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A paddle? Where's the canoe? - Ed Brock

Sitting steaming around the campfire, we all agreed it was the third wave that got us.

The Sipsey River still surged down below us, and somewhere in it was our canoe with my backpack strapped to it and, for all we knew, one member of our party who remained unaccounted for.

Things had gone horribly sideways for our little weekend canoe trip.

It had begun with a vicious rain Friday night that blew the canoe half way off the top of my friend Brad's car as we were making our way to the campground. I had initially wanted to postpone the trip until the following morning because the forecast had called for flash floods and severe weather just north of Birmingham. But Brad had insisted that the worst would blow past quickly and so I trusted his superior knowledge of the area around the Bankhead National Forest where we were bound.

He actually turned out to be mostly correct about that. After stopping in the driving rain to retie the canoe onto the roof we pushed through to the campsite and as we pulled into the parking area the storm had retired to its corner like a boxer who was cut but still had plenty of fight left in him. It was just waiting for the bell to ring on round two, the coming of the flood.

We followed a broken, treacherously steep trail down to a sandy bank of a creek that led into the Sipsey and found five of our fellow travelers hunkered down in dark, silent tents. They responded to our calls and after some conversation through the fabric walls the occupants slowly uncoiled themselves from within.

A fire was started as we set up our own tent and, as the rain reduced to water dripping from the trees and then into nothing we sat around that fire in great contentment. Our biggest concern was the rising river that was gradually beginning to threaten two of the first tents, but with the rain gone the rising tide pulled up to a stop a few feet from the camp perimeter.

The next day the river was still swollen and we were groggy from the previous night's celebration. Other members of our party arrived and, after much ado and coffee, we broke camp and set the canoes, four of them, into the water.

Our first challenge came long before we met the Sipsey. We came to a log jam that blocked the width of the creek, forcing us to go aground and pull the fully laden canoes over one thick log and then very delicately under another. Muddy and wet, we re-boarded the narrow craft and set off once more.

Things went well after that. The high water pushed us along with wonderful speed and the sky was a blue ribbon seen through the high trees lining the bank.

After a while we pulled up into a side creek for a break and as I leapt out of my seat in the front to tie up I slipped and my lower half went into the still frigid water. The mud beneath my feet slid away as quickly as I could dig into it and for a desperate minute I scrambled, almost pulled down before dragging myself up.

So I was already cold and soggy by the time we reached the rapids. They came upon us quickly, but Brad and the others, who had taken the same trip last year, had assured me that they would be challenging but not dangerous.

The river had not been like this the year before.

John and Mike in the lead canoe went over the churning hill of water first, and made it most of the way through when their canoe sank just as we were lining up in the shoot.

Initially we pushed through with no problem, but the biggest waves were at the end. The first two started us on a see-saw and finally the canoe nosed into the water, drinking in a fatal draft.

Shocked, I rode the failed canoe like a surfboard for a while, trying to grab our floating gear and preparing for impact with a tree that jutted out its helping hand over the water. Brad and I both caught hold and managed to stop the liquid free-fall for a short while, but the sinking canoe was too heavy with the current and we were pulled away. Brad grabbed some of his things and headed for the opposite shore. I scraped along with the canoe, trying to pull my backpack free and having already lost my sleeping bag and paddle.

I caught hold of the shore again, sputtering over logs and reeds and still clinging to the canoe before I finally had to let go of it and most of my gear. It was that or follow it back out into the river, and that would have been exceptionally bad.

My strength was failing fast by the time I managed to pull myself up onto the steep, densely vegetated bank where I gasped with pleasure at having pulled free of the river's death grip. But the canoe was gone and I was on the wrong side of the river with naught but a fanny pack.

For part II of this true story, see next week's column.

Ed Brock covers public safety and municipalities for the News Daily. He may be reached at (770) 478-5753 ext. 254 or via e-mail at ebrock@news-daily.com.