Sometimes the worst decisions turn into the best stories. I made one of those decisions last week.
As the sun sunk low over the Green River, we three kayakers were scanning the banks for places to set up camp.
Exhausted from 20 miles of paddling in the blazing sun, we searched for a spot where we could comfortably and conveniently put up for the night, and turned down the first few potential campsites in hopes of finding a better one around the next bend of the river.
When we reached a sandbar that fell a bit short of being our ideal spot, my companions couldn’t decide whether to stop or press on.
They looked to me for the decision, and I pointed my paddle forward, “Keep going!”
This was my fatal (or at least it felt so at the time) mistake.
Around the next bend, there were no better campsites. The banks rose steeply with no places to land a kayak, let alone secure three of them and climb up with all of our gear.
The sun dipped below the surrounding trees, and we were soon in near-complete darkness, unable to make out anything more than a few feet away.
Our muscles ached. Our mouths were parched. Our stomachs growled hungrily.
In the darkness, my mind churned desperately and pulled in different directions all at once, trying to make out the dark shapes around me, listening for the paddle strokes of the others to be sure we were all still close together, contemplating any and all possible solutions.
The thick, dense night created mirages – what appeared to be a sandbar turned out to be only darker shadows; what seemed like a viable landing spot was really just a fallen tree.
Finally, as we paused to check an old ferry landing for potential, I spotted a light bobbing through the woods on the opposite bank.
I cried out, paddling fast to the shore nearest the light, but no answer came from on land.
Drawing near to the shoreline I could tell that it would be a burdensome task to make landing here if it was possible at all. At this point, though, it didn’t matter – I had to try.
“Is there a trail here?” I yelled in the direction the light had been. “Is there a camp site?”
Finally an answer echoed back, “Yes!”
Derek was the first to wrangle his kayak onto land enough to climb out. Josh and I made it to the bank on what appeared to be a slightly easier slope, but realized as we tried to step out that the muddy bank was almost impassable.
We slipped desperately, with no vegetation to grab onto, and when I made it out of my kayak it was more of a fall than a graceful climb. I kicked off my slick-soled shoes and attempted to head up the bank, but it was too dark and far too slippery.
The boys, sharing a flashlight, agreed to climb ahead and check for a suitable site while I made sure the kayaks stayed ashore.
Rising slightly to take hold of a slipping kayak, the treacherous mudslide of a bank decided to claim its victory over me and down I went into the blackness of the water.
Keeping hold of the kayak, which was now tugging in the current, trying to escape, I lashed out desperately with my other hand and managed to dig three fingertips into the muddy shore.
Stretched out and neck-deep in the current, I realized that it was far too dark for anyone to see that I had fallen in. I knew, too, that if my grip broke loose, I would be lucky to find the shore again.
I mustered all of my reserve to call out calmly for help, not wanting to incite a panic which might send someone else careening down the slick slope.
Moments later Josh edged his way down the embankment to see what had happened and – upon realizing my current position – grabbed hold of my wrist, hauling me and the kayak I still clung to back to shore.
We climbed up through the dark over a steep series of protruding roots to safer ground, and were met by two young women who were quite taken aback by these three mud-soaked and haggard-looking strangers who had just emerged from the darkened river in the middle of the wilderness.
I might have laughed at their obvious surprise had I not then tripped over a root and slapped my face into the narrow dirt path.
Thankfully, Derek had more composure at the moment than I was able to summon, and he explained to the girls how we wound up there.
The two welcomed us into their campsite, and together, the five of us built a fire – and some new friendships.
“So,” I asked my companions, as we settled our tired bones in for the night, “where do you guys want to go next time?”