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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Trip of a Lifetime

Unlucky Friday

By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

Last time, Ed and Brenna went "Looking for a Boat." They found one, too, and now they're itching to try their new canoe out. Things don't exactly go according to plan, however.

This is a work of fiction. It's NOT a river guide. Consult the most recent edition of a good guide-book before running any river for the first time—and always scout any unfamiliar rapids.

April 3, 2001

Chapter Fourteen

The roar of crashing water drowned out all other sounds. Jagged pinnacles of black rock towered above the mist. The gorge was getting narrower. Brenna looked on helplessly as her canoe climbed the face of one mountainous emerald wave after another, hesitating momentarily at each crest before plunging in a stomach-knotting dive into the chaos of the trough below.

All at once, just ahead, the mist parted. The river was now a straight, unbroken line from bank to bank. Nothing could be seen beyond that line. The roar of the water grew even louder.

"My God," yelled Brenna, her screams all but lost in the torrent of sound. "It's the falls!" She backpaddled furiously, but her paddle seemed made of lead and the rushing water offered no resistance to the blade. Her canoe moved inexorably toward the brink. And then she was there. The drop was terrifying, its foot lost in a cauldron of boiling vapor. Brenna's canoe hung on the lip. In an instant, it tilted forward and plummeted. Brenna screamed again, but only a hoarse gasp escaped. In seconds she was fighting for breath in a maelstrom of crashing water.

Brenna woke with a start. She was shaking. The sheet under her was soaked with sweat. Her foggy brain struggled to make sense of her surroundings. An immense cat lay curled on her chest, its weight pressing down on her ribs. Another cat nestled between her knees. When Brenna moved her legs, it unsheathed its claws and raked her inner thighs warningly.

Slowly Brenna's panic dissolved. The roar of the water receded. The black rock spires faded back into the mist. In their place she saw fading posters tacked to the wall of Jennifer Neary's bedroom. Jennifer, Brenna recalled, was away at college. Moving slowly, Brenna looked around, searching for familiar things. Her eyes fell on Ed, sleeping soundly in the room's other bed.

This was too much for Brenna. How dare Ed sleep peacefully through her narrow escape! With a grunt of effort, she pushed the huge cat off her chest. What was its name? Brenna ransacked her memory. Warbucks. That was it. Warbucks moved reluctantly, turning round at the edge of the bed to give her a resentful stare before thudding to the floor.

The other cat, a large rusty tiger named—Brenna struggled to remember its name. Marx. That was it!—wasn't giving up without a fight. He sank his claws deeper into the soft flesh of Brenna's thighs. That was the last straw. She jerked her knees up and booted Marx unceremoniously off the bed. He slunk away, hissing malevolently. Only then did Brenna realize that the Neary's two other cats, a scrawny former stray named Greenspan and a supercilious Siamese named William F. Buckley, were also sprawled on her bed, just below her feet.

Ed still slumbered on, oblivious to the battle taking place only three feet from where he lay.

A spasm of pain shot through Brenna's bowels. "Oh, Christ!" she groaned. It was followed by another. "Christ!" Brenna cried out again. She was feeling very ill-used by fate, indeed. First the terrible dream, then those damn cats, and now this!

The second spasm eased. As the agony ended, Brenna found herself wondering how the cats had gotten into the bedroom. Then she saw the cat-flap in the door. She'd meant to block it with something last night, but she'd forgotten. Damn.

With surprisingly agility, Warbucks sprang back onto the bed. He was so heavy that the springs squeaked. Brenna was having none of it. She shoved the immense creature away with her foot. "Leave me alone!" she growled, just as another spasm clamped her bowels in its grip.

Brenna cursed Pete's culinary flights of fancy. Ken had spent a week in Bangkok over last Christmas break, and he hadn't stopped talking about the food. Pete and Karin both loved Thai food, too, and since Karin was in Orlando for a week-long conference, Pete had looked forward to showing off his talent in the kitchen. "Flying solo," he'd called it, and he'd invited the whole gang down to his place for dinner. In the end, though, just Brenna, Ed, and Ken had been able to make it. Linda had disappeared. She hadn't said anything to Brenna since the day that Fenris was shot, but when Brenna last saw Brick, he'd mentioned that she'd gone off to a seminar to work through her grief. It was called something like "Death and Dying: Implications for Growth," he'd said, rolling his eyes up toward the sky in wonderment. He'd hadn't gone with her. He'd gone down south to spend Easter with his family.

Pete's idea was that the four of them would have dinner at his place on Thursday evening and then drive down to Schoharie Creek on Friday. Brenna looked around her in the half-light of dawn. Friday had arrived. Friday the 13th, she realized with a start. Of course she wasn't superstitious, was she? But that dream….

Too late to back out now, though. All of them had stayed overnight at the Neary's because it was the closest house to the river. Pete had wanted to get a really early start and make the most of the day.

Suddenly, Brenna wasn't thinking about paddling. She was thinking about dying. "'Implications for Growth'? Sure!" she muttered, as another spasm wracked her gut. Freed from Karin's restraining hand, Pete had whipped up an enormous and elaborate Thai meal. Shrimp, lemongrass, coconut milk, hot peppers, exotic spices, at least two kinds of mushrooms…. And something called nam pla. "What the hell was nam pla?" Brenna wondered. Something fishy. "Probably means 'slow death,'" she decided.

And there'd been more. A lot more. "Layered flavors," Pete had called them. Scallops. Three kinds of flaked fish. Banana blossom. Rice wine. And beer—Thai beer, of course!

Yet another spasm gripped her.

When the pain stopped, she rolled over to the edge of the bed and struggled upright. The room whirled. She sat quietly until the walls steadied. Then she got up and stumbled toward the door, leaving Ed at the mercy of the cats. There was a night-light in the hallway. Brenna noticed with growing resignation that it was shaped like a cat's eye, but at least it helped her find her way to the bathroom.

The door was locked. Now and again a low moan came from the other side. "Damn!" Brenna grumbled, hoping that she could contain the growing pressure within her for a few more minutes. Then she heard the sound of the toilet flushing. Soon the door opened and a haggard-looking Ken stumbled out. "You, too?" he asked in a hushed tone, not stopping to hear her answer.

Brenna nodded reflexively. Then she paused in front of the open bathroom door, whispering after Ken's retreating back: "It's your own damn fault, you know. If you hadn't been talking up the 'exotic beauty of Thailand' every chance you got for the last three months, Pete might have been satisfied to make spaghetti!"

When Brenna returned to the bedroom, it was perceptibly lighter. Her mouth tasted foul and her head still spun, but her bowels had settled down. She glared resentfully at Ed. He slept the contented sleep of a man with an iron stomach. Brenna worked off her anger chasing the cats out of the bedroom. Then she shoved Karin's copy of Das Kapital against the cat flap and went back to bed.

Only minutes later, just as she was dropping off, Pete's voice rang through the house. "Rise and shine, kiddies!" he shouted. "Uncle Pete's cookin' breakfast to order." For the second time that morning, Brenna forced herself upright. She knew then that she hated Pete. She glowered over at Ed. At last he was awake. He yawned, stretched, and sat up, looking like he was ready to tackle the river right that minute. Pulling on his pants, he headed for the toilet.

Pale morning light flooded into the bedroom. Brenna decided that she hated Ed, too. She crawled back under the covers again, but got up when Ed returned, dressed quickly, and went along with him down to the kitchen. While Ed tackled scrambled eggs and a towering stack of Pete's blueberry pancakes, Brenna had black coffee and dry toast. Slowly, she began to feel better. Ken, however, still looked awful. His face was drawn and pale, and his black hair stood up in unruly spikes over his ears. He had even less to eat than Brenna did, contenting himself with a large glass of milk.

Neither Ken nor Brenna felt much like talking, but Ed and Pete were deep in conversation, with Pete holding forth. "Yeah. I wouldn't have believed it unless I'd seen it. We had this consultant in to check out the house. She spent the whole day here. Did a complete energy survey. And, you know, she figured out exactly where the problem was. Our alignments were all screwy."

Brenna watched Ed struggle to control his face. Ken rested his chin on his hands and followed Pete's account with little apparent comprehension. Then his features came alive. "Just what the hell're you talking about, Pete?" he asked.

Pete stopped in mid-sentence. Then he turned toward Ken and spoke slowly, as if he were explaining the details of a particularly complex annuity scheme to a hard-of-hearing pensioner. "Feng Shui." He pronounced it fang schway. "I'm telling Ed how we had to rearrange all the structural elements in our living spaces in order to dissipate the stress we were accumulating. To amplify the positive resonances and nourish our ch'i…."

Ken belched loudly. Pete looked surly. He didn't like being interrupted.

Ken belched again. "Sort of 'better living through furniture arrangement,' right?" he asked.

Hurt chased impatience across Pete's features. "You, of all people, Ken! You should understand the importance of geometry. You're a math teacher, after all. And this is ancient knowledge."

"I can't say I noticed too many good resonances this morning, Pete," Brenna broke in. A small, strangling sound came from Ed. Even though they hadn't had much time to talk, he'd read the signs in Brenna's face.

Pete was feeling embattled. He frowned at Brenna and Ken. "I can tell when I'm being baited. You believe what you want. I'm only telling you what any Feng Shui consultant would tell you. You guys'll continue to be stressed out until you harmonize your energy fields." Then he got up and carried the plates and flatware to the dishwasher, after which he opened four tiny cans of foul-smelling cat food and carefully doled out equal portions onto four tiny China plates.

As soon as Pete put the plates down on the mat next to the Viking range, the four cats converged at his feet. Brenna watched with growing fascination as Marx wolfed down his portion. It took him no time at all. And as soon as he'd bolted the last of his share, he approached each of the others in turn. Employing an adroit combination of stealth, guile and bullying, Marx managed to eat at least half of all their portions as well. Brenna was left to wonder how Warbucks had gotten as big as he was.

Later, as the group started out, Pete felt his resentment slipping away. It was his friends' problem if they didn't appreciate the power of Feng Shui, he decided. He was also glad that they'd transferred the boats and gear the day before. With two of the party under the weather, it would have been a grim task to shift bags and load boats in the early morning hours. And it was wonderful to be on the road before the sun had broken free of the thin cloud hovering low in the east. Ed rode along with Pete in his Ford Explorer, the big XL Tripper lashed beside Pete's Mad River. Brenna accompanied Ken in his Caravan. Much to her relief, she was starting to feel better, but neither she nor Ken was interested in talking. Ed and Pete, on the the other hand, continued the conversation they'd begun over breakfast, though the subject had changed from energy fields to local politics.

It took them nearly two hours to reach Schoharie. They parked the Caravan at the Bridge Street take-out, and all four paddlers crammed into the Explorer for the trip past Vroman's Nose to the put-in below the Route 30 bridge at North Blenheim. By the time they got back from checking the gage, Brenna was firing on all cylinders again. And a good thing, too, she decided. At nearly four feet on the gage, the river was running high.

"You feeling any better?" Brenna asked Ken, as she helped him shift his gear into Pete's Mad River.

"Not great," Ken replied. "'Dead man walking' comes to mind." He tried to smile, but it ended up looking more like a grimace. Seeing the expression of concern on Brenna's face, however, he added, "I'll be OK. I just need a dose of the water cure." And he gestured toward the river.

"You ready, Brenn?" Ed jogged over to her from the riverbank with a wide grin on his face.

"You bet!" Brenna said, the morning's irritations nearly forgotten. She smiled at Ed's boyish enthusiasm. Unexpectedly, he gave her a big hug. Then they walked hand in hand to their waiting boat.

A few minutes later, they eddied out into the strong current. Ed was in the bow, as usual. The Tripper rode well, and it pivoted easily, though it needed a lot of room. No surprise there, of course. It was twenty feet long. Pete, paddling stern in the Explorer, called over to Ed, shouting to make himself heard over the noise of rushing water. "Looks like we're in for a wild ride! Wouldn't be surprised if you're not glad you stuffed all those float bags into your boat before the day's over!"

"Be prepared!" Ed shouted back, grinning. And he craned his head around to catch Brenna's eye. He was happy to see that she seemed to be having as good a time as he was.

And a wild ride it proved to be. Hemmed in by cliffs soaring to 800 feet, the river rushed from one side of the broad valley to the other, carrying the two boats along at better than four miles an hour. Brenna found she had to work hard to keep the big canoe's stern tucked in on the inside of each bend. Together, she and Ed rediscovered the power of a strong, well-executed back-ferry.

Pausing in an eddy to regain her breath, Brenna took in the scenery. She was happy to note that the Schoharie's high bluffs didn't look anything like the ominous black spires in her nightmare—and thank God there were no waterfalls! But the rollers and sweepers under the cutbanks at the outside of each bend were dangerous enough, and the relentless push of the current built the waves up into five- and six-foot-high haystacks. Pete and Ken were having a bad time of it. They were unused to paddling together, and with Ken obviously off his stride, they were constantly shipping water and having to bail.

Only three miles into the trip, they hit the Racecourse, a quarter-mile of heavy continuous rapids. Here the choice of route often lay between keeper holes on the one hand and big, diagonal curling waves on the other. Threading the fine line between these hazards, Ed and Brenna were in the grove and feeling good. At the bottom of the run, Ed shot a glance upstream, trying to spot Pete's green Explorer. When he found it, almost a hundred yards back, he saw immediately that it was wallowing low in the water, barely under control. Pete and Ken were in trouble.

Ed searched along the shore for an eddy. He found one just below a projecting spine of shaly rock. "Eddy out left!" he shouted. He drove forward, punching through the eddy-line. Brenna followed his lead, sweeping hard as Ed planted his paddle in the eddy below the spine and leaned into the turn. The big boat snapped round with astonishing swiftness and stopped, its bow pounding against the rock. Ed noticed that they were a riding a foot below the level of the main current.

"I'm going to stand up," he said, and Brenna braced. Ed stood unsteadily, legs spread wide. Looking upriver, he waved his paddle to catch Pete's attention. "Eddy out! Over here. Left!" he screamed at the top of his lungs.

Ken and Pete almost made it. Wallowing deep in the water, lurching from gunwale to gunwale, the Explorer turned sluggishly and slid broadside to the current. Fighting heroically to keep their boat upright, the two exhausted paddlers alternately braced and drove toward the sanctuary of the eddy. But with less than one boat-length to go to safety, the Explorer hit a rock and rolled.

Brenna was ready. While Ed clutched at holds in the shaly rock and the Tripper bucked and pounded, Brenna heaved the throw bag. It landed right above Pete. He grabbed the line, and the water-logged Explorer soon began to swing round into the eddy. Looking over his shoulder, as his fingers scrambled to keep their hold on the sharp rock, Ed was relieved to see that both paddlers still clung to their boat.

Once Brenna had hauled the Explorer across the eddy-line it shot up, banging hard into the Tripper. Pete grabbed the big boat's gunwale near the bow and clung to it, breathing hard. Ken, however, found the bottom with his feet. Reeling with nausea and fatigue, he let go his hold of the Explorer and struck out for the cliff-like shore. In seconds the strong upstream current in the eddy spun him round and bowled him over. As he fell, his left foot slipped deep into a crevice in the rocky bottom. Ken felt a sharp crack above his ankle, followed by wave after wave of terrible pain.

On his back, his foot and ankle wedged firmly, shaken by pain, Ken flailed out with his hands, but the power of the water was too much for him. He'd loosened his life-jacket earlier to ease the pressure on his stomach. Now it slipped up above his ears. Icy water surged over Ken's face. In seconds, he was drowning.

Brenna wasted no time. Looking forward to check that Ed was still hanging on to the rock spine, and seeing that Pete still clung to the gunwale, she grabbed her paddle and drew the big canoe over to the place where Ken had gone under. Throwing the paddle down, she leaned out over the gunwale, blessing the Tripper's raft-like stability. She groped in the turbid water, found Ken's thrashing torso, got her hands under his arms, and pulled. Years of lifting boxes stuffed with books paid off. She wrestled Ken's head above the water. Another tug, and she pulled him over the gunwale. Just as she did so, his foot came free. With one last, wrenching pull, Brenna landed her trophy. Then she leaned over the gunwale again and vomited up what remained of her breakfast.

Wiping her mouth with her hand, she turned to look at Ken. He lay on his back across the big midship float bag. His chest was heaving. His face was pale, and his arms moved convulsively. A steady moan of pain escaped from between his clenched teeth. Brenna could see why. Ken's neoprene-shod foot stuck out at an disconcerting angle, rotated ninety degrees out of its proper place. Brenna didn't see any blood anywhere, though, and there was no sign of a shattered end of bone poking through Ken's wetsuit. That, at least, was good news.

Ken opened his eyes and stared up at Brenna. "How you feeling?" she shouted. "Shi…shi…shitty," Ken sobbed. "Jesus, my leg! Jesus!" And his face contorted in agony.

Brenna reached forward and cradled Ken's head in her left hand. With her right, she pulled a soaking wet bandanna out of her life-vest pocket, wadded it up and held it out to Ken. "Bite down on this," she said, placing it between his teeth. "It'll help with the pain. Listen up now! If you even think you're going to puke, you spit it out. Understand?"

Ken nodded. Silently, Brenna prayed that it would help. To her surprise, it did. Ken's arms relaxed.

Brenna looked inquiringly toward Ed. He still gripped the rock spine, his head twisted round to watch the action. He met her gaze. "I'm hangin' in there," he said. "You're the doc," he added. "We do whatever you say."

"Thanks a lot!" Brenna said to herself. She looked at the steep shoreline. It rose nearly straight up out of the water. This was no place to take out, she decided.

"Best to take him down to the State Park," she shouted to Ed. "There's easier water ahead. We can get to the park before anybody could get to us in here. But I'll have to splint Ken first. Keep an eye on him while I get the kit out." Then she reached under her seat for the waterproof bag that housed their medical kit.

In five minutes, she'd molded the SAM splint around the bottom of Ken's booted foot and up both sides of his lower leg, securing it with wraps of the three-inch ACE bandage. Then she turned her attention to Pete, who was still waiting patiently in the water, clinging to both boats. Before five more minutes had passed, the two of them had up-ended the Explorer over the stern deck of the Tripper and dumped it out. Soon Pete was back in his boat and floating in the eddy alongside the Tripper. Both canoes now surged forward and back with the ebb and flow of the current. It was time to go.

The four-mile run down to the Max Shaul State Park was fast but uneventful, and Brenna found herself looking forward to continuing on to Schoharie. At the park, while she and a ranger were helping Ken hobble over to the ranger's pickup for the trip to the hospital, Pete collected Ken's gear.

"Can you beat that!" Pete exclaimed, as a cell-phone in a waterproof vinyl pouch fell out of the chest pocket of Ken's PFD. "That silly bastard had a phone. If he'd told us, we could have dialled 911!"

"I don't think so," said Ed. He'd just finished taping the cuts on his hands from the shale, and he'd seen something Pete had missed. Ed walked over, picked the pouch up, opened it, and tipped it on its side. Water cascaded out. When he pressed the phone's power-key, the display remained blank.

"Damn!" said Pete.

"Makes a good case for self-reliance, eh?" joked Ed. "Come on, let's collect Brenna and get back on the water. There's twelve more miles of river between us and Schoharie, and then we've got the shuttle and the drive to the hospital to see how Ken's doing. Friday the 13th isn't over yet!"

To be continued…

Canoe in the Rapids

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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