This is the last installment in a three-part series on my misadventures on the Sipsey River in Alabama.
We had waited long enough.
The sleepless night had passed and we were born again from our nylon wombs to a fresh world. The brothers Skyler and Nate had already built a fire by the time I pulled on my still mud-caked pants, socks and sandals and joined them. Brad woke up shortly after, shouting his defense when I accused him of being the louder snorer from the night before.
Since our camp was hidden below the forest canopy and gray stone cliffs there was not enough sunlight to warm us up, so we hunkered down over cups of thin coffee and forced our blood to flow by will power alone.
We were waiting for the possibility of rescue. That was the plan, after all.
But also we were gathering ourselves for the final challenge. The great escape was upon us.
At one point John said he heard an engine and we all strained to hear it too. A plane passed overhead but out of sight, and nothing more. No barking dogs, no sheriff's deputies in power boats spending tax payers' money to give us an easy ride out.
And no Frank or Jeff bearing canoes or at least paddles. And still no idea what had happened to Mike, or what awaited us when we did return to civilization.
We ate as much of the remaining food as we could, brunching on hamburgers (mine was flavored with ash because, after all, I did drop that one into the embers) and shortly after noon we broke camp.
Skyler managed to patch the hole in his canoe but nobody felt like risking the trip in it and beside that we still only had one paddle. I wasn't sure if I was relieved or not when Brad told me he would do better taking the last good canoe alone, but I certainly wasn't disappointed.
In no particular hurry, we carried most of the remaining gear to the canoe and loaded it up. The plan now was that Brad would go to the take-out point, hopefully with Skyler and Nate's canoe in tow and ideally with ours as well if he found it, and the rest of us would head out on foot. With a few invocations of good fortune we saw Brad push off, watched him successfully catch and tie onto the other canoe that Skyler had set adrift from its resting place upstream and then move out of sight down the river.
We finished breaking down the camp, leaving a stack of gear that would be "sacrificed to the cause" and preparing some sturdy walking sticks. It was at this moment that I was actually glad my heavy backpack had floated away downstream. A sign scratched with charcoal from the fire onto a styro-foam plate and tied to a tree flittered in the wind telling those who might come after us where we went.
There was one final pause to make sure everything was set, including our nerves, and off we went. The challenge would soon dissolve like morning fog. After a few hundred yards of pushing through the thickly-woven brambles on the riverbank, moving in the direction of the waterfall I had seen the day before, we paused for our bearings and looked up the slope above us. It was John who first said "That looks pretty clear. Let's walk up as far as we can that way.
And so we did. At the top the slope suddenly leveled out into a small, very manmade-looking shelf that was obviously part of some kind of path. It led to an overgrown but distinct road with parallel grooves cut by long-gone vehicles and saplings growing up between the grooves.
The grooves led to a more obvious road, the very logging road we had hoped to find, and it was then that we knew we were saved. Laughing and chatting we strolled along, the road broadening under our feet and becoming more and more tame.
Finally at one point a red SUV rounded a corner ahead of us and we almost cheered. But apparently the sight of us, filthy and carrying sticks, was too frightening for whoever was driving the vehicle and they began hastily backing away from us.
We laughed and walked on.
It was perhaps 45 minutes from the time we left the campsite until the time we broke out of the woods and strode out onto a long, straight paved road. If I had had my pack with me I'm sure its weight would have dissipated to nothing with the joy I felt, that we all felt. The sun was shining and we were on our way home.
A pickup truck stopped and gave us a ride to the take out point. As soon as we jumped out and thanked our benefactors John gave out a shout that Mike, far from being drowned, was waiting for us across the street, as was Brad.
Jeff and Frank were conspicuously absent, but I won't ruin a good story with the dark sentiments their abandonment engendered.
Thus ends our adventure. It's not much, I suppose, considering there are people out there climbing Mt. Everest, fighting wars or otherwise putting themselves in harm's way every day, but it was enough.
It was enough to free us all for a short time from the horrible mundane reality of our day-to-day existence, and enough to quell somewhat that fear of "What if?" and "What would I do if that happened?" that plague the denizens of our cushy modern world.
But would I do this again?
Oh, yes, most assuredly. Just not after a heavy rain.
On his way downstream Brad did indeed find our canoe and managed to get it floating again but was unable to bring it downstream. Instead, a local man named Karl Shaddix who we met that very day got up at 5 a.m. the next day, went out in his little motor boat and rescued our canoe with my backpack still attached and Skyler and Nate's canoe as well.
Thanks, Karl, may you live to be 1,000 years old.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.