It’d been a long time since I’d had a can of Beanee Weenies. But I was headed out into the wilderness, and when you’re gonna be having lunch alone on some sandbar while kayaking along a lonely stretch of the Flint River, you gotta have some Beanee Weenies. And a can of Pringles in that wonderful “stay crisp” can.
I didn’t need much more than that last Sunday. I wanted peace and quiet. I wanted to get away from everybody.
My wife and son dropped me and my kayak off at the Highway 127 bridge over the Flint River several miles north of my hometown of Oglethorpe. It was the site of Georgia’s last working ferry, near an old Indian encampment called Miona Springs, where we used to collect arrowheads and pottery when I was a kid. The bridge is also known as the place where a mother once hurled her two children to their deaths below.
But this trip wasn’t about the past; it was about the future. It’s been a stressful year, good and bad. I just wanted an easy day of paddling with no distractions. I just wanted to drift along and wonder what lay around the bend. I didn’t even let the spitting noises my wife made as I floated underneath the bridge distract me from my mission.
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Though the river was quite swift, I took it easy for the first 3 miles or so. I’d paddle a little, then prop my feet up on the kayak and lean back. I stopped off at a sandbar to powder my nose and took pictures with my cell phone of giant footprints obviously made by Sasquatch (or me) and sent a picture message to my Bigfoot-obsessed 9-year-old.
It was sunny with temperatures in the mid-60s. Yet, the water was cold, so I wouldn’t have to bother with gators and snakes. I pushed away from the sandbar and again went to pondering what lay around the bend. I didn’t have to wonder long.
WHAM! What lay around the bend was a stump, possibly a giant sequoia stump. One so perfectly positioned as to tilt my kayak just so that the rushing Flint could fill it and spill its contents, including me.
After being bashed against this misplaced tree hiding in the cold, murky water, I managed to grab the kayak with one hand and my paddle with the other. I tried to swim toward either bank, but the swift Flint would have none of it. It pushed me along, banging my legs against stumps and rocks for nearly 30 minutes while I kept swimming in vain with limbs that were growing colder and more numb by the minute. And I was almost to the point where I couldn’t hold on any longer.
I should note at this point that I’m not much for doing things in groups. No group exercise classes. No group paddling excursions. I relish my alone time.
Well, let me tell you, when you are hanging onto a kayak with one hand and being dragged along like a waterlogged rag doll 3 miles from the nearest human, you feel plenty alone. I got enough alone time last Sunday to last me all of 2010.
I also should note that I’ve gotten quite lackadaisical in my two years of kayaking. When I first started, I had a whistle, a life preserver, an air horn, a spray skirt and a waterproof bag for my phone and such. But after breezing through encounters with waves, alligators, a cottonmouth who nearly fell into my kayak from a bush and angry mess of wasps, I may have eased up on the precautions.
My life preserver last Sunday looked an awful lot like a mere long-sleeve Adidas shirt. Ironically, under it was a T-shirt with a whale on it and the words “Save the humans.” It didn’t seem as funny in the river as it did in the store, but I hoped some largemouth bass would see it and get the message and lend a helping hand, or fin.
Fortunately, after being dragged along through the deep waters and turned into an ice cube, I maintained my quick-thinking skills and smartly lunged for a jagged tree limb with my nimble ribs and thigh. For several minutes, I stayed pinned there between the kayak and the tree while I caught my breath.
I tilted the kayak to get some of the water out and rummaged through the cockpit for my belongings. I found my cell phone and put it in the branch of a tree to dry out. Of course, it was dead. My UGA duffel bag that was full of soggy Pringles (stay-crisp can, my backside!), sunscreen, flip-flops, water and, yes, the Beanee Weenies then got away from me and disappeared.
I climbed onto the tree and back into the half-full kayak, then strapped my phone under a bungee cord in hopes of a miraculous cellular resurrection. I paddled over to another sandbar and tried to dry out. That’s when I learned one of the symptoms of “mild” hypothermia, violent shaking. I looked like I did that time as a kid when I stuck my finger in a light socket to see if it still has electricity even with no bulb in it. In case you’re wondering, it does.
I figured the only way to warm up was to dump the rest of the water out, take off my wet shirts and get back to paddling. Seven miles later, I made it to a boat ramp with not a soul in sight. An hour later, a fisherman arrived and let me borrow his phone to call for help.
By the time my wife picked me up, the sun was going down and I was standing there alone, barefoot, shirtless and shivering. I also felt thankful and stupid at the same time. And to this day, my bones feel cold. I’m not afraid of the water, but I now have a great fear of trees. Especially ones who don’t know their place.
So, please, learn from my stupidity. If you kayak that stretch of the deserted Flint, wear your life jacket and don’t go alone.
And if you get hungry, there’s a can of Beanee Weenies waiting on you.
Chris Johnson, 706-320-4403.