Did my first solo paddle the other day. It was a 50/50 experience. It’s either my triumph or cause for clinical depression.
The water was up and the river was flowing, and not a soul in sight. I laid my paddle in my lap, kicked up my feet, folded my hands behind my head and let the current carry me downriver. I stopped a few times, circled, and took in the views. Alone, my senses were heightened and I noticed more beautiful scenes than before. I said a prayer, thanking God for letting me see His wonders. Oddly, though, there’s no sign of wildlife. Not even birds.
It starts to rain. Not a problem. I love the rain. I’m now in my own Utopian rain forest, paddling alone, watching water drops and listening to thunder roll in the distance. A moving experience. A little salve for the soul, if you will. I almost popped out a tear, but I didn’t, because I’m heartless.
Everything was great up till exactly the halfway point when lightning came out of nowhere and everywhere. I make the sign of the cross and quickly start paddling, trying to find a good spot to get out. The banks are straight up; no sandbars. I finally find a small muddy bank with just enough landing room to set the front of my kayak on. Stunk like dead fish, but beggars can’t be choosers. I parallel park, grab my ditty bag and scamper up the bank, pulling myself up with roots and muscadine vines. I get halfway up to a landing, whip out my phone and open my nexrad radar app. This awesome app shows the temperature, which way the wind is blowing, and has nine different radar colors, from mild blues and medium greens all the way up to red for extreme weather and purple for lethal. I zoom in and see a big red oval with a purple oval in the middle of the red one, directly on top of my location. Directly! Purple! I could die!
I pull my shiny silver Mylar emergency blanket out of my ditty bag, throw it over some undergrowth and make a little hut. I crawl under it, sit on my life vest and get comfy. I’m quite proud of my little makeshift shelter. I’m thinking I could be the next Jeremiah Johnson – or if someone else saw me, a wacked out apocalyptic prepper.
I sit and look out over the river, and savor the sound of rain drops on the tarp. I’m loving this – except for the stinky fish. The wind picks up and starts to pull my kayak away from the bank. I quickly scramble down the embankment and barely grab the handle in time. I tie it off to a vine and climb back up. I start thinking about all the things that could go wrong by going solo. I'm old. What if I had fallen just now and broke my hip? My boat would have drifted downriver without me and my phone is up the bank where I can’t reach it. Now I’m scaring myself. I immediately text a Google Maps’ dropped pin to a friend, and explain that if I don’t make it back home this is where my body can be found.
I look down at my feet and notice several big clumps of one-inch gray and white animal hair. I pick them up and try to figure out what type of animal it could have belonged to – since I’m Jeremiah Johnson. Opossum? Coyote? But the dead-fish smell keeps me from being able to concentrate. It really, really stinks. I knock off two gargantuan granddaddy-longlegs and start worrying about ticks. If I could get Harrison Ford to check me for ticks I wouldn’t worry.
I regain my wondering mind and start to scan my surroundings, and less than three feet away is a dead raccoon. Great! Just great! My brain is having an argument with itself: Should I stay or should I go? I decide to stay and tolerate the stench, ‘cause I don’t feel like building a new modular home elsewhere.
So I'm figuring all the ways a raccoon could come to be dead right here. Old age? Disease? If a coyote killed it, it would have been eaten. It stinks bad. My thoughts are interrupted by an immense electrical slice through the air, a long, slow swoosh that sounds like a watermelon being slowly split open, and played through a really good set of headphones with the volume way up; followed by a bright white flash that blinded me in broad daylight, and a massive – MASSIVE – crack of thunder! I was so close to it that the thunder didn’t even sound like thunder. It was so crisp and pronounced. And I could swear I felt a shock wave! I kid you not! I even think my hair poofed back. Or it could have been me jumping out of my skin. I whip my head around and look down at the ground behind me, looking for damage, like a crack in the earth from when the ground shook, or smoke and smoldering wood. Nothing. I leak an hysterical giggle and try not to cry.
I sit dumbfounded, struggling between which took precedence, the awe of hearing a brand new sound at the age of – at my age or the disbelief of such a near-miss.
This is some big, bad lightening, and I'm honest to goodness scared. Those bolts are extremely close, and lots of them. The next one could very well hit this silver antenna I have sprawled out. I pull my knees to my chest, put my head down and start praying again. This is when life plays out in slow motion but spirituality is fast-tracked. Earlier, I was having a nice, casual conversation with God, telling Him what a good job He did with nature; now I’m flailing my hands in the air trying to get His attention, saying, “Hey, I’m right here! Remember all those nice things I said a little while ago?” God protects the weak and the helpless, you know. I thanked Him for that and then relaxed, and was able to enjoy the rest of the melee, which would eventually pass – like a kidney stone.
I glance over at the raccoon carcass, and it’s saturated with rain water, and maggots are crawling out from under it in droves, and the carcass deflated! I didn’t know it was full of maggots, and I didn’t know that maggots don’t like getting wet. Those little suckers were running for their lives, and in my direction! There were so many that I could have filled a gallon jug. Thank goodness for my good gag reflexes. They were making their way straight for me in formation, like rows of marching ants. It was like something out of a horror show. I’ve never seen anything like it. I think there’s a good chance I’ll have a nightmare about this.
In a panic, I stick a leg out and start stomping the maggots into the mud. All this lashing around made me bump the twigs that were propping up my tarp/lightning attractor and it dislodged, pouring pooled water on my flannel shirt that I was working very hard to keep dry. Since God was very close by I didn’t cuss. I fix the tarp, and when I look back at the maggots they had gained lots of ground. Lots! I didn’t know they could move that fast. I almost lost it. I frantically start stomping them with both feet, disgusted at what the underside of my shoes must look like. Then I notice a maggot on my ditty bag. OMG! THAT’S where I draw the line. As much as I hated to have to use my finger to flick it off, I had to. I knew I wouldn’t have enough time to find a twig before it crawled out of sight and I wouldn’t be able to find it. I flicked it. I had a moment of silence, then an involuntarily body shiver. I’m done. That’s it. Screw it. I’ve been sitting here sniffing dead raccoon long enough. I jump up, grab my life vest and ditty bag, snatch the tarp off the bushes and head for the kayak. I’d rather be struck by lightning than be consumed by maggots! But I’m prayed up, so I ought to be good to go.
I climb down the embankment, dragging my feet as much as possible to scrape the dead maggots off the bottom, toss my bag in the back of the kayak, put on my vest, and step off into the unseen-drop-off neck deep. Now I’m really freaked out, wondering how many maggots were still on the bottom of my shoes and got washed off in this mudectomy and are now floating on the surface of the water and will stick to me when I climb out!
Both of my $3 Goodwill Crocs bob to the surface. If I had lost my favorite water shoes, the day would have been a total bust. Period. I check the bottoms to make sure they're clean, and toss 'em over in the boat.
It's really hard getting out. Nowhere to get a foothold. And this little muddy platform is slick as snail snot. The vines and roots are out of reach, so I jab my elbows in the mud to hold myself in place long enough to think – and my first thought is of the recent alligator sightings, and the thought of getting grabbed by the ankle and pulled under! Adrenaline is a wonderful thing. I heave myself up, make it to all fours and steady myself, planting my hands in the very spot where I wiped maggot guts off my shoes. I consider myself a tough cookie, but this maggot thing has tested my tenacity.
My knees are losing their grip in this slime, and my muscles are strained and starting to shake. There's not enough room on the bank for me to get my feet up to jab my toes in the mud for traction. The slightest shift makes me slide. I reach for the kayak and wipe out. Back in the water. I'm assuming God's not close right now, so I let a few fly. With some very awkward positioning and maneuvers – thank the Lord no one is watching – I make it on the third try.
I’m safely in my kayak and the emotional fallout has dissipated. The storm has passed. I’m another mile downriver, and the wildlife has returned. Birds are chirping in stereo from all directions. The steam is floating on the surface of the water and I can see the railroad bridge in the distance. I’m back to Zen, even though I look and smell like something dumped out of a vacuum cleaner. Really, folks, who needs Prozac when you can have this? I load up the kayak and hurry home to take a shower. Can’t wait to do it again!