AMERICA’S MOST WANTED
Thanksgiving brought another boring weekend for Christy and I. It started with a mysterious back injury, and ended with a bizarre manhunt involving police departments from 2 different states. In the midst of all of that, we canoed one of the most remote rivers in the southeast.
On Thursday we loaded our gear and drove to Winston-Salem to visit my mother for Thanksgiving. That afternoon, Christy complained of a sore back. We weren’t sure what had happened, but feared that she may have injured it while helping me load the canoe on the car. Ultimately, we decided to see how she felt on Friday morning before leaving for the trip.
We were up at 5 the next morning. Christy’s back still hurt, but she didn’t want to bail out on the trip. We drove to Greensboro to meet Myron, Dorcas, Wayne, and Linda for breakfast. On the way, we passed a Best Buy, where a line of eager shoppers stretched all the way around the parking lot. I’d never felt as warm as I did then as I viewed those poor fools enduring sub-freezing temperatures long before sunrise. I hope the cheap DVD players were worth it!
After a hearty breakfast, we headed up I-85 through Durham and into southern Virginia. We left the highway shortly beyond the state line, and continued east to the town of Emporia. We found the Meherrin River downtown, and met Don and Sandy at a small park there. After unloading, Myron, Wayne, Don, and Christy all left to run the shuttle. Dorcas, Linda, Sandy, and I loaded our gear and waited for them to return.
It was a good hour and a half before everyone returned in Christy’s car. It was a sunny but chilly day as we finally left the town behind. The Meherrin is fairly small, but the water level had risen 7 feet the prior day, thanks to heavy rains earlier that week. The extra water promised a quicker, and hopefully easier, passage. This was encouraging, as we had 36 miles to cover by Sunday afternoon.
We passed under a bridge and drifted by a few houses and a baseball field. Then we entered the woods and began a 25-mile stretch of river without a single road or building. The remoteness promised a true wilderness experience, but it also signified total commitment. There was no turning back, and no way to bail out without finishing the trip.
This was exciting, but also cause for concern. Our 20+ year-old guidebook warned that fallen trees occasionally block the river. What if we couldn’t get through? The forest on either side of the river is a dense thicket that would be difficult to portage a canoe through.
We reached the first blockage after only a few miles. Wayne and Don were heroic as they moved logs out of the channel. Wayne made good use of his hand saw as he cut a path through the debris. In fact, Wayne looked a lot like a true northwoodsman, dressed as he was in a red flannel shirt and brown vest. After clearing a path, I half expected him to walk out into the debris and start spinning logs with his feet for an encore.
The next blockage was impassable. We portaged the canoes through a dense forest full of briars. Luckily we were able to hack a path through the jungle. Later, we reached the most dangerous obstacle of the trip. Once again, a log jam blocked most of the river. This time we had to float sideways up against a fallen tree. The tree was at water level at the stern, but in the air above the front of the canoe. Once we got through the tangle of logs, the current caught the canoe and swung the boat downstream, under the end of the fallen tree. This was bad for me, since the back of the canoe has a funny habit of following the front, and there were only a few inches of clearance between the top of the canoe and the bottom of the tree. I played limbo, and somehow pulled myself under and around the tree. I’ll never know how I got through there without getting knocked out of the canoe.
All of this full-contact canoeing wasn’t helping Christy’s back. Slipping over, under, and through the trees required acrobatics that she wasn’t up to. By afternoon, the pain had increased to the point where I was doing almost all of the paddling. I had her help when obstacles required difficult maneuvering, but for the most part I was paddling solo. It was the first time I had really steered a canoe by myself. I picked a fun trip to try it on, given that we were in a 17’ canoe, heavily laden with 2 people, a dog, and camping gear. To add to the challenge, the river featured an endless series of bends that forced me to constantly turn one way or the other.
Likely campsites were few and far between. Early on, we passed through numerous clear cuts. The loggers had left a strip of trees along the banks, but nobody wanted to camp in a clear cut. Beyond the logged areas, the forests were typically too dense for pitching tents. Around 4pm, we finally found a pleasant, relatively open spot featuring some large trees. We pulled in, and I set up camp while Christy rested her back. That night I gave her numerous doses of liquid pain killers. We relaxed around the campfire, and listened to the owls as we enjoyed our traditional post-Thanksgiving steaks. It was an enjoyable evening, after a long and tiring day. I could only hope that Christy would be able to get out of the tent the next morning, as we still had almost 30 miles to go.
Christy was still in pain Saturday morning, but she was still able to function. She even helped me break camp after we indulged in a breakfast of eggs, bacon, and fried potatoes.
That morning, we made steady progress under gray skies that threatened rain. The night before, temperatures had dropped below freezing, and the morning clouds prevented much warming. I actually wore several layers of clothes as we worked our way slowly downstream. Luckily, this section of river was clearer, and we were able to make steady progress without all of the obstacles.
The scenery improved as well. The woods were thick, lending to the sense of total isolation. Bird sightings were frequent, including herons, turkeys, hawks, and cardinals. Christy spotted an otter, and the deer were numerous, despite the presence of hunters and dogs throughout the area. At one point, we spotted a young buck swimming down the river. He got out on the far bank, but was favoring an injured leg. I’m not sure if he had been shot, or if he had hurt himself while trying to flee.
We stopped for lunch after covering 8 miles. We approached the bank, and Saucony began to quiver with excitement at the prospect of getting out of the boat. She enjoys canoeing, but it’s the time we spend on shore, where she can run and enjoy the smells, that she prefers. As we pulled up to the bank, she provided the weekend’s entertainment by jumping off the wrong side. I’m not sure what she was thinking, but she splashed into the water like a teenager doing a cannonball off of the high dive. How deep was the river? I’d see at least 2 dogs deep, if not more. She looked like a traumatized beaver when she finally made it to shore.
After a quick lunch, we were back on the river. A few sprinkles warned of more rain to come. We paddled another 8 miles that afternoon, before reaching something we hadn’t seen all trip – a bridge. It was the first sign of civilization after 25 miles of paddling. After some discussion, Christy and I decided to stop there. She was in considerable pain, and floating in the canoe, even without paddling, wasn’t helping. We bid our friends farewell, as they planned to continue another 11 miles into North Carolina to the takeout. I could only hope we’d be able to catch a ride back to town with someone before dark.
There was an easy take out on the west side of the river, just upstream from the bridge. We walked up to the road, and found ourselves surrounded by cotton fields. About 100 yards away, we spotted an old, rundown farmhouse. Out by a large shed was an old Dodge Colt that looked like it might make it to Emporia if the wind was blowing in the right direction. I walked down the road, which could best be described as lonely. It is only a narrow strip of unpainted asphalt. Obviously, it doesn’t get much traffic, and our best hope for a ride was probably at the farmhouse.
I began to have second thoughts as I approached the two-story house. It appeared to be badly neglected, with peeling paint and broken windows. As I approached, thick gray clouds gathered overhead, threatening to let loose at any moment. I climbed the steps to the front porch, and passed a 1960’s era exercise bike. From inside, I could hear the sounds of a television, playing what sounded like an episode of “The Twilight Zone”. I rapped on the door.
I heard nothing, except for the television. I knocked again. Then I noticed that the front door was secured with a padlock. I went around to a side door featuring a smashed window. I knocked again, and called out a reluctant hello. Again, there was no answer, but I was developing a major case of the creeps. I half expected Norman Bates to pop into view at any moment. Finally I beat a hasty retreat.
I rejoined Christy, and we considered our options. Myron thought it was 10 or 12 miles to town by the road. I could walk back in a few hours, but the chance of catching a ride after dark seemed minute. Finally we decided to camp where we were if someone didn’t come along in the next few minutes.
I heard the truck long before I saw it. I ran out to the road, and a hunter pulled up. I explained the situation, but he wasn’t heading to Emporia. He did tell me it was a 20 to 25 minute drive back to town. That meant a prohibitively long walk unless he was a very slow driver.
Disappointed, I returned to the river, and we began to make plans to camp. A few minutes later, I heard another truck, and jogged out to the road. The same hunter had returned! He told us that he felt bad about our situation, and wasn’t in that big of a hurry. He agreed to give me a lift into town. What a relief! On the way, I found out that he had been an avid canoeist himself in his younger days. He had never paddled the Meherrin, but had run many fine rivers, like the James and the New, in Virginia and North Carolina.
After 14 miles, we reached the park in downtown Emporia. I was alarmed to see that the road into the park was gated! Luckily it wasn’t locked, and I was able to open it. My new friend wouldn’t accept any money for his gas or his time. Clearly people like him are something to be thankful for.
I drove back to pick up Christy. We packed the car, and I managed to get the canoe loaded by myself. It was just after dark when we began the long drive back to Charlotte. I wondered how our friends were doing, and hoped they had found a good campsite as the rain finally began.
It wasn’t until we checked the messages on Christy’s cell phone that we found out about the weekend’s real drama. We had messages from Christy’s sister, our neighbors, and even the police. Apparently we shouldn’t have left Christy’s car at the park in Emporia. There weren’t any signs to this effect, but that didn’t prevent the local police from becoming alarmed. Somehow, they jumped to the conclusion that our car had been stolen and abandoned there. They contacted the Charlotte police department, who paid a visit to our house on Saturday to make sure nothing was amiss. They talked to our neighbors and Christy’s sister, Megan, who informed the police that we had gone canoeing for the weekend. The Emporia police couldn’t believe we were canoeing The Meherrin, saying that “nobody canoes that river.” Luckily, Megan was able to convince them not to tow our car. After our day on Saturday, I can’t imagine what I would’ve done if I had made it back to Emporia only to find the car missing.
We returned lots of phone calls on our drive home. On the way, we reflected on an exciting trip on a river nobody ever canoes. More importantly, our weekend reminded us of all that we have to be thankful for – from good friends to share life’s best experiences with, to the kindness of total strangers.
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