Back in the summer of 2008 I made plans for a family canoe trip. None of the boys was married at the time so the logistics weren’t that difficult. Scotty lived in Springfield, MO and J.B. was going to college in Rolla but the others lived at home. I found a river I’d canoed before and picked a stretch that would make for a short, easy daytrip. We were in for a few hours of family fun and togetherness.
Well, I was half right.
It sure didn’t look like it would become something the family refers to as the canoe trip from hell.
We packed inner tubes in the van, strapped the canoe on top, and hit the road. As we drove, Annie asked me where we were going. When I told her she quickly said, “That’s too far for Scotty and J.B. to drive. You need to find somewhere closer to them to even out the drive time.”
I would have preferred to modify our plans before we left home but sometimes discretion is the better part of marital disagreement.
In those early days of cell phones, they didn’t do much beyond make voice calls and send texts, so I begrudgingly pulled out the Missouri highway map and started poring over it, while pointing out to Annie that I wasn’t familiar with the area she wanted to switch to.
She said we could ask somebody local about the river and that we’d be OK.
I called the boys and told them we’d changed plans and gave them the details.
When we reached our new put-in point, there was a family sitting in lawn chairs in the cool water, enjoying a beer, or two…or three. They turned to look at us and I couldn’t help but be reminded of the movie, “Deliverance,” but at least none of them was picking a banjo.
I greeted them and said, “We came to take a float trip but the river looks too low.”
One of them responded, “Nah, it gets plenty deep down there.” He pointed downstream.
Back at the van, Annie and the boys and I discussed our options and decided we should be OK.
Famous last words.
We unloaded everything and Annie and most of the boys stayed there while Scotty followed me as I took the van to the take-out place I’d found on the map. Scotty’s friend, Erin, chose to ride with me. That was my first inclination that their relationship might have gotten more serious than just a friendship.
She was a real sweetheart and we hit it off immediately.
When we got back to the put-in, everything was loaded in the canoe and we shoved off, and almost immediately drug bottom. The gravel made a grating sound on the bottom of the canoe but those sitting in the inner tubes made even less pleasant sounds as they drug their own bottoms.
That first portage should have been our warning but the river did indeed get deeper after that and we cruised on. At first we’d float for a little while before hitting a short stretch of low water, but then the shallow spots began to come more frequently and lasted longer.
As in the old TV show, Gilligan’s Island, what should have been a three hour tour started to stretch out longer. Three hours would have gotten us to our take-out spot well before the sun set, but four, five, six hours later the sun was gone. I mean REALLY gone. On a normal night I usually move around outside without a flashlight, but that night you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Everything was either dark shadows or totally black.
We quickly noticed that, not only was it a very dark night, but there were no lights anywhere else either, as in no house lights; no yard lights; nothing. Did nobody live along the river? It sure looked like it.
I began to think we wouldn’t even be able to find the van in the stygian darkness.
And nobody had a flashlight.
I know, I should have had a flashlight with me, but remember, the plan was to be on our way home well before dark. I had a waterproof box containing my camera, car keys, wallet, and other stuff from my pockets. The contents included a butane lighter so I suggested we just spend the night on a gravel bar. I’d start a bonfire and we’d have a great time waiting for sunup.
Scotty and J.B. quickly put the kibosh on that idea. My oldest son had accepted his first job teaching and the first day of school was the morning after the canoe trip. J.B. had a court date for a frat-boy infraction but, minor or not, people who don’t show up for court sometimes get a free escort to jail, and those guys in jail don’t even need a banjo.
Needless to say, J.B. re-e-e-e-ealy wanted to get to court on time.
The idea of a fun night on a gravel bar was out.
We continued downriver as the night cooled…and cooled some more. We were all wet from swimming earlier in the trip and from carrying the canoe and inner tubes over the low spots. Erin began to shiver so I gave her my t-shirt. For some reason the sodden garment did the trick for her.
After a while, Andy said that he was freezing. His words were stuttering through chattering teeth. One of the others commented that Andy sounded hypothermic and suggested that he do some exercises to warm up.
Andy did some pushups and jumping jacks and was soon ready to go on.
A little over eight hours into our three hour canoe trip I said that we had to be getting close to where I’d left the van. We all peered intently into the dark along the river as we made our way slowly onward. No one could see anything.
A while after that, one of the boys called a halt. I guess he was tuned in to the force or had ESP or something, but he said, “This has to be where the van is.”
A couple of the boys disappeared into the darkness. No kidding, none of us at the canoe could see any sign of them in the blackness.
It could only have been a few minutes but seemed like hours before we heard footsteps crunching toward us through the gravel.
As we loaded the vehicle by the headlights, Erin tapped my arm. I turned to find my future daughter-in-law handing me back my t-shirt. She thanked me and said, “Thanks. You saved me.”
I chuckled, “We’ll have to get you another t-shirt. This one will say, ‘I survived a canoe trip with the Matthews family.’”
One of the boys corrected me, “Not just ANY canoe trip. This was the canoe trip from hell.”
Well, I thought, maybe not hell. Hell would have been warmer.
But at least we didn’t hear any banjo music.
(above) Ten-year-old Patrick had plenty of fun, as we all did, but then it got dark.
(above) Scotty brought along his friend, now wife, Erin.
(below) This guy had the right idea. Stay home and chill.
(above) J.B. shows off his diving skills.
(below) The banjo scene from Deliverance. This clip is innocent enough. If you haven’t seen the whole movie, you still won’t understand the reference. Warning: This clip includes some strong language right at the end, after the kid strikes the final chord.