Michael C. Keith
In the late spring, it rained hard and constant across central and south Missouri. When it stopped, the rivers, ponds, and lakes in the region had all risen to record heights. Flooding claimed fields, farms, animals, and businesses, prompting the governor to declare the entire area a disaster zone. A month later, I joined my two brothers-in-law, Terry and Alan, and we visited the Ozarks. Part of the trip included a planned canoe ride down the Gasconade River south of Rolla.
Living on the East Coast, we hadn’t fully appreciated just how the monsoon-like weather had so impacted part of the “Show Me” state. We needed to be shown and would be. While we had heard about all the damage on the news, we figured that by the time we got there, things would be pretty much back to normal, and they were . . . pretty much.
When we rented our canoe at the Boiling Spring Campground, we were told to keep an eye out for the many trees and bushes that had been pulled from the banks into the river because of the long rains.
“Currents are real strong in places, too, ‘cause of the rise, so watch yourselves, fellas,” advised the gregarious rental clerk, as she led us to our canoe. “Be at Connor’s Landing around four o’clock. Someone will be there to fetch you and the canoes and drive you back. This is the spot on the map right here. You should get there well before pickup ‘cause of the conditions. Takes not much more than half the time now. Pretty much sit back and enjoy the ride, but keep clear of the floaters and floppers. They can mess up your day for certain.”
“Floppers?” I asked.
“Yeah, the trees on the bank that have fallen into the river.”
Terry had canoed the 280 mile river at different points back when he was an engineering student at the state university in Rolla, and he told us he’d capsized a couple times on it. He expected there was a good possibility we’d experience the same fate given the river’s current state (current being the buzzword). His prediction didn’t exactly instill calm in me, but I figured he might just be playing to my skittishness, since I’d never been canoeing before.
“Just make sure your Mae West is on snuggly, so if we flip over you won’t lose it like I did once.”
Before getting into the boat, I made sure my life preserver was on securely. I was a weak swimmer at best and figured it might be the only thing between me and drowning. Climbing into the canoe was a challenge in itself and we came close to taking a dunk before we had even set out. I took the seat in the stern and Terry claimed the one in the keel; this made us the helmsmen. Alan sat between us on the bottom of the canoe under its yoke. By the time we reached the middle of the river, I had a decent idea of what to do thanks to instruction from my fellow shipmates.
“Got it, guys. You’re in good hands with Captain Keith,” I assured them, as the canoe picked up speed on its own.
“Oh man, we’re in deep trouble now,” cracked Alan.
“We won’t have to row much due to the strong currents. Just have to keep her from hitting anything. Looks like there’s a bunch of debris on both sides,” said Terry, surveying the river ahead.
The weather was perfect, but there were few people on the river. An hour passed uneventfully before things took a frightening turn . . . literally. Suddenly, the canoe swung left and we were headed toward a large fallen tree extending out from the shore. The swift current had us in its inescapable grip and, despite our frantic paddling, we crashed into the huge branches. I shouted to my brother-in-law to push away by shoving against an overhanging tree limb, but the current’s fierce pull had its way with us.
The bow of the canoe dipped as the water rushed into it, and I ducked under one branch only to be struck by another. I just barely managed to cling to it as the canoe and my brothers-in-law vanished in the dense maze of leaning and broken tree parts and churning water. My inner voice screamed, “Shit! Shit! Shit!” as I gasped for air and clung to the branch, trying to gauge the distance to solid ground. Maybe I can make it. Shimmy across, I thought, my sense of doom opening full throttle. I don’t have the strength to lift myself up onto the limb. Damn! Okay, just drop into the water, then. You have a life jacket on. You’ll just go with the current. Maybe meet up with Alan and Terry . . . if they’re okay, I told myself.
I attempted to take a deep breath, but couldn’t because my lungs were constricted from my debilitating fear. Then I let go and dropped into the roiling river and was quickly pulled under and swept forward. In a matter of seconds, I found myself in shallow water no more than knee deep. Thank God! I’m okay! Still, with my strength sapped, it took everything I had just to stand.
“You all right?” shouted Alan, who was a few feet away, standing next to our submerged canoe.
Between us stood Terry, motionless. It took me a moment before I could catch my breath to answer.
“I think so,” I grunted, and began to wade in his direction.
As I moved, I discovered that I was missing my watch and hat and had a large scrape on the upper part of my left arm.
“How about you guys?” I asked.
“Lost my camera and flip-flops,” answered Terry, seemingly frozen in place.
“Something wrong? You hurt?”
“No . . . can’t move too fast because the rocks under my feet are sharp as broken glass.”
“You lose the paddle?” inquired Alan.
It was then that I realized I had. “Dammit, I guess so,” I admitted, looking back to where I’d been hanging from the tree branch.
The three of us slowly waded to the bank while pulling and emptying out our sunken canoe.
“Told you guys this would happen,” said Terry.
“Thanks for the heads up,” I said, attempting to lighten the moment.
“Yeah, wish you’d told us before we planned on coming here,” added Alan, with a smirk. “You’d make a lousy travel agent.”
“Well, we got the canoe anyway,” replied Terry. “We’re lucky about that.”
“But we lost a paddle, so how are we going to get down to the landing?”
“In circles,” quipped Terry.
“I think I see it up the bank in some branches,” announced Alan. “I’ll get it.”
A few minutes later, he returned with the lost paddle. Streams of blood trickled down his arms from the barbs he had encountered.
“Holy crap, man! What happened to you?” blurted Terry.
“Just scratches. Looks worse than it is,” said Alan, handing me the retrieved paddle.
After catching our breath, we climbed back into the canoe and propelled to the middle of the river, vigilant for more dangers. Without further incident, we neared the pickup point about an hour later. When we spotted the mooring, we let out a collective sigh. Alan had managed to clean his bloody arms by dipping them into the moving river, and I noticed the bruise on my arm had already turned into a large blot of purple with skinny red tentacles reaching out from it in all directions.
We pulled the canoe from the water and dragged our weary bodies to a patch of shade and pretty much collapsed. No one said anything as we each contemplated the significance of what had happened to us. Finally, I broke the silence by commenting that I thought we were lucky to be alive.
“Nah, it wasn’t as bad as when I flipped the canoe back when I was in college,” said Terry.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I died,” replied Terry, laughing at his own joke.
In the days and weeks that followed, our mishap became the stuff of legend. In our epic retelling, we had all died . . . many times.