Tuesday, September 6, 2011

I did not make this story up

The first week of August in 2011, I had the opportunity to go visit my good friend Jim down in NY state for a long weekend of canoeing, camping and fun. Every couple of years I visit Jim in Westtown, NY. We traveled in Up with People together in the year 2000 and have kept in touch.

Ever since Jim was a teenager, he and two of his friends, Daryl and George, have participated in an annual canoe trip down the Delaware river. It is a two day journey that includes camping overnight. The three of them don't make it every year, but at least one of them has made the trip every year for at least 15 years. I had previously experienced one of these trips back in 2007.

On this year's trip, we would only need two canoes. One for Jim and myself; the other for Daryl and Austin. Daryl is Jim's good friend from childhood and Austin is one of Daryl's good friends. It's a very likeable group of guys.

I arrived in Westtown at around midnight on Friday night. I had only finished my shift at work around 8pm and headed right to NY after that. I'm not sure if this was some foreshadowing but I mowed down a possum about 10 miles from Jim's house going about 65. Poor fella. Daryl, Jim, Austin, myself and a few others sat outside by the chimnea til about 3am. We went to bed feeling good. Nothing like a poor night sleep to start off a camping adventure.

It seems every time we go canoeing, we drop in the water later and later. I had done just a day trip earlier in the summer where we started paddling around 3pm. On this trip, we did even better, 4pm.

On a side note...by the way there are going to be many side notes, so bear with me. The forecast did not look good. In fact, we knew it was going to rain. It was supposed to rain all weekend. But because this was the last chance for Jim to get in the annual canoe trip, the trip had to proceed.

As soon as we put our canoes and gear in the water, it started to rain a good, steady rain. Luckily for us, we had all we needed: beer and good company. The first few hours weren't so bad. It was very peaceful out on the water. I don't recall seeing very many other boats on the water. The Delaware was beautiful, with Pennsylvania on our left, and New York State on our right. I kept wondering where exactly George Washington crossed.

Around seven or eight, the rain started to take its toll on us. You could say we were shivering just a tad. We found an open area on the banks of the river that had a lot of rocks on it. This looked like a solid place to make camp for the night. Jim and Daryl helped pull the canoes completely out of the water and onto the rocks. We trudged all our gear, with the exception of our paddles and life jacket, up the hill and to our camp site.

At this point I remember the rain picking up. It no longer was steady, it was now just pouring down. And our body temperatures were starting to dive as well. But there was a lot of work to be done so I don't think any of us was ever worried about our safety. Immediately we started setting up tarps and tents, and searching for firewood.

Jim and I handled the tent rather swiftly. It's not easy setting up a tent with barely any daylight left and the pouring rain coming down. Daryl and Austin started using their scouting skills (I don't think Daryl is an official scout, but Austin is!) and began the difficult task of starting a fire in the rain. We did luck out with the fire when our neighbors camping just downstream from us gave us some t-candles that really helped the fire get going. Without those, we wondered if the fire would have been started. Another lucky find was just before we started canoeing, I found two heavy duty flash lights in my car. Those two lights would be all the artificial light we had all night.

So after about an hour and a half, the four of us have our tent up, the tarps are over the fire pit, and we have all changed and are dry. The next few hours were some of the most enjoyable moments of the trip. We brought steaks, corn on the cob, steamed clams, the works and had a feast. The drinks never ran out and we just had a great time talking around the fire.

Keep in mind, that the rain never stopped during this whole time. It only intensified. Once in a while a large volume of water would spill over the side of the tarp that was above us. I can't remember a rain like that, or being stuck in one like that.

Fast forward to about 3am. The four of us are ready for bed. The rain actually let up and was now just a drizzle. What a crazy day. Even though we had a four person tent, it was a little close in there. Thankfully the Bud Light's put me right to sleep.

Cock a doodle doo! Sometime around 9am, Austin got up to relieve himself and pick up some of the beer cans. We were all sound asleep, but would soon be wide awake. I remember him zipping open the tent door and uttering something along the lines of, "We may have a minor issue; The canoes are gone."

Gone. Let's think about that for a second. We're on a canoe trip. We're somewhere between NY and PA. Our only means of transportation...the canoes...are gone. Where did they go?

It turns out that little Delaware river rose a couple of feet in the night. So much in fact, that our canoes that were well out of the water when we landed ashore, floated away down the river.

Now Jim, being the owner of these canoes, was the most concerned. I definitely can understand the shock, disbelief, probably anger, in losing our rides. In all his years on this trip, they had never tied the boats down. Why would he this time?

So now that we were all up, it was time to make a plan as to what to do. The first idea was to walk down stream and look for the canoes. Maybe they got caught in a bend in the river. The four of us started through very thick woods. It was a wet, miserable walk. After about 20 minutes, Jim and I sent Austin and Daryl back to make breakfast while Jim and I continued. We walked another 20 minutes and finally came to a steep cliff. No canoes anywhere. So we turned around. I kept thinking on this entire trip through the woods that I hope there isn't any poison ivy around as I am very allergic to that stuff.

Upon returning to our site, we talked to the neighbors who gave us the t-candles and they told us how they had tied their boats to the trees because the previous year they had also lost a canoe. They had two canoes and three people, which meant, if we needed it, they had one extra spot for a person. This would be an important detail later on.

Next, we decided to go talk to the neighbors on the other side of us. They were one spot over upstream. This group of about six or eight had rented rafts, and just like us, had lost one of them. So they actually couldn't be of any help as far as getting one of us down stream went. But, thankfully, they had talked to their neighbors upstream and this is where our plan to rescue ourselves and our gear got complex.

This group of six had three canoes. So there was no room for any of us. BUT, they did have a car across the river that they needed to get to, and didn't know how to get to it. Jim comes up with a master plan to swim across the Delaware, to this group's car, and drive it to them. While he is to swim across, I will join the three men with the two canoes down stream and they will drop me off at a beach about a half mile down. The group with the three canoes will meet me there, as well as Jim who will have these stranger's car. They will then drive Jim and myself about 15 miles back upstream to my car, where we will then drive to drive to a raft rental, and then go rescue Daryl and Austin on our raft. It sounds too simple, I know.

My part of the plan sounds easy, but it wasn't. I, along with my new three friends, set off for the beach down the river. Unfortunately where we started was about 100 yards away from a decent sized rapid. Immediately, my canoe sank. I really hadn't anticipated that and realized I had no life jacket on. So I'm being pulled by the river, trying to hold onto the canoe, and whatever else I can grab onto. Miraculously, the canoe's only life jacket was right next to me and I grabbed onto that for dear life as I see the other guy in my boat reach shore. I wasn't so lucky and was pulled another 50 yards or so down river. I paddled to shore and caught my breath. A rock had struck by back and I was a little freaked out. As I was climbing on shore, I slipped on a rock and hit my ankle, thinking I'd broken it. But it was just a bruise. Another miraculous find was that their beer cooler floated right over to me as well. Unfortunately, the group lost some fishing poles and an entire watermelon, as the other canoe had sunk as well.

The rest of my canoe trip to the beach, was easy. Jim, on the other hand had his own adventure going on.

Because the river current was moving so fast that morning, Jim estimated that he should walk a mile upstream past where he was to land, figuring that the mile would give him enough time to cross the river with the current. Throughout the weekend, we had heard stories how up to 8 or 9 people had died this summer trying to swim across the river. We all felt that Jim would make it due to the fact that those people had died trying to cross the river parallel to where they started. In this case, Jim would end up a mile down from where he started. You're probably asking yourself what Jim had for a life jacket. Well, it wasn't exactly a jacket and it wasn't supposed to be a life saving device. It was one of those seat cushions you bring to a sporting event. God Speed Jim.

According to Jim, about halfway through his journey, someone on the PA side of the river called the police saying someone was drowning. A park serviceman then followed Jim down the river with a bullhorn, "Are you okay!" Jim was giving him the universal sign for okay by tapping his head. But for some reason this young man was a little freaked out. Jim reached shore about 20 yards from where he intended to and had to have a chat with the Ranger who seemed flustered. With some pleading and explaining that he was just fine, Jim had the Ranger call off the police and ambulance, yes ambulance!

Let's recap how the plan has gone so far. Jim safely reached his landing point, and I safely reached mine. Well, maybe we could remove the word 'safely' from those previous two sentences.

Jim then picked up the car of the very trusting strangers and drove down stream to pick me and one of the other canoers up. It felt great being back in a car after the hellish hours we'd just spent in the rain. It took about 20 minutes to get back to my Jeep Cherokee. We thanked the guys very much for returning us to our car, and set out to find a raft to save Austin and Daryl.

As soon as the two men left us at our Jeep, we hit another snag; My car would not start. Are you kidding me? That's basically the look on Jim's face. The car would start, but then as soon as it was placed in gear, it would stall. We tried it about ten times, then Jim tried starting it one more time and nothing. No sounds, no click, the car had ceased up. Shit. Yeah this seems to make sense though, seeing as the rest of the trip has had nothing go quite right. As Jim starts to make a plan to hitch hike, I realize that the car has an automatic car starter for the winter time. I try it out and voila! The car starts! I'm laughing as I write this but the look on Jim's face now is "ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?"

He jumps in the Jeep and we go looking for raft rentals, and a 12 pack of beer for the raft trip. We knew of one called Indian Head, that was about 10 miles back downstream. Jim does the talking and starts off telling the guy it's just the two of us. Somehow throughout the explanation of the last 12 hours we'd experienced, Jim basically says "We gotta go rescue two friends, please give us two extra life jackets and paddles." It worked because the man charged us for two people, but gave us the gear for four. This plan was working to a T, well minus the near death experiences we'd just went through and the car not starting.

As we were about to set off on our raft, we met two rangers. Jim asked if they'd heard of anybody swimming across the river. Indeed they had. Jim had a sense of excitement in his voice when he told them about it. But they were a bit stern, reminding us that people had died trying to do the same thing. Actually I think one Ranger said, "Well eight other people would love to be telling the same story right now." Jeez buddy.

I imagine going from a canoe to a raft is like going from a motorcycle to a moped. Rafts are mind numbingly slow and take a ton of effort to get moving. Jim thought we needed a lot of river to get across to rescue Daryl and Austin, but I truly believe he overestimated. It seems like if you ask anyone on the river how far something is, they always answer, "About a mile." They all lie. It took another hour for Jim and me to reach Daryl and Austin.

The moment we saw Austin and Daryl just sitting there, sun tanning on the rocks, was another great moment. It was like reuniting after being lost at sea. We all went back up to the campsite and had a great breakfast consisting of sausage and eggs on a roll. And beer.

They had cleaned up the campsite and we loaded everything into the raft. Everything comfortably fit in, and we were off. Having four men paddle was a lot better than just two. Plus, the worst was behind us and I remember the next few hours just being a ton of fun. Now and then we'd get hot from the sun and dive into the river. We'd all jump in at once at times. Just fun times. All afternoon we looked for the canoes, but never saw them.

Towards the end of the day, we hooked up with some other rafts and canoes with a bunch of young people on them. We stopped at a place that had some cliffs to jump off of. Daryl, being somewhat crazy, was the first to tackle that challenge. Jim and myself were all set with tempting fate for the second time. Austin, being kind of a macho man, followed behind Daryl. It was scary, but they pulled off jumping about 20 feet into the river. As we were heading back to our canoes for our final stretch, I stepped on a wasps nest and took one solid sting and two or three weak ones to the legs and feet. Yep, that sounds about right.

I wish I could say that's the end but we passed one more stop before being done for the day. There was one more cliff to jump off for Daryl, and a fun rope swing for the rest of us to jump off of and land in the water. Daryl, Jim, and myself went successfully off the rope swing. But Austin's hands slipped while gripping the rope and while he successfully landed in the river, he broke a finger. Also on the unfortunate side, Daryl had climbed up to the highest point for his cliff jump, and nobody witnessed him jump! Bummer!

We only had about 10 minutes to our landing spot on the NY side after that. Austin was a little loopy because of the pain in his finger. Upon arrival at the landing spot, we unloaded all our gear while Jim went and retrieved his car that was parked just down the road.

We left the gear at the beach so that Austin could be brought to the emergency room. The whole way Daryl was giving Austin crap about how he could make a splint and save all the trouble of ER bills. But Austin insisted.

On our way to the ER, I realized something. I had NO idea where my car keys were. No idea. This was a problem because my car was way back in PA and I had to be in NH the next day. So now with Austin at the ER, Daryl, Jim and I decide we're going to drive back somewhere on the PA side and walk through the woods, back to our campsite and find the keys. They must be there because I had laid them on the rocks when we arrived. Mind you, it was now dusk, and we had our flashlights only. This plan seemed awfully dumb. About two minutes into our walk into the woods, we hear the loudest crack of thunder we'd all heard in some time. I'm so thankful for that because we all immediately turned around and started coming up with ideas on how to replace the keys...

The last thing the four of us did that night after we went back to my jeep to see if we could break into it to get our cell phones, was go for a hearty dinner at a little roadside diner. Daryl had no shoes, I only had on my under water shoes. Jim had a little cash, so we could afford dinner. It was a pretty miserable dinner. We were just so fatigues from the previous events. Austin ordered some hot wings that were causing him to feel more pain. Some drunk woman at the end of the bar kept harassing Daryl. It was time to end the trip.

Jim and I went home back to Westtown, while Daryl and Austin picked up the gear back on the beach. Our plan was to drive back to Vermont in the morning and pick up an extra set of car keys at my dad's work, then drive back to Pennsylvania, pick up my jeep, then drive my jeep back to NH. It was something I was not looking forward to, at all.

In the morning, I decided to unpack everything that was on Jim's lawn. That's where Daryl and Austin left everything. Jim and I were scheduled to leave in about 30 minutes, so it was really just a last ditch effort to find the car keys. Well, as Jim is looking for his tooth brush, he sees them and basically makes my day. I didn't have to do miserable drive to New England and back after all.

I stayed another few hours. It was a nice morning drinking coffee, reminiscing about the trip. I did feel a little itchy in the morning, but figured it was because I hadn't showered in a couple days. The trip home was uneventful, but I have never been so happy to be home.

The trip seemed to be over, but for Jim and myself, there were a couple more things to come. Jim and his dad rented an airplane so that they could look for the canoes. I'm not positive how far they went down river. Maybe to New Jersey. But sadly, the canoes were never recovered.

I, on the other hand, didn't have just an itch. It seems that when I went to the bathroom at the beach that the friendly canoers had dropped me off at, I had transferred the poison ivy on my hands (that I had come in contact with on the hike to search for the canoes)to many other places on my body. I battled the poison ivy for three weeks after that and even had to go to the ER 48 hours after I'd returned home due to the pain. I think if I had to do it all over again, I would have stayed and made breakfast while the others go hunt in the woods for canoes.

It's a story I'll never forget and I will definitely partake in another one of these canoe trips. Hopefully next year. I think that if anything goes wrong in future trips, Jim, Daryl, Austin, and I can always say that nothing will ever top the 2011 trip.