn’t prepare our campsite before leaving. The tarp was hanging on a makeshift clothesline (another of the many uses of 550 cord.) Our folding chairs were all left without shelter. Much of our clothing and foodstuffs were left out on the picnic table. It was all waterlogged. I ripped the tarp from the clothesline and re–assembled our humble shelter. Although we were still drenched, we were at least out of the stinging rain. As we sat there, nearly shivering, my son asked, “Daddy, why were you laughing?” He was a bit scared of the storm and the river and couldn’t understand the humor his old man saw in the situation.
“Son (yes, I call him “son” most of the time), sometimes all you can do is laugh.” I could have been angry. I could have cursed the trip, the storm, the canoe, or worse yet, the river. But why? How could cursing or acting like a fool have made us any drier or changed anything about the day? In fact, I cherished the storm. With its unexpected challenges, my family and I will have a canoeing experience that we’ll never forget.
The rain finally subsided enough that we could build a roaring fire. We all sat huddled beside it, enjoying the warmth and enjoying peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and enjoying the closeness a family can only find when huddled underneath a tarp in front of a fire.
Later in the evening, well after reorganizing camp and setting our gear in the sun’s warmth to dry, we walked to the other end of the campground where a relatively nice and clean bathhouse awaited. The boys were filthy, and Misti and I needed to be presentable. We had plans for the evening.
We are fortunate to have a professional photographer in the family. Misti’s brother’s wife (or our sister–in–law), Holly Aldridge, is a professional photographer (About to Snap Photography) and agreed to take anniversary photos for us. They were already at the campsite when we returned from the showers and agreed to watch the boys while we changed.
Misti and I stepped into the tent and were alone for the first time of our anniversary trip. As we changed into our more formal camping clothes, I couldn’t help but notice that we were finally alone. But she said no.
I changed into the clothes that I wore when we were married four years prior – khaki trousers, white dress shirt, and Birkenstock sandals. Misti slipped into her wedding dress and stepped back out of the tent. She was just as beautiful along the banks of the New River as she was four years before as we said our vows along the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean.
I’ll not detail the photography process. First off, the details would probably be boring to most of you, and second, I think the photos speak for themselves. Holly’s work was spectacular, and I am amazed at how great the photos are. My only complaint is that Holly must have had some type of technical glitch with her cameras. I’m not sure if it was an f–stop setting or an aspect ratio, but whatever it was, it seemed to make us look a bit heavier than we thought we actually were. Maybe it was all the hot dogs over the past few months.
As evening approached, we started receiving texts from my mother–in–law that severe storms were headed our way. We again moved all of our gear under the shelter and rechecked the tent stakes to make sure we wouldn’t blow away. When the storms were near (and after I finished my cigar), we gave up any notion of a nice evening by the campfire and climbed into the tent for the night. Shortly thereafter, the rain came. And when I say rain, I don’t mean a light drizzle that moistens the grass. I mean a “gully–washing, river–raising, don’t look up or you’ll drown” rain. At one point, it was so loud that we could barely hear each other. Over the continuous patter, Misti said, “I think the tent is leaking. I just felt a drop on my back.”
“Yeah. It’s definitely leaking. I just felt a drop on my face.” We talked back and forth about where the rain was hitting us until finally Misti requested that we give up on camping for the week. “Well, I guess you can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the girl” I quipped as I debated her request. We had plans to canoe several rivers – all of which were now muddy and rising. We had planned to camp for three or four more nights, but with a leaking tent and three or four more days and nights of forecasted severe storms, I agreed to her request. At 3am, with rain pounding on our tent and dripping on our faces, I decided that sometimes plans just don’t work and that you have to make decisions by the seat of your pants – we would leave in the morning.
We loaded our muddy gear and tent into the car, affixed the canoe and boxes, and drove by the seat of our pants back to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to enjoy the rest of our anniversary trip at home.
How about you? Are you a planner? Has Mother Nature ever forced you to live by the seat of your pants? Have you ever been caught out in the rain? If so, I’d love to hear about it!