Deep Creek, North Carolina.
It is THE quintessential experience of childhood and family camping.
But when she first mentioned it, I was surprised my friend Lindsey would want to go again. She said she’d been several times over the past few years.
And when we first pulled up and I saw how close the tent pads were (me, who likes a good deal of quiet and space…if quiet and space is possible with six children), I was a little hesitant that this was the place for me (and all these loud children).
After a day at Deep Creek the magic was obvious.
Most everyone I spoke to had begun visiting the creek in childhood…and they just never stopped. Years and years after that initial visit, they come, still, children and grandchildren in tow. They make friends-for-the-week with those at the nearby tent pad. They share their nieces, nephews and grandchildren, who run through the campground with our own to play manhunt through the darkening night sky….catch fireflies while trying not to squish them….take tube runs down the creek, olders helping the littles….and then they all run back for more, giant tubes slung across backs, coldest water in western North Carolina not so cold anymore…again and again and again. And then, all tired out, they share quiet moments by the fire making bracelets and s’mores. Camp friends that will always have a spot in their memories, moments they won’t soon forget, if ever.
Deep Creek is located in western North Carolina’s Swain County, just inside the Great Smoky Mountain National Park via Bryson City. The community of Deep Creek is just a couple of miles outside the city. The creek itself is a tributary of the Tuckasegee River, which flows right through Bryson’s downtown area. Deep Creek runs north and practically all the way to Clingmans Dome at the Tennessee/North Carolina border. A Civil War battle was once fought on its banks, and included more Native Americans than most western NC battles of the war. Today, the creek is one of the most family-friendly spots in the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s known for its fishing, hiking, picnicking, camping, waterfalls and, of course, tubing.
But here’s my truth…
I’m smitten, so completely, with the community of Deep Creek and Bryson City. But the creek itself…it kind of terrifies me.
Maybe it’s because I’ve had a child laying unconscious before me and then airlifted by helicopter after a traumatic brain injury. Maybe it’s because I’ve been put in my place by little river rapids before.
I recently saw a short video that described the creek as a “lazy river.” And yes, perhaps that’s what everyone else sees. That is the opposite of what I see.
Despite the huge smiles, the pure joy on their faces, when I, adventurous though I typically am, look at Deep Creek and watch my kids carry tubes higher and higher (ie. dangerous-er and dangerous-er) it’s all
rocks rocks rocks
rapids rapids rapids
and my blood pressure is rising and I’m thinking everyone should be wearing helmets for this, especially that one with the now long hair and sweet curls at the end.
And that caution at the bottom of the National Park Service website that clearly states that tubing is not recommended within the park because of water-related injuries…though, clearly, this is what people come here for, due to the numerous tube rental spots available just before the park entrance and the hundreds of tubes coming down the icy waters all day long…that warning is still flashing through my mind like it’s a tv screen with the tornado warning scrolling across the bottom and interrupting your regularly scheduled programming and it’s probably all over my face as I scramble to follow along the trail at the edge of the creek’s now-steep bank and and my eyes are scrambling to find my child and I’m trying to stay calm but inside I’m not at all and so I’m praying, pleading with God to keep them safe.
So there’s me, doing that.
And then there’s my friend, Lindsey. My friend Lindsey who once lived in a tent for a summer while guiding rafting trips on the Ocoee River in Tennessee. My friend Lindsey who has the same last name as me, but who’s lived in Ecuador and whose husband is currently there leading adrenaline junkies over class V rapids and occasionally camping in the jungle. My friend Lindsey who knows three languages, one of them, American Sign Language, chosen for her when her oldest was born without hearing. Lindsey, whose two sons, at ages eight and ten, already know how to roll a kayak in case they are accidentally flipped while in rapids. Lindsey, who grew up looking at a river out her back door every morning, swimming in it most every evening. My friend who often goes without technology and doesn’t seem to mind a bit. Lindsey, who moves to her own beat, rolls with the punches of life with a peace that far surpasses my own, is always content and never, ever not. Mi amiga whose phone was dead for the entire duration of our trip and to whose mom I finally sent a Camp Robles photo just so she knew we were all okay. My friend who, while I’m frustrated with my six when the littlest won’t go to sleep and she’s running crazy all over our tent and I just want her to “go to sleep!” and I’m telling her so and I’ve lost my patience completely, hasn’t at all. Because when I step out of my seven-man tent and pass by Lindsey’s little one I hear that she’s sweetly, patiently, beautifully singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to her three and it’s just about the loveliest thing I’ve ever heard. And the most humbling.
I tried not to think about it, but court was approaching while we were camp-firing and “lazy-rivering” amidst the magic (and terror, but only to me) of Deep Creek. It would be kind of a big deal day for the kids in my kinship care. And for me. I couldn’t control it. Not really at all and not really sure that I would want to.
Deep Creek was there, just at that time, with all its risks and its rockiness and its slippery, steep creek banks, and with its new friends and fun-filled days that no one wanted to end…and with Lindsey and all her calm and her peace and her preparedness and her faith…and I just had to let them go. The kids with their blue tubes, the court outcome.
We prepared, we took it slow and small, learned from our mistakes and how to handle ourselves. But then we went higher, past the waterfall, to the place where the rocks became larger, the risk greater, the fall harder, the waters swifter.
And I let go.
And it was good. Really good.
Now I see, why she wanted to come back here, why they all did…again and again. Because past that place of hesitancy, past that place of the unknown, the fear, the big and the scary, there was something so very special. So worth it.
Children had the time of their lives, but they also looked out for one another. Left no one behind. Helped out a cousin stuck on a rock. Coached a sibling on how to maneuver a rapid.
Built rock pools together. Learned to make doughboys and foil packets. Honed their fire-building skills. Endured the freezing cold waters and the long hikes up the steep hill. Laughed and played all the live-long day. Communicated in a bit of sign language, or as best they could. Slept one last tent night with a bit of rain dripping down on them because their moms thought rain tarps were unnecessary.
Families unified and crafted moments here. I had discovered that I wasn’t the only one bringing along children in kinship care or similar situations. Others knew this was the place…
The place where we see and learn and feel…without any words at all…that there’s a whole wide world just outside the tent flap, and though it may be scary at first, that world’s got so much more for us than what others may have chosen for us, back when we were too young and new to choose any of it for ourselves. And in that world there are people who do things differently, and those people can be good.
And maybe it’s a place where, though we can’t erase what was before and the ugly that continues and we can’t control the outcome, we can give them this, this gift, this summer…because magic happens in a childhood summer…and maybe, we can dim those bad memories just the slightest. And all those in-between times can be filled with ones oh-so-good. Ones they’ll hold on to forever. And every once in a while they’ll peek in on that memory and remember, the world was on my side after all. Just maybe.