Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born into the same economic class as Job’s turkey in eastern Tennessee, and grew up into a neighborhood of lowlifes, wastrels, and questionable IQs. I managed to get myself educated and to a certain extent, literate. I teach and write in the Smokies.
Tippycanoe: Swamped On the Congaree
In early October, Cousin Billy, tells me, “Sue, we need to rent a canoe and go down the Congaree Swamp.” Trawling through a South Carolina bog teeming with B-movie swamp thangs sure sounds tempting. I phone my daughter, Laura, that blue-eyed minx, and she is in.
The only problem is that the planet has one more day in Mercury retrograde, which unfortunately, coincides with our little foray into the quagmire. Usually, I like to hide during this time, but the lure of fermenting sediment and festering sloughs entices.
The Saturday we go dawns sunny, and the temperature quickly rises to a balmy 75. Perfect. Before we leave Billy’s Charlotte condominium, he asks, “Aren’t you all bringing a change of clothes?” I don’t really see the point, but to oblige, Laura and I tuck extra jeans and t-shirts in our backpacks.
In Columbia, we rent a canoe, and head down South Carolina Hwy 48 East to Congaree. On the way, I casually mention it is the last day of Mercury retrograde. Billy sighs, “Again?” and he and Laura groan. They accuse me of always saying it is this time –as if I organize the heavens.
We pull into the park and stop by the visitor’s center to pick up a couple of maps displaying canoe access points. Over the center’s entrance, I notice a small chalkboard announcing park alerts, temperature, and weather forecasts. The scrawling on the board says, “Water levels are low. Be aware of submerged logs.” So what, I think.
At the Cedar Creek parking lot, we wrestle the banana-colored canoe – heavy as a expectant elephant –off Billy’s car roof. Then Laura and I half carry and half drag our sides of the ungainly hulk to the launch point. The muddy path slip-slides under my feet and the smell of sludge, pine, and fetid water thwacks my sinuses. Under the Bannister Bridge, we ease the boat into the chilly, murky water and begin another difficult maneuver—steadying the canoe for occupancy. I dither briefly before flopping in, and then scrabble around on bony knees before clambering on the hard, middle seat.
Billy bounds in, pirouettes around me, and plops down in front while Laura tries to keep the canoe — now bucking like a bronco on Ritalin –steady from the bank. Finally, she collapses in. I smile inside. Fraught with danger already, and we have just launched. It takes a gutsy woman to venture into the swamplands like this.
The Cedar Creek canoe trail winds 15 miles long, a fluid shimmering mirror reflecting dribbling Spanish moss swaying from elderly trees. Through the Congaree wilderness under the forest canopy we glide, peaceful as churchgoers after a heavy meal. Fall leaves filter silently down as we paddle past bald cypress and water tupelo, roots exposed like gums in very pathogenic mouths. We row past a few downed trees and floating logs, but manage to portage around them. I love this oozy place.
After about an hour, we row to a low-lying sandy spot and pull the canoe up on the shore. We stretch our legs, wander up a little hill, and snap some pictures. After we glance at our watches, we do not linger. The canoe must be back to the outfitters by closing time. This time, Cousin Billy says, “Laura, why don’t you get in the front and, Susie, you stay in the middle?”
All goes well until halfway back, until Laura – reminiscent of Lot’s wife that simply must look back–turns to say, “Hey, ya’ll, I see something in the water.”
Our canoe butts heads with a poorly appointed floating log, and I barely have time to utter, “Here we g-o-o-o-o,” before catapulting over the side of the canoe like a rag doll pitched over Niagara Falls. I eventually discover that I still have legs, so I stand up, sputtering a gurgling profanity. I must look like a cat that dropped in a toilet –one side of my hair slicked up. My denim jeans and jacket weigh like a sack of ball bearings off my shoulders and hips.
Laura, with all the natural grace of a hippopotamus, half-falls and half jumps out of the canoe, while Billy strategically hauls himself into the mire before the craft turns over. Striving to merge with my timorous heart, the canoe commences a slow descent into the bog.
Billy takes charge and tells me, “Sue, you are going to have to get out of the water.”
I manage to squeak, “How?” He picks me up as if I am a knickknack, and plunks my soggy bottom on a stationary log.
Then Billy grimly tells Laura, the other feeble pawn of the river, “Let’s just get the canoe up.” Laura fumbles to help, and they grab hold and heave it to shore.
Meanwhile, I morph into Stage one amphibian. Looking around, Billy sees me still sedentary on my bole whilst turning faintly green. “Sue, you need to walk to the shore.” I eye the short walk to the bank –a trek through dark chocolate slime swimming on top of heavy leaf sludge. God only knows what those leaves hide. Nevertheless, I draggle to shore, my sneakers sloshing as I go, my throat in a wet pocket. I find a rock jutting out of the sand, soak into it, squeegee my socks, and curse the swamp.
As the boat bobs about like a skittish virgin bride on her wedding night, a flotilla of 20 or so curious tour group gawkers slowly move by, plying their oars smoothly in the water. Some of their faces register sympathy, some reveal barely concealed mirth, but most just look at us sourly. Two hours in the water seeing no one, and now this. I glower. Billy glowers.
The plump, cheerful female ranger eyes our errant water bottle floating merrily downstream, and motions to the bottle, suggesting gaily that we retrieve it. Billy and I glare at her — neither of us averse to poking her in the eye with a burnt oar. Laura feels compelled to play nice since Billy and I –half-drowned, bitter, and dispossessed swamp rats – offer no amiability, and tells the ranger that we will try. Halfheartedly, Billy bats his paddle towards the bobbing bottle, but the bottle spins away in the opposite direction. Finally, he says through clenched teeth, “Look, we just tipped over, and my main concern right now is for our safety, not for that water bottle.”
Later, after passing many a startled fisher folk, and with considerably dampened spirits, Billy, Laura, and I get back to the parking lot. I retrieve my dry clothes from Billy’s Hyundai. In soggy jeans, I waddle to the Porta potty to change. Muttering to myself, I blame Mercury, but secretly think it is Laura’s fault for not looking out properly, or it is Billy’s fault for putting Laura in front, or both of their faults. All I know it that it was not my fault.
Months later, Laura asks quite innocently, “How is it we came to turn over?”