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The hard quarter mile - Ed Brock

This is the second of three columns about my recent canoe trip down the Sipsey River in Alabama. In the first, we began the journey and encountered a series of mishaps.

In an emergency, panic is a natural reaction and must be dealt with.

The best way is to wait for a moment in the disaster during which there is a slight pause in the action and then let it go, preferably without witnesses.

So, alone, shaking and caked with mud on the wrong side of the river, I took a few moments to panic. Mostly I cursed a lot.

That being done, I scrambled up the bank and assessed the situation.

Brad had made it across to the other side with much gear. I saw John there as well with his canoe pulled up on a small beach and I assumed that Mike had landed safely with him. I vaguely remembered seeing the last canoe in the group make it through the rapids and head for the shore on my side.

But they were upstream from my position and there was a lot of bad brush between us. Nonetheless, I started moving in that direction. There wasn't much else to do.

A few shouts from across the river informed me that they had moved and I should go back the way I had come. This was unwelcome news indeed but, again, there was little choice.

The steeply sloping bank was frequently cut with gullies and thick with brambles, so I had to pause often for breath. From across the river Brad and John shouted that the meeting point and campsite would be on my side so I should keep walking downstream for about a quarter of a mile.

It was a tough quarter mile, blocked by thick brush that tore at clothes and skin. At one point I had to be ferried across a poison blue, stagnant stream that glazed over what was sure to be quicksand (I'd experienced that earlier in the trip).

At the second such stream I was forced to walk inland to find a crossing. As luck would have it the stream was fed from a waterfall just a short distance from the shore, and behind the waterfall was a wide stone grotto. I passed behind the waterfall and the beauty of the scene cheered me up and energized me.

I went back to the river and followed the broken shoreline for a few hundred more yards before I saw other people moving and, coming over a rise I saw some of the others setting up camp. They had already started a fire, and I stood almost on top of it feeling like a half-thawed piece of meat.

That's when I learned that Mike was missing.

A meeting was called. Mike was last seen floating downstream, holding onto some gear, supposedly with a very pacific expression on his face, and he hadn't been heard from since.

John had his canoe and one paddle. The brothers Nate and Skyler had made it through the rapids but some underwater object had gored their canoe as they were trying to retrieve our gear and they nearly drowned after it sank.

It was pulled up onto the shore with a sizeable hole and no paddles.

That left Frank and Jeff, who came through the rapids wholly unscathed. We decided to send them out to complete the course, rescue Mike if they could find him and, if they couldn't find him, to go directly to the sheriff.

Off they went and we were left to tend to our own survival.

We were lucky in a lot of ways. Brad had rescued not only two "dry bags" full of clothes (he lent a couple of dry shirts to me and for that I will forever be in his debt) but also an ice chest full of food and goodies.

We also had two tents, some good hatchets for chopping firewood and, most importantly, John's handheld Global Positioning System.

So we huddled around the fire and laughed with joy at being alive. We started cooking, tossing meat, vegetables and soup into John's Dutch oven and heating up a can of beans in the fire.

Darkness slipped over the granite cliffs that towered over our encampment and gradually closed in around the little bubble of warmth and light that protected us.

A plan for the next day gradually solidified. Frank and Jeff were supposed to come back for us, assuming we weren't picked up by an official search party that was sure to be sent out if Mike had not been found.

This would all be funny, John said, if only Mike was safe.

We decided we would wait until noon, and then Brad would take the last canoe to the take-out point with some of the gear while the rest of us would hike out.

I liked that plan. Hiking through the thickest undergrowth in creation was more appealing to me than getting back into a canoe.

We ate our fill and burned up most of the firewood. When the fire dwindled into embers we went to the tents, Brad, Skyler, Nate and I in one and John in another, smaller tent. We tried to sleep.

Brad said I slept enough to snore, but I don't remember. I do remember lying awake, semi-conscious, hearing the burbling of a nearby stream and the alien, warbling call of some unseen creature of the night.

The morning and all its new challenges seemed a long way off and part of me was glad of that.

See next week's column for the end of the tale.

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.