Life's important lessons are most memorable when firmly imprinted in association with a really, really close-shave…
The Mississippi had been a challenging paddle. A broiling Midwestern summer was in full swing, now more than a month into the adventure. Thunderstorms had become a routine afternoon spectacle, an enjoyable thrill to watch rolling in off of the plains. Humidity levels became tropical. The atmosphere proved an incredible capacity to store up moisture like a sponge. Puffy summer clouds in the afternoon heat would billow into cumulous towers, until unleashed in a torrential display, a giant sponge being rung-out from on-high.
As we floated south, the ambient flora, fauna, and atmosphere altered. The weather pattern changed to a frustrating series of stops and starts, waiting out potential downpours to seek shelter. Our southward progress became thwarted, (wasting time, we thought) repeatedly scrambling off the river to set up tents in the face of approaching storms. For two days in a row, we witnessed a strange spectacle from our secured riverbank perches: Towering clouds would approach, and we would prepare for the lashing of a lifetime. And then, shrouded behind a wall of haze, the storm would dissipate into thin air, revealing blue skies. -Truly amazing to witness, but hardly a way to progress down the river.
Driftwood strewn, stretched out sand-banks of the Midwest had given way to fertile southern floodplains, riverbanks choked thick with young willow trees, in endlessly long bends and oxbows. -A downside being, fewer places to scramble up a sandbank and seek shelter.
This day, Adam and I regarded the approaching clouds with jaded eyes. Decision time came. "Do you think we should cross the strong current here to reach that high sand bar, or continue on around that bend…?" I can't remember what my response was exactly, but it was some terse statement of Swashbuckling Bravado. Not to be out-bravado'd, my paddling mate agreed and we let the current suck us into the bend. To our port side, one of the ubiquitous Mississippi barges, the size of a football field, leisurely lazed by in the middle channel of the river.
Then the rain started. Not with a light mist, but large, high velocity spheres, heavy like mercury, that tapped on my shoulder, each making a "pock!" noise, as if to say "Hey, you- Idiot!" Then the wind picked up. Visibility dropped- nearly entirely. Adam and I exchanged glances and comments regarding this development, presently unwilling to discard the bravado with which we carried on.
"Hey, does that Barge look like it is getting closer…?"
Given the total lack of visibility, the barge pilot had decided to lodge his craft against the willow-lined bank rather than face the prospect of running into an oncoming barge. Zero-Visibility made us effectively invisible to the barge. Suddenly the lazy, predictable sloth of a barge had become the Harbinger of Death, threatening to heartlessly flatten us against the shore like human boat-fenders. The current was swift, and fought to carry us into the narrowing "V" formed by the barge nosing onto shore. With barely enough time and a rapidly closing distance, we maneuvered our boats around 180 degrees to face the current. We paddled like fiends, with our lives in mind.
We safely beached on the high sand-bar that I had disregarded some minutes prior, and the rain briefly abated. We took the opportunity afforded by the break in the storm to set up our tents and cook dinner. In a grand finale, the skies developed into a remarkable hue of red. We took pictures of the fateful bend and angry skies. I reflected on my decisions that day with much chagrin. - "And what did you learn, grasshopper?" I imagined my father quip. A new paddling tenet had been set that day: Believe a bad situation for what it is, not for what you hope it to be.
Written by: Nicholas Arthur Noll - Naples, FL
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