I didn’t notice the continual sound of the shoals just upriver from us. I didn’t notice the birds flittering in the thick green bushes along the river bank. I didn’t notice the sun beating upon my bare shoulders. My entire focus was on watching the rest of the family as they paddled from the eddy and into the current. I didn’t expect the river to be especially dangerous, but it was moving – fast! With the current so strong, I found it difficult to keep the canoe moving upstream as the remainder of the family floated nearer to me. At least until I was sure that the children were comfortable (they were all a bit apprehensive about the trip), I wanted them all close to me and the canoe. Had there been trouble, I could have dove into the water, leaving Misti with the canoe, and rescued any unintentional swimmers. I didn’t expect trouble, but still… my spidey senses were tingling.
The first mile of the trip was fast moving. After the initial anxiety dissipated, we all enjoyed riding the current. I think Aaron and Holly had a difficult time fishing because they were moving so fast, but the children loved it – they didn’t have to paddle. In fact, throughout the first mile, we only used our paddles to steer. No need for propulsion.
I yelled back from the stern of the Mad River to the Old Town paddlers, “You guys doin’ OK?”
Aaron replied, “Yeah. We’re good. It looks we could swim at this island in front of us.”
Paddle as I might, I couldn’t get the canoe across and upriver enough to reach the island. “We’ll have to find somewhere else.” If I couldn’t paddle to the island, the kids surely couldn’t. We gave up and floated downstream.
Shortly after the island, the river’s current seemed to disappear. Suddenly, we found ourselves paddling for every inch of distance across vast expanses of flat water. Misti and I turned the canoe upstream and floated, watching the rest of the family playfully paddle and fish. These are the moments I enjoy. Of course, I like paddling. I like fishing. I like covering long stretches of water. And I love rapids. But watching my family and friends enjoy themselves is what I find most enjoyable about time spent on a lazy river. We all had our own ideas of fun and we all were left to our own freedom to do so. My oldest daughter paddled close to the shore, watching for birds, mammals, and reptiles. The three middle children paddled close together, talking and laughing. Aaron, Holly, and their youngest fished continuously while Misti, Turtle, and I just stared at the river as it passed below us.
Just as Norm Maclean writes in “A River Runs Through It”, I, too, am haunted by waters. I have fallen madly in love with every river I’ve ever paddled. The Elk, the Gauley, the Greenbrier, the Shenandoah, and especially the New River all have a place in this sentimental old woodsman’s heart. Now I was adding the Potomac to my list. There’s just something about the seemingly infinite nature of rivers that calls to me. I love the small streams that gurgle down a draw between mountains. I love the raging spring rivers and their enormous power. I love the rapids and the excitement they bring. I love the distance they cover. I love their history. And I love lazy meandering rivers which seem to have no particular destination in mind. Instead, they just mosey along, waiting to see what happens next.
We kept looking for an appropriate place to swim, but had little success. The water was deep, and the shore line was either too steep or too overgrown for us to dock. The children became restless. “Daddy, I need a break.”
“I know. Me too. I’m looking for a place to stop.”
“Daddy, can I have a snack?”
“Yeah. Just as soon as I find a place to stop.” It was getting ridiculous. None of our kids are overly prone to whining, but after nearly two hours of paddling in the sun, they were all ready to give up on our family fun.
As we rounded a bend in the river, we saw twenty or so kayaks about four–hundred yards downstream. “We’ll stop there. They’re either swimming or it’s a dock. Either way, we’re stopping.” Misti, Turtle, and I approached the dock first. A man paddled his kayak close to shore and seemed friendly enough. “Excuse me, sir. Sorry to bother you. Is this ramp public or private?”
“As far as I know, it’s public. I think it’s a Park Service ramp.”
It was. After finishing our trip and looking at the map, I discovered that we had probably stopped at Snyders Landing. We got out of our vessels and enjoyed stretching our legs and backs. We ate the few snacks we had and drank our Gatorade and water. Some of us played in the shallow water just in front of the ramp. While the children were occupied, I asked the man from the kayak if he knew how much further to Antietam Creek.
“Ahhh. I’d say about seven miles.”
Oh, shit! The kids are already tapping out and we’re not even half way yet. I pulled Misti, Aaron, and Holly aside and told them the news. “We’d better pick up the paddling speed. I don’t know how much longer the kids are gonna be able to hang with us.” Of course, the kids heard us talking – or maybe I told them, I don’t remember which – and discovered that we still had seven miles to go. I watched the life drain out of them, drip onto the boat ramp, and flow into the river. They were exhausted and expected us to be close to home. “Well, no point in whining about it. Let’s just get going.”
We paddled much quicker than before – always encouraging the kids to keep up in their kayaks. They’d lag behind either due to their exhaustion or because they wanted privacy to complain about their parents making them paddle for twelve miles. Regardless of the cause of their falling behind, I’d yell back to them, “Keep paddling! Less talking. More paddling.” I knew the more distance we covered before they grew too tired to paddle the better.
As we paddled en masse down the river, my oldest daughter – by far the toughest child I’ve ever known – paddled close to us in the canoe. She was crying. “I don’t feel good. I can’t do it.” Had it been any of our other children, I probably would have told them to toughen up and keep paddling, but I knew she had been a bit under the weather due to allergies and probably felt genuinely bad. I unhooked my dry box which I keep connected with carabiners and parachute cord (yet another of the many uses of para cord) and used the cord to hook her kayak to the stern of our canoe. It helped some, but she continued to cry.
She floated behind us and paddled as best as she could while continuing to cry. As a father, one of the worst things you can witness is a daughter crying. I’m not talking about a whiney cry because she’s not getting her way. I blow those off frequently. I mean a genuine cry. It pains a father’s heart like nothing else. Watching my daughter cry as she tried to paddle hard enough to keep up was miserable.
As soon as we rounded another bend, Aaron and Holly pointed out a decent place to eddy out and adjust our paddling plans. All of the little ones were exhausted and needed a break.
I untied all of the knots I used for connecting my dry box to assess how much cord I had at my disposal. Not nearly enough. I debated using fishing line but knew it wasn’t strong enough to pull a kayak. While I debated which children should paddle and which needed a tow, a thought occurred to me – why not pull the inner lining out of the para cord? It would surely be strong enough. Instead of six feet of para cord, I now had eighteen. I tied the kayaks in line with the canoes – two per canoe. I finished Aaron’s convoy first. Aaron, Holly, and their two girls would ride in the canoe while pulling my son and an empty kayak. While they waited, I tied our convoy together. We would paddle with Misti, Turtle, my oldest daughter and myself in the canoe while pulling my youngest daughter and another empty kayak behind us.
Just as I was finishing, I looked over at Misti. Before I go any further, you should know that Misti has been terrified of any water where she can’t see the bottom since she was fifteen–years–old. At that tender age, she was swimming in the Atlantic and had a leg ripped to shreds by a sting ray. I had already mentioned to her several times before that I was proud of her for overcoming her fears. Just as I looked at her, she and I both saw a rather large water snake drop from the bank and swim right beside her. The snake was close to four feet long, thick, brown, and carried a small fish in its mouth. I expected Misti to run in place so fast that she would run across the surface of the water like an old Saturday morning cartoon. Instead, she stood still and allowed the snake to pass by her without any visible anxiety. To be honest, had I been that close to the snake, I probably would have screamed like a girl and jumped into the canoe.
With Aaron’s canoe and two kayak convoy and my canoe and two kayak convoy, I’m sure we looked ridiculous paddling down the river, but we continued onward. Surprisingly, the two kayaks behind the canoes weren’t nearly as bad as I had expected. I’m not sure if they helped with tracking or if they were just light on the water (even with one child behind each canoe), but we paddled relatively easily through the water.
We paddled across deep pools where the water was a deep green for as far down as you could see. We paddled across expanses of shallow water where the water looked brown above the rocks along the bottom of the river. And we paddled through a few shoals. I enjoy paddling through shoals, and I enjoy paddling through rapids. Normally, I long for such adventure, but with four people in each canoe and dragging one child and one empty kayak behind us, I was a bit nervous. Canoes don’t steer as well when dragging anything behind them. Furthermore, tipping with five people is a much more difficult rescue operation than tipping with two or three people. “Everyone sit still.” I stood in the stern of the canoe, looking forward to read the river and decide on the best path. Although the shoals weren’t large, nor were they difficult, I didn’t want to drag too much on the rocks. With so much weight in the canoe, we would surely roll if we hung on a rock in fast moving water. I sat back down, paddled a bit closer, stood, and commanded again. “Sit still. I’m standing again.”
For the first few sets of shoals, the path was easy to find. Follow the inverted “v” right through the fastest moving water. No problem. The last set of shoals though, were a bit more of a difficult read. The width of the river seemed to be one wide shoal with no discernible path. I stood, looking for any indication of a “v” but saw nothing. “I think we just hit it head on and hope for the best.”
We made it through with little trouble. They were small shoals and easily navigable. After the shoals, we found ourselves again in flat water. Fortunately, the views were especially beautiful through this stretch of river. We saw a woman and two men wading near the shore. “Do you guys know how close we are to Antietam Creek?”
“Ahhh. I don’t know. Maybe a mile–and–a–half.”
We paddled harder, wishing they would have said fifty yards.
The next group we saw were three younger guys fishing. “Hey, guys. How much farther to Antietam Creek?”
“Probably about two miles.”
Now we had paddled a long ways since the last people indicated one–and–a–half miles. How in the hell were we further away now? We speculated that the next people we asked would tell us three or four more miles.
We continued paddling and realized that we were getting close. We slowed to an occasional paddle, allowing Aaron and Holly an opportunity to reel in a few decent smallmouths. While they were fishing, I scanned the shoreline, looking for an indication of our campground. “Hey, baby.” I called forward to Misti. “I think we’re close. I’m pretty sure that fallen tree is just upstream of our campsite.” She looked and agreed with my logic. Suddenly, the two vessels of the Pirates of the Potomac were in a heated race to our campsite. We all paddled as hard as we could. Mine and Misti’s canoe convoy paddled into the area first, but mis–shot the actual take–out point. I tried turning us and paddling forward as I watched Aaron and Holly’s convoy pull into victory lane.
We were finally off the river.
The wives and children remained at the campsite while Aaron and I returned to Taylors Landing to retrieve my Honda. On the way back to camp, I received a text from Misti that read only, “Hey.” I know when I get a text that only reads “hey” that I’m in for something. She’s either going to ask me something that she knows I won’t like or she’s going to give me some bad news. I called immediately.
“Well, it’s six–o’clock. If we drive back to the house to pick up food, it’s going to be eight or nine before we eat. I don’t think we can wait that long.” I immediately thought of my Dale’s Steak Sauce–Marinated pork chops, the potatoes, the onions, the soy sauce with onion powder–marinated broccoli, and my birthday cake in our home kitchen. “Could you just stop at that barbecue place we saw on the way and pick up something to eat?”
“Yeah. I can do that.” I mumbled as I tried to forget those perfectly grilled pork chops. I stopped and bought two pounds of barbecue, ten buns, baked beans, and some of the best cole slaw I’ve ever eaten from a barbecue truck on the side of the road. Even if I didn’t get to grill my chops over an open fire, dinner was a success. We ate well again.
After dinner, the adults sat by the fire – resting our aching bodies, while the children chased lightening bugs near the campsite. Even though they were exhausted, the little ones were happy to be off the river. They ran, played, and giggled until we called them back for campfire stories and s’mores.
For the night’s story, I chose Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell–Tale Heart” – a story I read yearly to my family. If you’re not familiar with the story, it’s about a man who goes mad, kills his benefactor, hacks him into pieces, and hides him under the floorboards. I’ve read it multiple times and have grown adept at providing emphasis where needed to really draw my children into the story. I allow my voice to grow shakier and louder as the narrator delves further into madness, pulling the children in and giving them a rather scary experience – perfect for nights at a campsite. As I read along and my voice grew shakier and more intense, two bright headlamps fell upon me. “Hey, guys. Sorry to bother you. Is there a place to camp around here?” Two bikers had just arrived at the campground and wanted to know where to camp.
I glared up at them from my book. “Yeah. You can camp just up the road here. There’s plenty of available sites.”
“Oh, cool. Thanks. Hey, what are you reading?”
“Edgar Allan Poe. A Tell–Tale Heart.”
Yeah. It would be if you weren’t interrupting with your bright white lights.
Oh, well. What could I do? I finished the story as best as I could and moved on with the night. The children made s’mores, asked if they could stay up a little later, were told “no,” and went to bed. The adults stayed awake for a few hours – Misti, Aaron, and Holly telling stories and laughing while I puffed away at my Montecristo. After our conversation about the campfire and fire management, I expressed my dreams of making a living on a river – any river. “Man, if I could just figure out a way to make money canoeing, I’d die a happy man.”
We awoke early to a chilly Sunday morning. We added a few stray twigs and branches to the previous night’s embers, breathed life into them, and warmed ourselves by the fire. While we enjoyed a few minutes of peace, Aaron and Holly seemed to be throwing their gear into their truck. Misti and I followed suit, packing our gear back into our boxes and bags then into our Honda. As I loaded the gear into the car and onto the trailer, I could almost smell the charcoal smoke as it wafted around my pork chops and broccoli.
We sped home and arrived well before lunchtime. While Aaron and his family showered, I lit the charcoal on the Weber Kettle and relaxed on the back deck. As soon as the grill was ready, I laid the chops and the broccoli over the coals, waiting patiently for them to reach perfection. Once again, we ate well. All of us were fat and happy after devouring multiple pork chops, grilled broccoli, boiled ears of corn, and a big French Baguette. After finishing my birthday meal, Misti presented me with my birthday cake while the rest of the crew sang “Happy Birthday” to me.
As far as birthday celebrations, this one was perhaps a bit out of the ordinary, but a weekend of camping and paddling is just the type of celebration this woodsman enjoys.