Please, bear with this tale, as the back story leads to the explanation.
Yesterday I attempted an adventure, much anticipated for more than a year. There's a river I love to fish, in my little kayak, paddling miles up-stream in the very slow current where it's deeper, and swifter current where the water is shallower. From the first time I visited this river, not long after getting the kayak, I met someone who mentioned a certain spot which could be great for camping. I visited that place during the day-time, and he was right: It seemed like an amazing place to have a happy little fire and fry some fish caught on the way there.
So I anticipated the trip, trying to find the right weekend. An opportunity would approach, a three-day weekend, which would afford time for an over-night stay and then a day after to recover and catch up on laundry. Always at the last minute, the weather prediction would change to storms, and I would cancel my plans for the trip. Or something else would happen and change my plans. I would be disappointed, but plan to go again. Finally, the opportunity happened, and the forecast opened up to mostly clear skies and maybe an afternoon shower, as the day approached.
I had a bit of last-minute prep to do, so I was awake a little loo long the night before. No matter; I was about to go camping! The next morning, I slept an hour later than I had originally intended, and drove out. The paddle up-stream took most of the day, as I was stopping to fish fairly often. I didnt catch any catfish, but I happened to catch two fairly large sunfish (well, large for sunfish!) to add to my dinner that evening. One nine-inch bluegill and an eight-inch shellcracker would really add a lot of fresh protein with the instant mashed potatoes and beef jerky I was otherwise planning to eat.
Eventually, I reached the site for camping. The weather had been lovely. It was very hot, but thats July in Alabama for you. I gathered some wood for a small fire after dark, and used some long sticks to set my tarp up as a simple shelter. I sat inside through a couple afternoon showers, and kept working towards my evening. The fish were cleaned and ready to cook, waiting for the sun to set. I used my little camp stove to boil some river water and make some tea, as well as refilling my water bottles. Dusk was approaching.
I knew there were wild pigs in the area. Every time I had been to this place during the day, I saw a few hoof prints in the sand. I also saw plenty evidence that other people spent time there, leaving some trash and ashes from small fires. My guess is that kids too young to drink, or possibly some people in their early 20s, would make their way down the river to hang out there. I assumed the dog prints were from someone who took their pooch with them. The pigs didnt bother me; there were never many tracks, and people said theyd typically scare away easily enough. However, I did take along a firearm, just in case it was needed. If people showed up, that also didnt bother me, as most folks are rational, even if theyre some teenagers trying to sneak away for a couple beers.
This spot is about a half mile through extremely dense vegetation to the nearest house on the near bank, scrubby brush much too dense to hike. There were no obvious trails. The river is very shallow there, so anyone approaching from the opposite bank could just wade across. However, the opposite bank is much steeper, and the vegetation even more dense, an impenetrable tangle, so I assumed the human visitors all came by small boat. There was ready access by park a few miles up-stream as well, as long as someone is willing to get out and lead their craft through very shallow water in a couple places. But I digress.
Dusk was coming. The sun was lowering, and I had been enjoying shade for over an hour. Official sunset was at 8pm, and the time was about 7:30. I heard what sounded like a person, fake-howling. I heard another. I smiled, thinking some kids were in their kayaks coming to sneak some beers on the 4th of July weekend. But the howls escalated, and soon there was a chorus of many voices, coyotes yammering at the beginning of the evening.
I immediately thought there were two possibilities: Real coyotes, or someone has a high-end predator call. If it were the latter, I didnt want a run-in with crazy. Hunting isnt legal there. Even though its somewhat remote, its between two high-end neighborhoods, and within city limits. It just happens to be tucked away. If it was someone who spotted me and wanted me to depart, I was fine with that, too. If it was actual coyotes? Its not worth losing a nights sleep to make sure I dont end up as food from a pack of German Shepherd-sized wild dogs. I knew nightfall was coming, and fast. But knowing that coyotes in packs scheme, and look for openings to exploit worried me more. I also knew that a single gunshot would not scare them away for long, and losing a pack member could anger the group. Having seen videos of domestic dogs going bad didn't do anything to help the situation.
So I packed my things hastily, wishing I had time to roll things up again so they fit properly into their original states. But there was no time. As long as I could fit in the kayak with all of it, I would go. And so I did. I started paddling up-stream, a head lamp already on my forehead anticipating total darkness. The moon is fairly new, barely more than a sliver of silver gleaming in the sky. I knew I had the worst obstacles in the river to bypass before I couldnt see them well enough to get by. My pace was desperate, more to beat nightfall to these potential death traps than for fear of my life at that point. So, on I paddled.
I soon found myself in the area where the water is maybe two feet deep, and littered with fallen trees. I see a trunk just beneath the surface, and realize how difficult it was to see. But I could tell which end to pass, and continued on my way. Several more places were similar. When I saw the next rocky shoal, I knew the bank on one side was gradual, and the river was littered with submerged logs and tires on the other side. Staying in the middle, I passed by safely. A newly fallen maple tree blocked half the river to my left on the way back. The deepening shadows made this tree difficult to distinguish from the trees ahead, as lines converged with distance. But I avoided it. I did run onto a couple sunken logs, and had to work hard to free myself again.
And then I saw it: the toughest restrictive corridor on the entire river. Several trees had fallen from either side of the river, blocking most of the surface. There is a gap which can fit a small vessel, a little over two feet wide. I slowed, realizing it was dark enough that I could only see the trunk of one of the trees. So I turned on the head lamp, and immediately regretted not owning a much brighter model. But it helped reveal more branches. I angled the little boat so I could slip through the gap. On my way through, a bit of log bumped into my bow, jarring the kayak. It shook the boat hard, and scared me badly. I did not want to turn over in the middle of a strainer like those trees! I would surely become nothing more than a statistic, another kayaker gone missing on Alabamas waterways. I managed my way through, and continued, breathing a sigh of relief that the worst had been passed.
On I traveled, seeing low-hanging branches and the limbs of submerged trees at the last second. I knew I could not stop paddling, else Id risk being turned by the slow current and the stiff breeze in the opposite direction. Disorientation is an extremely high risk at night on the river.
Eventually a familiar droning was heard. It was the pump house, next to an overpass, the only actual sign of civilization in the miles between where I put in and the place I had intended to camp. I rounded a bend, and saw a well-lit bridge over the river. I was grateful for the few yards of well-lit river, and continued farther into the inky black.
Before me were nothing more than shapes of trees, solid black except at their tops, a ragged shape against a hazy sky, reflecting the light from the nearby city and surrounding suburbs. A few stars could be seen above, revealing an unclouded sky; just hazy. My head lamp was enough to illuminate either bank of the river when I turned my head that way, and to expose the gleaming eyes of small animals coming down to drink or catch fish. So many eyes! And a light fog had started to form over the water, causing the beam from the light to become visible in mid-air, sometimes enough to hinder my view of what was ahead. The skys reflection showed the clear or obstructed water ahead, as far as it could until the reflection or shadows of the dark trees ahead obscured the view.
I started seeing lightning at some point. I dont know exactly when it was on this journey, but at first it was faint and I was unsure of what I was experiencing. I thought, perhaps, my current levels of stress along with my lack of sleep the previous night were catching up with me. Maybe it was simply from being over-worked. Eventually, it was definitely lightning. It wasnt bright enough to reveal details along the river, but enough to notice the flashes. I never heard thunder, however. I began looking up at the stars, sometimes turning my head to look back for clouds. I told myself as long as I saw stars ahead, it wouldnt rain. I was deliberately denying knowing how high the water can get from a thunderstorm on that river, though the muddy leaves four feet above the current level insisted otherwise. Eventually, the flashing in the sky was both behind and before me, though I saw stars, never heard thunder, and rain never came. If it was heat lightning, it is something I havent experienced since childhood.
At night, shapes tend to take on new meaning, and the imagination goes wild. The low-hanging branches of a tree formed the shape of an enormous face for a moment. That long, pale branch extending from the waters surface appeared like a long-necked water bird stretching to the sky. Of course, these are merely images, and rationality reveals as much. But to the sleep-deprived mind in a desperate paddle home late at night, theyre living nightmares.
The river turned time and again. Most of the time, it would be enough to bring a particular star I will assume a planet, as it was bright enough to be Saturn or Jupiter into view. But at last, one bend in the river revealed the moon in her glory, overhead. She centered herself above the river, and the extra light helped so very much. The river progressed, and turned into obscurity. I could see shapes of trees better, this new and growing crescent offering what revelation she could. But still, there remained mystery.
Suddenly I realized: I was in a physical manifestation of the eighteenth trump of the classic tarot deck, The Moon. There were no physical dogs, no crab climbing out of the water and onto a winding road. No, rather, the river was the path to travel. The trees were the towers, and I was moving on through mystery and the uncertain to my goal: The car I had parked early that morning, the light of the passing cars at the bridge near there. Those were the crown in the distance, the enlightenment and symbolic attainment so many of us seek in life.
On I pressed, into the Moon card, praying desperately to whichever deities would hear me, pleading for my safety. I was terrified of this blindness. I was enlightened by my environment. The river turned, bringing the star/planet into view one moment, the moon the next, blank skies the moment after. I started passing downed trees I recognized as being somewhat closer to my starting point. My hope was increasing, though mystery remained. No matter how hard I paddled, my arms aching, my chest heaving with labored breath, I often felt like I was hardly moving. But I continued into the mystery.
I will be safe.
I will be whole.
I will be fine.
[deities] , if youre there, I need to make it out of this. I need help, etc.
I cant be a statistic. I must survive.
No, forget the negatives; the mind doesnt process them but focuses on the rest.
I must make it out.
I will survive.
I will make it.
I am going to get to my car.
On this river, traffic noise is constant. Where I parked, theres a major road the kind with traffic so bad most people never want to go there. The river is very near the interchange of that road an an interstate highway, which mostly parallels the river, and is even closer near where I camped. Vehicle traffic is always audible. This hadnt changed the entire paddle back, except when it was drowned out by the droning motors at the pumping station. I was approaching another bend, and notices a faint glow. I wondered if that was the last bridge, by which I parked my car. It was like an awakening. I reached the bend, and the trees revealed bright lights of passing cars, and suddenly the road noise was not muffled. The main bridge clattered. The smaller bridge flashed with headlights in the gaps of its railings. Vehicles whooshed past, roared by, and I knew I was approaching my goal on that trip. To my left, I could see just well enough to recognize the smaller river which let out into the main channel close by.
My kayak struck something and the water exploded. Id never heard a profanity reverberate for so long as my frightened expulsion that night. Whatever I had encountered was large, and immediately submerged. I dont think my heart could have pumped any harder. I couldnt be any more out of breath than I already was. But I pressed on. I was getting desperate. All I saw on the left were trees. I was getting pretty close to the bridges, and I certainly did not want to pass them not just to leave the car behind, but because of the piles of entire trees broken against the pillars of the bridges before reaching the dam and plummeting about ten feet. A slight reflection caught my eye. It was my cars rear tag. Had I not backed up quite so far, I would have missed the sight. I veered to the left, and soon found the large logs at the canoe drop. I maneuvered around, to make my way around them and to the bank.
I positioned the kayak to a place where I could disembark, pulled its bow onto the dry ground, and almost ran to my vehicle. I was safe. I texted the two people who knew where I was, that I was safe, and re-loading the car to return that night. After breathing for a few minutes, I let the car idle to warm up. I rolled down the two front windows to make sure I could not lock myself out, and started loading my gear back into the car. My head lamp helped me strap the kayak down properly, affixing the bow line to the frame behind the front bumper. I pulled away carefully, avoiding the culvert next to the narrow gravel path, the only way back to a road.
I couldnt believe I made it back.
The drive home was bitter-sweet. Many priorities had changed. I saw mystery ahead, an unknown path, and I traveled it. Things around me appeared other than they were. I pressed on. My goal was ahead, despite uncertainties. I had traveled The Moon.