You know it’s going to be an epic camping canoe trip when before packing the truck you find yourself in the emergency room begging for antibiotics to bypass a bout of strep throat.
There was no way I was telling my 5- and 10-year-old that we would miss this highly-anticipated New River canoe trip. There was also no way to bypass strep symptoms. Although my gullet felt stuffed with razorblades, and my head relentlessly pounded, it was far better to be sprawled belly-up across a canoe than tortured by disappointed children at home.
The mornings were beginning to feel like summer, a slow heat baking into the banks, keeping the kids in the water longer on this Memorial Day weekend trip. We were heading out for three nights of river bliss, slinging lines out to trout while lazily floating the slow waters between campgrounds.
There were 14 of us, with three sets of parents sharing five angelic kids and three dogs. Although this situation could lend itself to a lot of whining, we easily kept the kids entertained with paddling, bubble wands, snacks, fishing rods, and water guns.
As for the adults, I announced my contagious status to the crowd as we waited at the put-in at the Wagoner Access. Mommies smiled sweetly while pulling their children from my diseased reach. The guys ran shuttle up to the Route 93 bridge in Virginia while the kids took turns tangling lures for me to wrestle out of the rhododendron.
Temperatures dropped as we slipped away from the afternoon sun. We skimmed all six boats into the river, whooping our way into the calm water, fizzing our first beers open.
Within five minutes of our bliss we had our first adult emergency, causing said adult to spend the rest of the trip drowning her pain with copious amounts of brown liquor in her first aid kit. I secretly cursed her when she wouldn’t let me near her flask to relieve the headache slowly squeezing my skull. Her karma caused her to get strep after her return home. I apologized via email for licking her paddle.
As we settled into the fine art of peace and flow with the river, the first tiny rapid appeared. The boat containing two adult women headed straight for an extremely sturdy, low-hanging tree. The girl in front ducked in time to avoid the thick tree branch, however, her boat mate did not, marking her third eye with a large Bindi. I thought it was pretty and told her so. We pulled over to evaluate and comment on the size and nature of her injury as she located her “first aid kit”, and we quickly moved on to our second beers to better deal with the situation before gliding back into the current.
It was at this point that my youngest son learned that in order to be a fisherman, you must bait your own hook. I was not the one to establish this rule, but I was more than happy to enforce it, tired of being yelled at every time we lost a worm due to my ignorance of basic fishing. “OHHHHH MY GOSH!“ he yelled. “THIS IS SOOOOO GROSS!”
By now the vice around my head had squeezed another two inches. It’s hard to see when one’s eyes are this close together, so I was having trouble navigating the Class I rapids. The hole in my throat closed, preventing any food from logistically passing into my hungry body, leaving room only for beer.
Our leisurely five-hour float to the first campground was nearly over when I began to panic, thinking I was too sick to move. My body erupted into fever and my little guy was tired and complaining. I concluded that sugar really gets a bad rap. A brief sugar coma following a rabid, but quiet five minutes of elated snarfing is quite useful.
Once I made it clear that I was slipping into a physical and mental bonk the crowd rallied and got us to our campground. Through my haze I was able to construct a special version of our tent, stumbling around yelling at my children while my boyfriend fed them peanut butter sandwiches.
For breakfast, my lovely girlfriends provided me caffeine, ibuprofen and a shot of whiskey to get me back on the beautiful river dappled with morning light and fresh spring leaves. One offered me the spot in her boat with her husband so that I wouldn’t have to paddle. Instead, my genius boyfriend tied our canoes together so that I could lie there as pathetic as the trout he and the boys caught. I could not see the birds from the vantage point, but their songs were lovely.
By evening I was especially grateful not to have ridden in the other boat, now capsized, the 3-and 7-year-old girls, mom, and all of their gear huddled along the bank while dad chased the cooler downriver. It made for excellent story-telling over lunch by a waterfall at which time the dogs conveniently ate all of the kids’ food.
Portage across a bridge required us to empty and drag our boats while chasing and screaming after dogs who were officially sick of being river dogs. Forcing Skittles back into the boat resulted in him jumping back out, swimming to shore and running like hell.
Our last campsite was an open field in the middle of a star-filled sky, and I was grateful to participate, rather than listen from a fevered distance. We cooked and gathered around our fire before a crisp night of luscious sleep and drew the morning out as long as possible, lingering in the bliss of good friends before loading the boats for our final hour to takeout.