Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Each summer Amber takes her only vacation and since I take several throughout the year, I let her take care of the planning and destination for the week. In the past few years, we have joined other couples on vacation and the last two have been with our friends, Kip and Misty. Kip and I have shared some memorable hikes including a day lost in the Thompson River Gorge while Misty joins me only sparingly in the outdoors, much like Amber.
Early on the trip, you can see the limbs hang out over the river a long way in places. We would meet several of these limbs the hard way.

So it came as quite the surprise when through the initial planning phase of this year's trip mention was made of a canoe trip on the Edisto River and further concern was felt when I found out it would be 23 miles with an overnight stay in a tree house. Nonetheless, I felt comfortable enough in my outdoor prowess to just nod my head in agreement when Amber would levy questions as days clicked away toward our date with the river. As fate and Facebook would have it, not even a week away from the trip I found a link shared by a friend detailing a young girls plight after contracting the deadly brain eating amoeba, in the Edisto River. The price tag alone on a chance at treating the amoeba was listed at a staggering  $48,000 for one dose. I decided to do a little further research on the river and the next article was two hunters snagging a 12ft gator along with the next few articles being that of trophy gators pulled from the longest black water river in America. Amber freaks out if a ladybug gets in the house so I started thinking about what misery I was truly signing up for.
Despite crashing into a bridge a few feet into the trip, I felt confident enough to take this selfie.

The first day of vacation was spent traveling and coincided with Amber and I's five year wedding anniversary. Misty had booked the hotel for the evening and we arrived to find it sandwiched between the interstate and a bar attached to a Waffle House named Skynyrd's. Although named Comfort Inn, it did little to comfort me with what lied ahead and an AC unit that kept our room around 80 degrees for the evening.  The town of St. George had limited dining choices and we decided to live large after stopping by Bi-Lo to get the food needed for the trip, and try out Skynyrd's. It's one of the few bars left in America that you can still openly smoke in and the place was completely packed with the exception of two tables located in front of the stage. We settled into one of the empty booths and I watched as an elderly man worked frantically running wire and cable for what appeared to be karaoke. Surprisingly, the service and food was great and after a few beverages I started to enjoy the place. Some brave locals took turns belting out different songs with not a single bust before we finally retreated back to the room for the night.
The night before the canoe trip was just as treacherous. Hanging out at Skynyrd's.

The next morning we awoke to clear skies and warm temperatures early on. We ate at the hotel breakfast bar and snuck a few snacks for our dry bags for the trip down river. Leaving the city, we drove through the South Carolina country side for thirty minutes or so before pulling off an overgrown dirt road at Heritage Outfitters just across the highway 21 bridge over the Edisto River. The dirt road doubled back approaching the rivers edge and some wooden shacks, trailers, and a camper. The parking area on either side of the road was lined with cars and tall weeds between them. The place had the feel of somewhere that had been abandoned or the beginning of 80% of every scary movie. Amber and Misty managed to alert someone to our presence and an elderly woman greeted us quickly stating her and her husband were filling in for the owners who were away for the weekend, yet another red flag.
The USS Kern takes the lead. Look at the speed coming from that canoe!

The husband emerged from behind the shed greeting us saying the canoes were already loaded up and to go ahead and sign the waivers and pick out our life jackets. I kept staring at the canoes and asked if they would float me and the old man reassured me by saying sometimes they hold three people and gear "so they probably should." My life jacket was large sized but fit like a sports bra and smelled like it had been left in a litter box. I would soon discover the pleasant smell was the river itself. The older man had us gather before loading into the van for some final instructions. He took a stick and drew a curvy line in the sand and said, "Alright, the river is curvy so keep the canoes to the inside of the curve so you won't get hung up on the junk that hangs in the outer edges of curves. Now let's cover a list of everything that can kill you."

Over the next few minutes I discovered my concern for the brain eating amoeba and alligators were just the highlights of a long list of predators including water moccasins, copperheads, rattlesnakes, and something known as a red wasp that has an aggressive nature, "but if you hold your breath for about 10 minutes under water they will fly away," the older man said with a laugh. He gave us some pointers on basic canoe control before loading us all in the van for the nearly hour commute to the drop off point further up river. To pass the time, they decided to tell rescue stories of canoers past and how one girl had to walk to a road flag down a car and borrow dry clothes after losing her and her fiances possessions to the river in December. I tried to relax as much as possible knowing the air conditioning would be the last luxury I would have until Monday, but on the inside I was a ball of nerves.

Arriving at the drop off point near the highway 15 bridge the facilities weren't much better. A run down picnic shed was our staging area and the older man went to work unloading the canoes while we carried our gear to the river. We had packed two totes loaded with dry clothes and other needs for the stay. A smaller cooler contained all of our food for the nights meal to be cooked at the tree house and a larger cooler contained all of our drinks for the trip. Once we finished Kip and I brought the two canoes to the water's edge to await our final instruction. The old man looked at us somewhat perplexed and pointed downstream and said, "it's 13 miles that way," as he walked back up the bank to leave.

The most nerve wracking part for me was if I could even get in the canoe without turning it over. A tiny black butt shaped plastic seat with no back would be my perch for the journey and I positioned the canoe with the front ready for the launch at the water. We decided that we needed the majority of the weight so we took the food cooler, the heaviest tote, and Amber loading them in the front to offset my weight at the rear of the canoe. I carefully shoved Amber in before wading into the water and settling into my seat at the rear. A final push from Kip and we were afloat. It wasn't a beautiful thing with the canoe still tipping high on the front and my end low to the water, but we weren't going to sink! Kip and Misty were quick to the water with their canoe and joined us on the first of our thirteen miles for the day.

Only a few strokes in we had to go under the highway 15 bridge and Amber and I promptly steered straight into the concrete pillar bouncing off and rocking wildly heading downstream. Kip and Misty got a good laugh out of it and passed us up and would remain in the lead most of the day. The river opened up and was calm and wide and Amber and I worked together with our paddling techniques to see what worked best. Having never been in any kind of self propelled boat, it was a challenge and riding in the rear, I was responsible for steering. We practiced very briefly because the river soon narrowed and the first of many obstacles began to show up downstream. At times, we avoided the fallen trees and sometimes we bounced off of them but we were able to maintain our balance well enough to stay upright. The heat was the biggest factor and the sun beat down on us without a cloud in the sky. I had just applied my first round of sunscreen when I heard Misty grumbling up ahead, she had forgot their sunscreen so we were left with one spray bottle to last the entire trip! Amber tans very easily and purchased SPF30 so I was having to apply more frequently and could tell the bottle would be hard pressed to make it 13 miles.

Misty and Kip kept a healthy lead as we weaved around and under obstacles. I was just getting comfortable with maintaining my balance when Misty and Kip slowed approaching a low hanging limb. Misty was in the front of their canoe and broke one of the only rules the old man had told us about trying to push off an obstacle as she reached up grabbing the branch and promptly back-flipping into the river. The balance of the canoe was off so Kip was launched into the river as well and Amber and I looked on helplessly as their canoe completely overturned sending all the supplies into the water. Amber kind of went into shock paddling wildly and I managed to back us into the shore near an eroded boat ramp. Kip joined us and I told him to take my spot in the canoe with Amber and head off the overturned canoe floating down river. I jumped into the water and found that it was over my head but my life jacket allowed me to float and I made my way over to retrieve paddles and Misty before snagging the overturned canoe. I swam over to the old boat ramp and pushed the canoe as far up on the shore as I could before attempting to turn it over. The weight of the water in it made it a challenge but we got it turned over but not before sending some more of our supplies floating into the river. Amber and Kip retrieved them and we found that their dry bag had kept their phones and keys safe. Misty was injured early on bashing her leg on a slab of broken concrete under the water but other than that we were ok. I think all of us were a little rattled but we reloaded and started back down the river, only losing about twenty minutes. Looking back on it now, it seemed like we only went maybe half a mile before our next disaster awaited us.
Taking some back medicine after crash two on the Edisto River. This may be my favorite picture from the trip. The river looks so peaceful but it thrashed us.

As I mentioned earlier, The Edisto River is a black water river and anything below the surface more than a few inches is practically invisible. With sandy banks, erosion is a huge problem and any trees along the banks often end up in the river. Amber and I were cruising along when suddenly the back of our canoe caught one of the trees below the surface launching me headfirst into the water. When I resurfaced I saw Amber bobbing alongside me and our canoe had thankfully stayed upright but had took on some water. The stretch of river wasn't very deep and I was quick to my feet and grabbed the canoe unleashing a string of obscenitities. Misty, Kip, and Amber were on the opposite shore laughing at me as I slugged across to join them feeling defeated. Kip was beaming as he said, "there's the face from 605 I remember!" I told them that if I crashed that canoe one more time that I was calling someone to come get me. My back was already hurting and I smelled awful from my two swims so far. We took a few minutes to regroup and drain the water from the canoe before heading back into the river. I had kept an eye open for mile markers painted on bird houses along the route but had yet to spot the first one. When we took a break about an hour later on a sandy spot along the shore, Kip said he had seen mile marker 100 just a bit earlier. We had only made it a few miles into the trip and still had nine miles of river to travel before the tree house. Back on the river, Amber and I worked out an agreement that she would paddle the straight stretches to give us speed and I would steer the curves while she rested so we were less likely to hit anything at full tilt. Our plan actually worked pretty well and despite losing sight of Misty and Kip for long stretches I was starting to unwind a bit. In the distance however, I could hear random gun shots and wondered what or maybe even who they were shooting at. A long metal dock protruded over the river high above us and Amber said she wouldn't want to walk on it about the time I spotted a teenager sitting on it. He and his buddy proceeded to taunt us saying, "you better paddle, and what are you looking at?" and began to shoot into the water after we rounded the next turn. If I had not been so concerned with keeping up with Misty and Kip, I would have loved to have had a word with them. When we caught up to Misty and Kip she told us they were dumping buckets of what looked like fish guts and we thought they could have been luring in gators to shoot at. All it did for me was encourage me to stay in my boat for the rest of the trip.
Thank God! Dry land at last!

Several uneventful hours passed on the water aside from the occasional scrape along a tree branch or jumping a log submerged below the surface but Amber and I stayed dry. I could tell my legs were already burning despite my liberal application of sunscreen and my back continued to ache. The river narrowed in spots and speed was easily found in small rapids and we even spotted a few mile markers along the way. Turtles were on nearly every log and Amber and I looked forward to seeing them trying to get close before they would slide into the water. Things were looking up for us and some of the debris that clogged the early going was now nowhere to be found and we both rested at times letting the water carry us downstream. It had been about an hour since we had seen Kip or Misty but we hadn't found any sign of a crash either so we weren't overly concerned. I had an over the shoulder sling 1.5 liter bottle of water and realized I was running low and hadn't been drinking as often as I should in the heat and suddenly my hand cramped up so bad I couldn't hold the paddle. I told Amber something had happened to me and she said it was from dehydration and I drank one of the bottle waters laying in the bottom of the canoe. I used my opposite hand to take my disfigured left hand and wrap it back around the paddle after a few minutes the cramping stopped and I spotted the yellow paddle nailed to the tree signifying we were entering the wildlife refuge. In only a few minutes we passed a small side stream that cut the tree house island off from the mainland and passed the first small tree house. I slowed my paddling as Amber and I looked carefully where to come ashore at the next tree house. I could hear Misty guiding us in and our landing area was kind of deep but we steered the canoe as close to the shore as we could before I bailed out to drag us up on the island.
The 13 miles took it out of me and Amber.

I was so exhausted I shed my life jacket and collapsed on top of a picnic table underneath the tree house on a small deck. Amber joined me and after a few minutes we all started to explore the area we would call home for the night. The tree house was nice with a small grill for cooking and a stove for heating water, there was a loft with mattresses, a futon, and table and chairs. There was no electricity however and it was so hot I decided I would sleep in my hammock in some trees nearby. I unpacked my hammock and strung it up between two sturdy trees and sat there soaking up the breeze from my swinging. Kip and Amber tied off their hammocks close by and we all relaxed for a bit while Misty used the rope hammock tied near the tree house to cool off. I almost drifted off to sleep when I heard a commotion thinking Misty had fell out but instead a large piece of tree limb had broke off from above her and almost smashed her where she laid. I was beginning to wonder how much more would happen before our luck would run out completely.
Kip blends in his new Hangar hammock...locally made in Johnson City, TN.
Right before Misty was almost crushed by a falling tree limb.
Amber napping before dinner.

Luckily we had managed to keep our food dry and Kip settled in to preparing our dinner for the evening while Misty, Amber, and I explorer the island. The other tree houses weren't booked for the night so we were able to go in and check them out as well. The little island was neat with bridges and nice walking paths connecting the three houses. When we arrived back at our camp, dinner was in full swing and smelling delicious. I retreated to my hammock while everyone else hung on the deck. Again I had almost fell asleep when Misty said she saw a panther through the woods. I flopped around in my hammock trying to get to my feet and found her panther to be a mangy black cat with a missing piece of ear. The poor thing was a bag of bones and meowed every other breath, I couldn't believe it was even alive on an island so far from civilization. We named the cat Ed in honor of the Edisto River and he stayed with us for the evening maybe anticipating dinner even more than me. Despite all our blunders and mishaps, dinner was stellar. Kip prepared us chicken with asparagus, potatoes, and corn on the cob. The food was so good we had very little conversation as we ate and Ed happily munched on chicken beneath our picnic table. After dinner we eagerly awaited sunset hoping it would cool us off as temperatures still hovered around 94 degrees. As the last light of the day faded, we gathered to play UNO by lamp light and enjoyed several rounds before heading to the hammocks for the night. Somehow Kip managed to take his hammock down and join Misty in the tree house leaving Amber and I alone in ours for the night. To her credit, Amber was going to tough it out because she knew I always wanted to hammock camp. I could tell she was scared but we talked to each other until I had an idea. It was still 90 degrees at 10pm and I pretty much knew sleep would be impossible no matter where I was at so I asked if she would like to walk up to the next tree house and sleep for the night. She agreed and we grabbed our gear and moved into the tallest of the tree houses. Once inside I stripped down completely only wearing a head lamp and helped Amber adjust the futon into a bed. We laid there in the dark talking about what a crazy day it has been as my feet hung off one end of the futon and my head off the other. The first day of year six of marriage would definitely be an unforgettable one!
Exploring the island before dinner.
Our tree house along the river.

Surprisingly, I actually slept a few hours and when I did wake seeing Amber there sleeping peacefully made me feel better as well. By 7am we both were up and made our way back over to the main camp to get an early start on the heat and the 10 miles we had ahead of us that morning. My legs were burned pretty good but I had already decided I would cover them with towels on the ride down river and would wear a long sleeve shirt to protect my arms. I laughed as we packed up our totes at the pair of wool knee socks I had brought in case I got cold!
Kip prepares dinner.
Ed the river cat. We will never forget him.

Ed the cat lounged on the deck and watched us as we loaded the canoes. Each of us took turns using the outhouse with Amber being the unlucky last to go. Again Amber and I were first in the water and we steered our canoe with ease..straight across the river and into the opposite bank! Kip and Misty were right behind us as Ed meowed to us from the shore. Once we recovered from our steering mishap it was smooth sailing on day two and frankly, I found myself enjoying canoeing. Amber and I had mastered turning and we negotiated some tricky downfall without incident. As we continued down river the sound of Interstate 95 grew louder and I knew that we would only have around an hour left once we passed under it. When it came into sight, I'll admit I was more than a little excited.
Dinner time! The potatoes were cooked in grilling bags and soaked in Italian dressing.
Inside the tree house.

Just past the bridge we took our last break on the Edisto River at a sand bar allowing for bathroom breaks and stretching. The ease in which I docked the canoe brought a certain level of pride and everyone seemed to be in great spirits. The final hour of trip we spent side by side with Misty and Kip telling stories and laughing about our vacation planning. We arrived back at the Outfitters to find no one there and I took the liberty of showering off with a water hose by the shed. We tossed our totes in the cars and cranked the air conditioners wide open as we set off for fast food and a beach house.
Sunset over the river.
Amber toughing it out.

Looking back on my first (and perhaps last) canoe trip has been a blast. Although I was nervous, uncomfortable, in pain, and downright scared at times, it was a great life experience. Having my friends along for the trip made it even better and seeing Amber step out of her comfort zone because she thought it would be something I would enjoy makes me realize how much she loves me or maybe she just knows that my insurance policy information is up to date. Regardless, until next time, happy trails.
The morning after. I was tired but happy.