When I was around 15, I decided to go on a youth group trip. I’d been with them before and had a fun time, but this was the first time I would go to Fall Creek Falls, a beautiful state park in east Tennessee. They had planned a day when we would kayak down the Hiwassee river, which sounded like a blast to me because I’ve always loved all things water and swimming. The Hiwassee is known to be slow-paced and easy for beginners, but our youth group leaders recommended not getting in the water as the river was shallow and had sharp rocks at the bottom. Looking back, I think they just told us this so we wouldn’t get out of the boats, but we believed them nonetheless.
I was stoked the day that we took a bus over to the river and got fitted for life jackets. The kayaks they provided us required two people, and they looked like giant yellow marshmallows. A girl I was close with at the time agreed to be my partner, so we got settled into our boat and took off down the river. At first, we were having a blast just rambling down the river and chatting, but like many young teenagers we weren’t paying attention to our surroundings.
Then, a butterfly landed on my shoulder. Normally this would be fine with me, but back then I couldn’t stand bugs, and my rowing partner chose to say the five words that you should never say to someone who hates bugs: “You have a bug on you.” I don’t know if I misheard her or if she just said bug, but I heard bug and freaked out. This butterfly seemed to like my shoulder so he decided to latch on throughout my panic. Finally, she brushed him off for me and pointed to him. I remember watching him float off, a zebra striped beauty, and a branch scratching my shoulder where he had landed, and that was when I realized that we were a little too close to the bank for comfort.
Not only were we too close to the bank, we were also about to crash into what looked like a fallen tree. When we did, the boat started to go under the limbs. I’m not a science or river expert, but I’m assuming the presence of the tree interrupted the current and made it stronger, because our boat was being sucked in kind of like paper in a fax machine. We both scrambled onto the branch as our boat was vacuumed up by the current. We were both scared, babbling like hens until the boat started to reappear on the other side. We agreed quickly that she would attempt to hop in first and then hold onto the limb so that I could jump in. When she did jump in, it freed the boat, and the current pushed her forward at an alarming rate. She reached out and grabbed my leg, telling me to jump into the boat.
I didn’t jump into the boat.
In a combination of fear of falling on the rocks I could see clearly, and of frustration that she was trying to pull me off the branch, I told her to let go of me. She didn’t really get a say in the matter, because the current was tired of waiting for her and pulled her along the river. As she floated away, she looked back at me, pale and frightened like she had seen a ghost. Honestly, I wasn’t too worried. For some reason, I remember feeling pretty okay about being stuck on this tree branch in the middle of a river 5 hours from home.
People eventually started to notice some random girl standing on a tree limb and tried to come help me. Unfortunately, almost all of them ended up in the same predicament I was in, and when they did get their boat free, they all managed to jump in. All of these boats were full, so I don’t know why they decided to try and help me. As more rescue attempts failed, I began to grow concerned. A lot of people had passed me, and I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do if I wasn’t rescued. I looked at the bank where the limb had fallen from, and all I could see was brush. There was no indication of a road, and even if there was I was barefoot and clueless about where I was.
Luckily, my salvation arrived shortly after I began to worry. One of the youth group leaders had heard about my predicament and came over to find me. She managed to paddle around the tree to the other side, and I was able to jump into her boat. We made it down the river with no other problems, and I was reunited with my friend. You might think that this whole experience would have been enough to scare me away from rivers and kayaking, but I went on this trip the next year, paddled down the same river, and had a lot of fun doing it. Now, it’s just a funny story I tell to friends and family when I get the chance. I can certainly say that it has changed my attitude towards rivers and trees, but only when they get combined in unfortunate ways.