This is part 6 in a series of essays about when I was a young man (30+ years ago) trying to figure out how to “make it” in the world. Click HERE to go back to the beginning of the series.
It was early in 1977 and my Grassroots Project friend Joe Miller bought himself a canoe. We took the canoe out for a few short stretches of mild whitewater river running. Then we got the idea that it would be great to take a big canoe "expedition." Joe picked out the Lamoille River. It was not far from our school and was a relatively big river.
Our plan was to spend three days going down the Lamoille from Hardwick, Vermont, to another town that I can’t recall the name of. Once we got there, Joe’s girlfriend, Tomi (she was a student at University of Vermont), would come get us us with Joe’s van.
We stocked up on food and clothing and had sleeping bags and everything else we figured we would need for the big trip. We had a map that showed the river, roads, and countryside. But we knew nothing about the river or what kind of whitewater we would be getting ourselves into. No matter. We fancied ourselves hotshot whitewater canoeists. We could handle anything.
Another schoolmate, Mike, had a station wagon and he drove us with our canoe and gear to the river in Hardwick. It was early springtime. The river was swollen with runoff from melting winter snows. The day was sunny and warm.
We unloaded the canoe, packed our gear into it, and told Mike we would see him in three days. We pushed off from the shore with a sense of exhilaration at the thought of the challenge and adventure that awaited us. The river at that point was wide and smooth and the current was just right for a comfortable ride. The Lamoille is full of bends and around every bend was a new view. We were off to a great start.
Before long, we rounded a bend and there was a girl all by herself sitting on the bank of the river. She was an attractive girl with long blonde hair and she was wearing a dress. She looked beautiful in the bright sun. Yes, indeed, our canoe trip was getting off to a fine start. The pretty girl looked surprised to see us. We gave her a friendly “Hello” and made a comment about the nice weather. She said, “Do you know what’s up ahead?”
We said something like, “Yeah, sure.” and smiled big smiles as the current took us by. After we were out sight around another bend, I said to Joe, “So what do you think is up ahead?” He said he didn’t know but suggested we should take it easy and stay close to shore, just in case. My thoughts exactly.
It wasn’t long before we rounded another bend and encountered a small body of still water. We were at the top of a dam. We pulled the canoe over, tied it off and walked up to take a closer look. The dam was of considerable height and the Lamoille cascaded over the top. At the bottom were a lot of boulders and rough water. We remarked to each other that, had we not stopped to look, we might have canoed right over the falls. The thought of it was chilling.
We were less than an hour into our trip and faced an unanticipated problem. How would we get from the top to the bottom? The bank on either side of the river was steep and rocky. We would have to carefully portage our gear to the bottom and then carry the canoe down.
For some reason, it never occurred to us that we would encounter a dam and/or a waterfall on the river. But we accepted it as part of the adventure. After a lot of work and time, we had the canoe loaded with our gear at the bottom, and faced some very rough water. We considered the big boulders and rapids before us. We made a “plan of attack.” Then we got in the canoe and pushed off.
Things happened pretty fast. We got by a tough section and were feeling good about that. Then, unbeknownst to us, there was a drop-off immediately before us. It was a sheer ledge, maybe four feet high. The front of the canoe (the end with me in it) shot over the edge, and dropped down. When it dropped, we tipped over sideways and dumped into the roiling river.
We struggled in the fast-moving whitewater, yelling to each other. I was wearing bulky winter boots with felt liners. The boots filled up and I went under. The Lamoille swallowed me.
The last thing I saw before going under was Joe a short way down stream, clinging to a boulder with one hand, holding onto his canoe with the other, and looking at me with a lot of concern.
I had a life jacket on and kicked my way to the surface. I came up near Joe’s position at the rock. He let go of the canoe, reached out, grabbed onto me with a life-saving grip and pulled me to the rock. “Are you okay?” he yelled. “Yes, I’m fine.” I replied. “I thought you were a goner.” He said.
We were beyond the worst of the whitewater. The canoe was only a short way off. Joe swam for it and got to shore. I followed. We were soaking wet and the water was cold. It never occurred to us that we should tie down the gear, and a lot of it was gone. We still had our paddles and pushed off quickly in hopes of finding some of the lost gear downstream.
We did recover some things floating in the water ahead of us but most of our food and clothing was lost. Way down river, swirling round and round in a quiet little eddy, we found a plastic bag of cold breakfast cereal. The cardboard box that had been around it was missing but the contents were perfectly preserved in the sealed plastic. We enthusiastically resuced the bag.
Dumping over had been a setback but we were undaunted. There is something very thrilling and energizing about surviving a whitewater spill. I'm sure adrenaline has something to do with that. We thanked the Lord for keeping us safe and forged ahead. Joe kept saying, “When you went under, I thought you were a goner, Herrick.” I assurred him it wasn't that bad.
Fortunately, the day was sunny and warm. Our clothes dried off as we continued down the river. But every small town we came to had a dam that we had to portage over. It was hard work and we were wearing down. Then it clouded over, and got cold, and started to rain.
By late afternoon it was sleeting and we were miserable. Besides the light clothing we had on when we dumped the canoe, we each had a rain coat. It broke the cold wind but not much. We pulled over on a small island in the river to camp for the night. We made a fire in front of a lean-to fashioned from a sheet of plastic. For dinner we had hot chocolate and rationed out the cold breakfast cereal. We joked about our situation and the events of the day. Boy, we sure would remember this trip!
Neither of us slept well that night. Rain and sleet had continued to fall through the evening. I think I dreamed of going over one of those high dams in the canoe. The next morning was cold and wet and windy. We loaded what gear we had and pushed off early. The sooner we got paddling, the sooner we would get warmed up. We prayed that there would not be any more dams or serious whitewater.
But there was.
At one point the river ran through a larger town and we approached a bridge with cars going over it. Several cars honked their horns as they went over the bridge. We realized they were honking at us, and we waved up at them. Then we remembered the pretty girl who asked us, “Do you know what’s up ahead?” Sure enough, another dam and another steep portage were just ahead.
Late morning we came upon another bridge over the river. There was no dam but we could see some serious whitewater stretching into the distance. We pulled the canoe over and looked way down the river. We were exhausted. We didn’t want to portage around another stretch of river. Joe said, “I think we can do it. Let’s just shoot it.” I suggested we better walk up to the bridge and get a better look down the river.
It was a good thing we walked up to that bridge. As we looked from that vantage point down the river, it was immediately evident that shooting the rapids would have been suicide. There was no question about it. So we were faced with a portage around the spot, and it would be a long, difficult task.
We stood there in the rain and the wind, looking ridiculously freakish with rain coats over our life jackets. We were cold. We were hungry. We were tired. But neither one of us wanted to admit that we were beat.
I don’t remember who suggested it first. It didn’t matter. We were both thinking it. Our map showed that there was a town a ways down the road. We decided to walk to the town, find a telephone, and call Tomi to come get us.
And that’s what we did. I don’t remember the name of the town. We found a phone booth and both jammed inside to get out of the wind, while Joe made the call. It would be an hour or more before Tomi showed up. We needed to get warm and couldn’t stay in the phone booth. There was a church nearby and we decided to see if it was open.
It was. We sat on a padded bench just inside the door, thankful to be out of the cold. We kept reassuring ourselves that we had made the right decision to quit the trip. And we both agreed that it was a very good thing that we did not try to make it through that stretch of whitewater.
Well, Tomi showed up and we got the canoe loaded on the van and headed back to school. I took a hot shower, and went to the lounge where students typically gathered before and after meals. Joe had left to take Tomi back to her school. Everyone was surprised to see me back a day early from the trip. They wanted to know how it went. So I told them the story, just like I’ve told it to you.
To be continued....
Click HERE to go to Part 7 of this series
Loose livestock - Up to this point, the livestock have been confined to the wooded side of our property. This is where they stay for the winter (it's accessible from the bar...
2 hours ago