On being lost in a swamp – the middle

Eastern screech owl

Eastern screech owl. Tiny package, big voice. Photo: Congaree National Park

This is the second installment of my tale of being lost in a swamp. If you want to see how we got here, click to the beginning.
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When last we left our band of intrepid, if terrified, paddlers, we were experiencing a harrowing night. Turns out the shrieking monkey slaughter sounds were pint-sized screech owls, not much bigger than starlings, but that didn’t do much to calm our pounding hearts. I don’t think any of us slept much. We were all totally out of our element. We’d left the last comfort zone miles back, somewhere by the fried quail.

The next morning we woke to a gray gloom. We had a map but without any landmarks it didn’t do us much good. We weren’t even sure we had entered the swamp at the main entrance so we could be anywhere. Remember, these were the days long before cell phones and GPSs. Between all of us we had two compasses, both of which had gone belly up – what are the chances of that? I mean, a compass is a pretty simple tool – how could not only one but BOTH of them not work?? I’m convinced it was the curse of the Congaree. Even the sun had disappeared and we were now socked in by clouds, no way to figure east or west. All that we could see was dull and monotonously repetitive, each direction looking exactly the same. It’s disconcerting to have absolutely no points of reference. Things start getting pretty existential pretty fast.

Congaree flooding

Imagine this without the boardwalk and you can start to picture how difficult it was to orient yourself without landmarks or the sun. Photo: Congaree National Park

Despite it all, a little of our pluckiness resurfaced. What good is youth if it lacks reckless optimism? We knew we had to be near the hunting lodge and this was the day to meet Ranger Rick, who I was now ready to forgive if he would just get us oriented properly. So what if the swamp is 27,000 acres? That’s big but it’s not like we were plopped down in the middle of the Sahara desert. Full of confidence, we jumped in our canoes and fanned out, leaving our campsite, gear, and still very sick leader behind. We could see each other through the trees, hear each pair of paddlers whispering strategy like we were on a scavenger hunt. Sarah and I spied a blue diamond on a tree, then another just beyond, and another. Aha! The trail to the lodge! We were going to be the first to find it. Off we set.

We followed diamond after diamond, peering through the trees for some sign of the lodge. Nothing. As our initial excitement wore off, we began to realize how still it was. Oddly we couldn’t hear anyone anymore. Giving up, we turned around and backtracked. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, right? Just follow them back to our campsite, right?

Somehow things didn’t look the same going in the other direction. No signs of the others or the camp. We kept going, not wanting to leave our trail of bright blue bread crumbs. Not wanting to think about the hungry swamp witch who might be waiting at the end.

Golden silk orb-weaver

A golden silk orb-weaver can get up to six inches, including the legs, and spin webs over three feet in diameter. Though not as powerful, its venom has the same neurotoxins as that of a black widow, and they have been known to kill small birds and snakes. They sometimes weave a fence of silk around their web with dead carcasses hanging from it to protect the web from someone foolhardy enough to blunder through. Photo: Congaree National Park

Hours passed. We finally stopped and realized we were abysmally lost. We’d been yelling ’til we were hoarse with no peep from our crew. We’d been so eager to find the lodge that we hadn’t packed any food, let alone dry clothes or a tent. We were soaked and it was getting colder. Still no landmarks, just miles of dense flooded trees. No guts (and certainly no glory) and no dry land in sight. Cool, calm and collected Sarah broke down and started crying. Since she beat me to it, I had to be the strong one. Terrific.

By now I was inured to wading in the water. Snakes be damned. Standing there wondering which way to go, I tried channeling Sacagawea until I realized she wouldn’t have been so stupid to get herself lost without food or blankets in the first place. I tried reassuring Sarah but it sounded pretty lame even to me. All I could think about was that we were going to have one miserable night. What if we couldn’t find dry land? Can two people sleep in a canoe on water? What else might join us in the dark?

Over Sarah’s sobs, I realized I could hear a gurgling. Shushing her, I tried to locate it. As we followed the sound, our spirits rose – a gut!! (Okay, sometimes it’s the little things…) Some last vestige of directional sense told us we should follow it upstream. We paddled and paddled like crazy women.

Before we knew it, we were right back at the entrance to the swamp! We could see the narrow path where we had strayed as a group the day before. We repeated the effing hauling of the canoe between the trees. It went faster this time since we weren’t loaded down with all that pesky food and gear that could have saved our lives. Finally, lo and behold, our camp appeared before us like a vision of Shangri-La. We burst into camp shouting giddily, “We’re back, we’re here, we’re alive!”

No one had even realized we were gone. So much for our grand homecoming. Plus we still didn’t know where we were; no one else had found the lodge either. We spent another night there, despondent once again (though Sarah and I had a much greater appreciation for the merits of food, shelter and companions). Someone had seen a snake near the camp, which made us all tense. Peter was still puking. The monkeys were still being slaughtered. And we all sat in the dark knowing that Wednesday had come and gone and we’d missed our chance of meeting the ranger.

The next morning Peter was at least vertical, if a bit wobbly, so we packed up the camp and set off again, this time staying tightly together. After more flailing around, we miraculously managed to stumble upon the lodge. We leapt onto land (more than a few inches above the water – what a joyous feeling!) and ran toward it. The old hunting lodge was a big, dark, menacing structure. And quiet, so very, very quiet. And locked. As we looked around, each of us felt the tiny flicker of hope that Ranger Rick would still be around wink out. We were on our own. We returned to our canoes. After some heated debate, we agreed on a direction to head. We needed to find the Congaree again, that mighty river no one paddles up, so we could get to the warm, dry cabin we’d rented downstream of the swamp.

That proved to not be so easy. We wandered for several more days, spirits dampening. Endless brown water, unchanging trees, gray skies. No sun. No landmarks. We must have looked at our useless compasses a million times, willing them to work. The map was by now a blob of goo. We began to have the sneaking suspicion we were going in circles.

Turkey vultures

Turkey vultures. Photo: Congaree National Park

We weren’t talking much. Eden, the city kid, had developed an alarming tic. Each evening, after endless paddling, we would search for a place dry enough to put our tents, camping on whatever dismal, soggy patch of land we could find. One night the best we could do was the size of a postage stamp; our tents were huddled so close their sides all touched and you had to walk in the water to get around them. We were literally an inch above the swamp, sucking into it with each step. We looked like children of the mud.

We started to get a little crazy. Eden was fraying more, the whites showing around his eyes, his voice getting higher with hysteria. He began harping on Donald, who did have a habit of wandering off just when the dishes needed washing, though I’m not sure this was intentional. We tried to calm him down, but none of us felt much better. The days were taking their toll. We could never get dry. It felt like everything, including ourselves, was growing a green furry layer of mold, turning into swamp muck. At least we’d stayed clear of snakes and alligators. And we still had peanut butter, though we didn’t know how long we’d have to make it last.

The Donner Party jokes started to take on an edge as we sized each other up.

To be continued…

Categories: tangents | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “On being lost in a swamp – the middle

  1. Ash

    I’m on the edge of my seat! Do you make it out alive or not?! (I laughed out loud when the Turkey Vulture photo came into view…)

  2. I’d tell you but I don’t want to spoil it 😉

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