This is the third, and final, installment of the swamp saga. If you want to catch up, read the beginning and the middle.
So where were we? Oh yes, we were still lost in the miasma, losing all definition of where our bodies ended and the swamp began. And running short on food. The only good thing about those best-forgotten days was Peter came back from his vomitous, stygian trip to Hades. There wasn’t much he could do but he at least he was now our fearless leader again as we paddled in circles. Once in a while we would hear a plane fly high overhead and we’d try to find an opening in the trees, waving our paddles frantically. Surely they would send a search party at some point. But nothing. Nada. Back to paddling.
We were seriously starting to lose hope, circling the canoes to stare dully at each other, wondering which pointless direction to head next. Then someone noticed a beer can floating by in the water.
At first it didn’t register but then we realized we hadn’t seen any other signs of human civilization since the lodge. Soon a Fritos bag (do they even still make those?) followed and then a wadded up cigarette package. And another beer can. The increasing floating parade of trash became our talismans of salvation. We followed the growing trail, hungry swamp creatures yelping with glee at the next find.
Saved by litter. Suddenly we were on the edge of the swamp looking at the mighty Congaree flowing by. The sun came out for the first time in over a week. We looked around, blinking, still not sure where we were. Since we knew we couldn’t paddle upstream, we pulled out and started floating down, little more than litter ourselves by that point. We laughed and cheered, maybe cried a little. We rafted the canoes together and had a celebratory lunch with the last of our food, soaking up the sun. All was right in our world once again. Eden even managed to high five Donald.
And then, ka-BOOM!! We looked up and massive storm clouds pierced by lightening were bearing down on us. Fast. How could this be? We’d had all of a 20 minute interlude. The wind started whipping around. We quickly unlashed the canoes as they started pitching wildly. The wind turned into a gale and the rain came pounding down.
The wind got so strong it was a struggle to keep the canoe perpendicular to the waves. We were spread out across the expanse of river and moving fast downstream. The threat of breaching became very real as we were battered about. We tried to get to shore but the river was so high it had flooded the dense willows along the banks and there wasn’t any place to land. We whipped by a boat launch but were past before we could get over to it, little rubber ducks being sucked down a huge drain.
The waves were now at least four feet high and breaking over the gunnels of the canoes. I felt sure we were going to flip since the canoes were pretty much impossible to control by this time. We looked for our scattered companions. Peter was yelling something and pointing back upstream. He’d turned his canoe and was paddling back toward the boat launch we’d passed. Upstream. Which couldn’t be done. Except that he was doing it. No better options presenting themselves, Sarah and I turned our canoe around too and started to paddle with everything we had.
With the wind now at our backs and the waves going with us, we managed to do the impossible and paddle up the Congaree. Somehow we all got back to the launch and collapsed, soaked and exhausted. A guy hanging out in an old pickup gave us cokes and offered to drive us to the cabin we’d rented for the end of the trip. Pure human kindness.
There was food at the cabin. We made a huge pot of spaghetti and drank a lot of wine. We were alive. All of us. No one eaten by snakes or alligators or each other. We had hot showers and dry beds and a roof over our heads. We were delirious with being human again. Okay, Eden finally lost his shit and accused Donald of being the spawn of the devil, but we managed to talk him down and tuck him into bed.
The rest of us were a little shell-shocked too. It felt weird to be in a house. It was no longer something to be taken for granted. We were also totally bonded from this experience. All of us now knew what it felt like to be completely, utterly lost for days on end with no certainty of the outcome. As the boundaries between us and nature had started to blur, the connections between us became all the more important.
and tree root muscles
green leaf skin
~ Jane Reichhold
Maybe this is why this story has been so on my mind lately. While the thought of building my own house is sometimes a murky blur as to how it will all work out, it’s not as bad as being lost in a swamp. There are no snakes or alligators. I have my mates to help me figure it out, and they make all the difference in the world. While I realized how little you really need to survive – food, shelter, water – I don’t know if any of us would have lasted if we hadn’t had each other, even as prickly as things became.
I learned a lot of other things on that trip too. Follow your gut where it leads, listen for the flowing water, and watch for the floating Fritos bag. And just because someone says you can’t paddle up the river doesn’t mean you won’t find a way…
I am so glad you made it out alive!