“You’re not invincible. You can’t just do whatever you want.”
I unpack my little bag and look down upon everything I was able to salvage, those things that seemed of so little value when I packed them. Those things that now seem miraculous to have made it out of the river today. A completely sopping black towel, an apple, granola bar and a Little Debbie oatmeal cream pie, my Audubon Society tree identification book, also waterlogged. The White Oak River Trail map I had picked up only moments before the accident at the campground, still attached to my daughter’s pink leopard print lunchbox where I had safely stored my new camera. And the two best things, my glasses, new and necessary at most all times now, which I was wearing at the time of the incident, and my tiny green journal with a sprig of a plant and the word “Inspire” etched on the front. I took a deep breath of gratitude for these, at least.
Those items lost today…my flip flops and phone, I never even saw them go they were gone so fast. A towel. My oldest son’s green water bottle. I remember catching sight of that bright green in the river during my distress. A pocketknife my oldest had leant me. It had been sitting between my legs…in case I saw a bear. My kayak, my actual bleeping (feel free to insert any and all words, I certainly did that day…and if you know me, you’ve probably never or only rarely heard them out of my mouth) kayak. Not that it was gone, just stuck. With hundreds of pounds of rushing water holding it in a position it wasn’t likely to come out of anytime soon, especially with more rain on the forecast. And finally to my deepest sorrow, my new camera. My days old, very expensive, the one I had my heart set on, the only thing I really wanted for Christmas, the doesn’t have insurance on it yet, camera. I got it. And then I watched as the beautiful White Oak River submerged it in milliseconds.
I had wanted to kayak the day before, and put in at White Oak River Campground and Lakes in Maysville (not to be mistaken with White Oak River Campground of Stella). I hadn’t kayaked that far up river yet and had put in at Dixon Field Landing the day before that, just a day or two after Christmas. I planned to take my youngest two with me. No big deal, the river was tame. They’ve come with me on different trips. But by the time we drove out there it was overcast, drizzling and the temperature had dropped significantly. So we headed back home, stopping to play in the woods for a bit at Dixon Field off of HWY 58 on the way.
I received a text from my husband the next morning: “If you want to go kayaking today I can come home and watch the kids.” My weather app showed less than ideal conditions and shortly after his text it briefly showered at my house. If I was going to blaze a new trail I really wanted it to be beautiful outside while I was doing it. So I held off…until about 1 p.m., when I saw that it was windy but sunny and warm. So I talked my husband into dropping me off at the Maysville campground launch. (Normally, I make a round trip and drive myself back home, but this time I wanted to be able to explore further without turning.) I had a slight unexplainable funny feeling, but all my experience on the river thus far had been great and so I dismissed it.
I packed up a little backpack with essentials. I waved goodbye to my husband and littlest, who stood on the bank and watched me go. I snapped a few pictures of them as I went, to which my husband shouted, “You should be using your old camera out here!” I could tell he wasn’t happy but I smiled and lightheartedly called, “No way!” I’d done this many times by now and knew there was no way my camera wasn’t safe with me. It’s not like I was rafting down the Colorado River, for goodness sake. The White Oak is more like a lazy river. And I thought so as I sat back, a smile on my face and in my heart, happy as a clam, and let the river slowly take me.
As I drifted away from the campground I remembered the so-called “rapids” I had read about and seen photos of. From other’s recordings it was completely manageable. Plus, two days ago I passed the first people I ever had on the isolated river, three adults and a child, who told me they had put in at the very spot I just had and seemed to have been having the grandest time of their lives. So I knew what was coming and from what I had researched, it wasn’t dangerous.
The narrow river wound behind a few houses before turning away from the highway and in towards the dense forest. The sights of civilization fell away as the trees and thick brush rose up on each side. I began to hear rushing water then. I did get a bit nervous, but reminded myself it was nothing. If the others had been fine, so would I also be. And I truly believed it.
An old steel bridge came into sight, small rapids, ripples really, below it. The bridge, the whole scene, was quaint. Sunny late December day, tall pines and bald cypress lining the cool black water between, wilderness so close to and yet untamed by the world around it, and then the old bridge. Abandoned and hidden, overgrowth cutting off any pathway that would have ever been on either side. It stood at the end of the enchanting tunnel I was in. Obviously no longer in use I didn’t wonder too much about the small bridge until later, when I discovered it was probably built around the late 1800s as a part of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, and is one of the few pieces still remaining. Today it stands alone and I doubt very little of the nearby residents even know of its existence, or remember it in its heyday.
I took a quick photo, put my camera away and gently rolled over the first rapids. Ah, nice, I thought, as I smiled. At the end of that first set water came up and over the front of my skirt-less kayak, a little making its way into the front end where my bags were. My smile became a shaky one. A little close but ok, still manageable, I thought. Everything had to be fine, after all. It was then that I realized I was quickly heading directly toward a piling instead of in between them. As fast as I could move I attempted to right myself between them but was unsuccessful. I had no life jacket on.
“The ones who push the limits, discover the limits sometimes push back.” Chasing Mavericks
I hit the concrete piling at an angle, more perpendicular to it than parallel. I used my oar to push off of the piling. The now rushing water proved stronger. A small amount of water came over the left side, reaching my bags. Problem. Bleep. Then I watched as, in what could only have been milliseconds, water rushed in, flooding every corner of my yellow kayak, capsizing it and dumping me out. It happened so fast that I don’t remember the actual moment of exit. But I too vividly recall watching with horror as hundreds of pounds of water pushed my kayak on its side, pinning it and me against the piling. In complete panic and desperation I gripped the kayak and grasped inside the black hole where I hoped my bags still were. I had no idea if they were but as the water roared around me I had to try to retrieve them. Unable to see, I plunged my hand inside, frantically swatting it from left to right and up and down, water fighting against me with each movement. My hand landed on something and I yanked it up on the piling. The blue and orange backpack that held my food. Bleep. NOT the camera bag. Not that there was any hope for it. I plunged my hand back into the darkness, deeper this time, grasping, grasping. Nothing. I couldn’t find it. Had it already been washed out? My eyes focused on nothing as my hand fought the loud, overpowering deep and dark water. And then, I pulled out that little pink bag that held my prized possession. I can’t recall getting on top of the piling but suddenly there I stood, panting, stricken with shock and horror at the sight before me, bleeping away. I should have felt cold but I felt nothing but survival adrenaline. I pulled off my glasses, covered in water droplets but thank goodness still on my head. After assessing my desperate situation, registering what could have been and what was quickly, I almost immediately began yelling. “Hello?! Help!” Over and over. Nothing. I put my glasses back on to inspect the shapes I saw beyond the steep bank on one side. Bleep. Not buildings, as I had thought. They were what looked to be those massive piles of dirt and rock, characteristic of the nearby and totally isolated quarries. I had come across another one just two days earlier, the first I’d ever seen.
Shaking, I looked around. Below me, the river was roaring, rushing and apparently deep. My brightly-colored kayak was still pinned hard directly beneath me. Several attempts with all my muscle power to free it were in vain. It wasn’t coming out that way. I walked to the other end of the piling. The water was still rushing pretty decently on this end. There was no way I was hurling myself, without my stuff, back into that mess. I walked back to the kayak, noticed my hot pink jacket attached to the seat, which was submerged, and pulled with all my might until it was free. I paced the piling. I looked up river and down river and to each unreachable bank on my sides. I had no idea what to do. My phone had apparently been washed down the river, and my husband was obliviously on his way back home at that moment. I was completely stuck.
My eyes fluttered up, to the steel above me. They quickly followed the length of the rectangular beams upward and over the thin x’s crossing them, up to the parallel rails above, one to two foot gaps in between, that led out to the riverbanks on each side where a jump (or something) would have to be made in order to get back on land. It became clear then that the only way out was to scale the old bridge, and hope that it didn’t crumble beneath me.
I put on my coat, packed everything left into the backpack and put it on my back. Not only did I have to do this thing, I had to do it sopping wet and with weight on my back. Still trembling, I attempted a few times before finally and miraculously finding my footing and balance on the maybe 3 inch wide flat beam that had a raised piece of metal along one edge, making it difficult to keep my foot on. I gripped what metal I could with my hands while I made my way up the diagonal beam, and then shifted my weight as it ran higher in the opposite direction. At the top I hoisted myself up onto the metal rails. Shaky inhale. Shaky exhale. I was sitting 20 or so feet above the rapids and concrete pilings. If the rusty bridge didn’t decide today was the last day it would stand there was also the good chance of slipping between the rails, to the rapids below. But I had to do it. I moved towards the middle to lessen the risk of falling over the side. Carefully and incredibly quivery I made my way to the side of the riverbank with less overgrowth, the quarry side. I made it to the end and exhaled at being over land again, despite the fact that I was still a good distance above it. Jumping was not an option, I concluded. The land was at too steep an incline. I would only topple over and down with all my stuff. I had to scale my way back down the small beams. Wet beams, now that I was dripping all over it. After a few false starts I managed to half slide down those diagonal beams and step down onto blessed, glorious, beautiful dry land. Oh my heavens, I was going to make it after all.
Barefoot, I made my way through a couple yards of underbrush, thorns digging into my feet and tearing at my clothes the whole way. Just as I emerged my foot sank about six inches into what was not a sand pile as I had thought (was I thinking at that point or just moving?) but a massive ant hill, with red ants that began swarming my feet. I barely cared. I stepped out, wiped them off and kept going. Before me were towering sand and rock piles. There were a few scattered trailer buildings. I yelled, I knocked at the closest, but I was all alone. I made my way through the maze of quarry piles and rock beneath my feet. I could hear the highway then. Thank God. I wasn’t far from it and as I came to the highway I found there was a mini mart just beyond the quarry. I made a call to my husband (“You’re camera??”), the attendant running his eyes down to my wet, dirty bare feet as I spoke. I left his floor muddy as I mumbled an apology and sat down on a log by the highway, looking and feeling wretched as I laid out all the pieces of my Christmas gift in the sun to dry…
I had received this luxurious, soft, snow white robe for Christmas. I came home and changed out of my still-wet clothes, took a hot shower, put on new pajamas and that cozy robe. I stayed in it for the rest of the day.
“You’re not invincible. You can’t just do whatever you want.” That was my husband. He barely spoke to me that evening, though he did spend a lot of time talking to the phone and camera companies. He spoke to me only to lecture me. About taking a new camera on the water, about not going out without a life jacket, no matter what. I didn’t blame him. And then: “I won’t bring it up to you again. I’m just glad you’re ok.” And he didn’t, as both of our shock and horror at the loss of my belongings turned to realization and horror at what could have been. But wasn’t. My legs were bruised from my ankle to my femur. I had cuts and sore spots and what looked like leprosy from those ants but I was ok. We were all ok.
I reluctantly went to bed that night, and prolonged the event. I wanted to stay asleep once I hit the bed. I was shaken up over what had happened and I knew all I would see that night was that horrible scene. And I did. I awoke over and over again, each time hearing the roar of the water, rushing all around me, filling my kayak, the forgotten bridge, no way out but up…and then seeing what could have happened…to me, to my children had we gone the day before like I planned….
The thing is, when we walk away from scary situations unscathed we do tend to focus on those valuables we may have lost in the midst of the great misadventure. But had I not walked away, no one would have cared about those items. A kayak and a camera. They’re just things. Just things. Nothing more. Not health, not a child, not a life. I may have pushed the limits, but I still have all of those things.
And those “what if” moments, they do happen, with no forewarning and in seconds. Things go from great to really bad, with everything on the line. Happy as a clam one moment, and then everything changes. Keeping it all in perspective. Just in case we forget how blessed we are.
*Note: The river was several feet higher than normal the day I set out, creating a class one rapid, which I just happened to hit wrong. The people I had seen had been put in at the Quarry Lakes, a point past the old bridge because of the dangerous rapids. Campground staff just failed to tell me. I have learned to wear a life jacket always. My kayak has since disappeared and Canon was unable to fix my camera. Ah, such is life. It’s a good one.