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Group II – Ben, Sam, Quinn, Laura, Buck, Patty, Theresa, Kara, Vic, Sean, Jack, Kevin, Megan, Erin.
The 5.2-mile trip down James Branch/Hitch Pond Branch was the main event of Tip Top Trap. Emphasis on “event”. Make that “epic event”.
Past trips down the small stream have run the gauntlet from effortless, strainer-free floats down a seeming fairyland of birdsong, black skimmer hatches and sunlight dappled cypress knees to grueling, swim filled strainer-fests (this being the only venue in which I’ve swum twice in the same trip).
Several difficulties arose in planning this trip – having potential participants scattered on campsites throughout the park is always an organizational challenge. This was resolved by declaring the “We are leaving from the island at 10:00am”. Being unsure of the condition of the stream after Hurricane Isabel made the strainer potential a crapshoot. This was resolved by declaring, “We’ll do a small group exploration first and see if conditions are suitable for a group trip”.
At 10:29 and 13 seconds, having allowed a nearly 30-minute grace period, an appropriately small group of Joe, Sheree and I set off from the island. Portaging over the Trap Pond Dam into Hitch Pond Branch we espied no late launchers heading down the pond and pushed off as a threesome.
The first 1.5 miles were relatively clean and easy, if a bit low watered. Pausing just before the Rte 463 bridge we heard the distant clunk of a paddle on gunwale and were soon joined by Natalie, Sendy and Baxter in their Reflection 16, Jane in her Nova and Charlie in his Encounter. Taking a 17’ solo down this tiny, twisty creek calls for some paddling skill, and Charlie proved he has what it takes.
Taking Sendy and Baxter down the tiny, twisty creek calls for some verbal encouragement, and Natalie proved she has what it takes, occasionally shouting “Paddle bitch, paddle”. And I thought Baxter was a male dog. (Note – Once we disabused them of the notion that the stern paddler does all the steering and taught Sendy the draw stroke they made a well-coordinated tandem team).
Jane was just happy to be paddling solo, in her own boat, sans kids or spouse. And perhaps a bit pleased that her Nova 16 is R-84 as she tossed it over innumerable strainers without being strained her own self.
Having been joined by this select group things immediately began to get interesting. There were strainers. Haul the boat up the side of school bus-sized fallen cypress strainers. Limbo logs. Lay in the bottom of the boat as the gunwales scrape the tree trunk limbo logs. Speed bump logs. Ramming speed will only get you half way over and then you’re stuck speed bump logs. All manner of woody obstruction. And the further downstream we progressed the more closely spaced these obstacles became. It was, in short, the epitome of a Duckhead paddling trip.
There is something comical - or disheartening, depending on your tolerance for a challenge - to fighting your way past, over, around a riverwide strainer, getting back in the canoe, paddling another 20 feet around a corner and getting back out to do it all over again. That no one swam borders on the miraculous.
Some haul-over methods, dismounts and reboarding maneuvers make this lack of swims all the more extraordinary. Natalie found herself stranded on the upstream side of an immense fallen tree, standing shakily on a branch bobbing in the current, surrounded by deepwater, mud and muck. Her canoe had already been hauled across, her bow paddler was high and dry and out of reach atop the log. Ponder the possibilities Natalie announced, “I’m going to jump for it”. No one thought this was such a hot idea, and cameras were made ready to capture the result.
Bouncing on her springboard branch Natalie catapulted skyward, arms outstretched. Picture Superwoman pushing 50, without the cape. Perhaps after a couple of Kryptonite cocktails around the campfire the night before. I don’t, however, recall Superwoman ever affecting a similar touchdown. Natalie nailed the landing with a full-body splat of the tree and a sound not unlike a handful of Playdough being hurled against a wall resounded through the swamp. Phwap! You could identify the specie of tree by the bark imprint on Natalie’s torso. Swamp Oak (Quercus bicolor).
Throughout the day I was treated to a spectacular display of unlikely abilities. Sendy demonstrated a certain gymnastic prowess with her ability to perform a near perfect split, one foot in the canoe, one on the bank, somehow concluding this maneuver without the anticipated splash. Jane performed a similar exercise, with an added degree of difficulty involving a high bank and a bit of current, no doubt pulling it off only because I told her she couldn’t manage it. Don’t tell Jane she can’t do something!
Natalie and Sendy were also handicapped by the presence of Baxter. Having an 80-pound lab along on a strainerfest only adds to the challenge. Not the least of these difficulties was Baxter’s insistence on selecting a souvenir stick from each strainer to add to his collection in the boat. By the time we reached the take out Natalie’s Reflection contained enough wood to start a decent bonfire.
Joe and Sheree demonstrated their northwoods wisdom, hanging back and seeing how the various strategies at strainer passage played out before selecting a route and methodology. No fools there.
By the time we reached the take out we were all tired. By the time we reached the take out we were all muddy. By the time we reached the take out we were all nicked and scratched and cut and bloodied. By the time we reached the take out we had battled our way for 5.2 miles in an epic 7-hour journey. Fearless leader had predicted a 3-hour tour. There’s that refrain again – a three hour tour, a three hour tour…
And somewhere behind us on the river were the Squatters (“Not as fast as they look”) and Ben (“Hey kids, wanna go canoeing?”), leading a novice-intensive trip into strainer hell. Disgorging shuttle drivers and boats at the island I headed back to the take out, intending to meet our little lost lambs with a cooler of drinks and a comforting van ride.
Cresting the hill beside James Branch I espied 14 disheveled and exhausted souls perched forlornly on the guardrail and a line of canoes and kayaks stretched alongside the highway. Having clawed their way to within a mile of the take out they had had enough, and I don’t think a one of them believed me when I told them that the last mile was the easiest. One of the young paddlers, when later asked if he had enjoyed canoeing, responded, “Well, the first hour and a half was OK”. Probably best not to have asked him what he thought of the remaining six hours. Hey kids, wanna go canoeing?
The tale out is at the public landing on the NE side of the US 13 bridge over Records Pond in laurel DE.
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