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  The sun on the calm water and laid back conversation float nowhere. Need to go nowhere. Content with itself, it spreads with ease like a thick layer of syrup over pancakes making them savory and sweet.

   Kayaking up under cascading walls of water vines, I arrive at a long abandoned beaver lodge so overgrown that only a practiced eye could discern it. The growth is so impenetrable and the stream path so narrow that I’m unable to turn the kayak around, and begin to paddle backwards but am stymied by islands of knotted lily roots.

   Water lily roots hump in black fists the size of hippo feet a mere inch or two under the surface. I’m beached in the fertile black water.

   As I scrunch myself forward, pumping my body to dislodge my boat, the craft rocks ominously as it pushes undulating liquid up against the tangled green walls an arm’s length away.

   The water level clearance in a kayak is negligible. As the ripples swing me, they threaten to swamp the opening in which I sit below the water level. This low center of gravity is a boon on open water, but in these crowded quarters, my unease swells.

  With a last scooch a vacuuming slurp sounds as my boat is freed from the root mass—only to have a sheave of tall water weeds swipe across my face as the front tip of the boat surges forward. And, surprisingly—being stuck under such an ordinary canopy of water weeds frees me.

   No longer am I in a populated mid-Michigan lake, mid-August, midday, but I’m ducking under trailing liana vines in a small Costa Rican stream that empties into the Atlantic, according to the ‘boys’ at Turtle Lodge where I’m staying. My brother Ken paddles along nearby. At forty-one and 250 pounds, he’s twelve years younger and 150 pounds heavier than me. This is our first international trip together and he’s proud to be with older, so-called-wiser sister.

   The lodge boys gave us explicit directions for our little excursion: “Just stay on the main river for about a half an hour, then turn right. That little stream will take you through a small pond and directly out into the Atlantic. But stop before you enter the ocean. There is a terrific undercurrent and you might drown. If you don’t drown, the bull sharks will get you! Be careful! Follow our directions.”

   This first half hour, the banks spill over with prolific ferns and moss-dripping trees. When I gaze deeper into the thick jungle creepers, I notice the banks have disappeared with the recent rains. In fact, the water spreads as far as the eye can reach, winding around half-submerged tree trunks. The river itself is merely a deeper part of the unending watery surface.

   Entranced, I pull into elfin alcoves of blue-green, take several photos and re-emerge with a glorious smile on my face. Date palms swarm with colorful birds. Ken cruises on one hundred yards behind me.

   It’s easy to find the ‘smaller’ stream off to the right. The water speed has increased significantly so the current simply carries the kayak along. No longer is there a need to paddle, except to keep the kayak from turning sideways. As the speed increases, I become perturbed because I no longer have the chance to compose good photos. Those artistic angles take a steady boat and a free hand. The current’s raw power rushes me away too quickly.

   Then it dawns on me.

   I look back. The entire river is funneling all the flood waters my way. When I see Ken making the turn into the stream I shout “HELP! I’m getting carried away!”

  He looks up, sees my predicament, and TURNS BACK.

   What the hell?. He’s stronger and quicker. I need his help to get me back up this, now racing river with no sides to it. Panic sets in. He’s just saving his own skin.

   I have been warned by the Turtle Lodge staff, “Don’t touch any of the trees. Some of them have poisonous spines.” Nodding to myself in agreement, I nervously chew on my upper lip. The spiked trees are sighted often in the jungle around Turtle Lodge. “Some trees harbor poison dart frogs that are so small you won’t notice. Others have bark that will make your skin itch for days. And there are snakes with deadly venom.”

   But I have to grab trees. If I paddle with all my strength upstream, I still continue downstream. The current is stronger than I am. How am I going to get back? Weird, end of life thoughts rush into my head faster than the river. How could my brother abandon me? He’s so much stronger and younger than I am. Will I ever be able to stop? If I drown I won’t be able to say goodbye to my family and friends. Did I leave a will? The power of the water brings me back with a jolt. I have neither time nor energy to waste.

  I yell again. “HELP! Don’t leave me!” It’s impossible to tear my eyes away from the rushing water, as I put all my muscles into pulling the paddle as hard as my aging can. The thick humidity, coupled with the taxing effort, makes sweat beads on my forehead which drip into my eyes. My vision blurs. I need a third hand to brush away the perspiration. I pant and can’t catch my breath. “HELP!” Again—louder this time.

   He won’t hear me now, the white water crashes and splashes with a roar. I’m afraid. Fear threatens to engulf me before the ocean does.

   With a jolting thud, the kayak collides with a log jam.. Whew! I breathe easier, throw my camera into a waterproof sling about my shoulder and neck so that it’s secure. My movement tips the kayak and the kayak takes on a gallon of water. OMG.  My body instinctually jerks left to regain the center of balance. Please, pleading with any universal forces that will listen. Don’t let me die in this watery jungle. I can’t swallow. My throat constricts and goes into survival mode.

   Options are limited. Very. I CANNOT sink. Or take on more water. I will have no control since he boat will be too heavy. Desperate ridiculous solutions swim through my brain.

   Swim? Naaaah.

   Just float down to the ocean and get out on the beach before I go out? No way. With the size of this stream becoming so vast and rapid that I’ll not be able to stop. I can’t even slow down now, which means I’ll be caught in the undertow or eaten as a bull shark snack.

   Grab the tree trunks, so close together? I could pull myself up against the current...naaaah. They are festooned with death spikes and deadly animals.

   What else? Nothing.

   I dig my paddle into the rush and head straight across the foaming ribbon of rapids. Absolutely no way to make it straight across, of course, and shoot fifty feet further downstream. I’d taken that into account, and as the kayak slams into a trunk, I lasso my arms around it and simply gasp for breath. With a quick glance down into the bottom of the kayak, a half heartbeat of relief bubbles—no more water inside. A victory. Having nearly capsized for momentary lapse, danger makes me shiver in the oppressive heat.

   For a couple minutes I stay precariously seated, arms embracing a rough brick red trunk in the tiny Tupperware-like plastic boat. The paddle is firmly pressed between my body and the savior tree.  The biggest part of my brain is so panicked and anxious I pee my shorts. So what? It’s only water dripping into water.

   Another section of my brain kicks in—the survival mode.

   Every time I grab a tree, I rest until my breathing returns to near normal, and then I pull myself upstream with the next tree identified as my goal. My heart pounds out a steady stream of adrenaline. Not wanting to cross the now raging river, I stay as far to the side as possible without getting lost in the jungle.  I’m scared as a rabbit who knows a wolf has spotted him.

      Each five feet, in my struggle upstream, I assess my next move; carefully avoiding the scabby trees  which will put my skin on fire and those that are spined ready to stab me.

   The next tree up is a smaller sapling, nothing else is near enough to help. Running water sloshes around every upright stalk or trunk, pulling it downstream. The force of the current swirls so powerfully, a flash thought of global oceans hits me. Am I going to be a part of a disappeared shipwreck?

  Banishing that thought, I shove off the big tree I cling to, push back at its trunk from behind me with my paddle to get further up the current, and reach for the tree. As I sigh and pant, the sapling slowly, ever so slowly, releases its hold on the submerged bank where its roots should have grounded it. Terrorized, I feel hot tears on my face.

   What next? What?

    I hold on anyway as it breaks loose. Another log rams into the front of my kayak and pushes me—right over to a vine dangling from a thick limb right down to the level of the water in front of me.

   I’m Tarzan! I’ve got it! Gripping the vine, I realize its upper sections are wrapped around an overhanging branch about twenty feet upstream.  Pulling hard, I swing it and, yes, it propels me against the rapids. Another twenty feet.

   In vivid detail, I recall the description of every tree, many with leaves as large as my body, and each vine that dangled on that hundred yards until I could haul myself to the main river.

   I’m still scared of everything having been been informed caimans, larger than Everglades alligators, swim this river. Leopards can leap down from hidden above in the trees. And worst of all? Light is fading.  

  Having turned from the raging ‘small’ river into the larger, swift, but do-able, river, I paddle in the middle. I’m more than glad to be able to make actual progress, though both exhaustion and fear ride along in the kayak. Alone is nerve racking. I begin to sing to console myself, even though I cannot carry a tune.

   Ninety nine bottles of beer on the wall. One of them just happens to fall...

   No not that one. One more bottle of liquid in this river and I’m doomed. I won’t make it. I know I won’t.

   Bam bam bambam. That’s my heart. Thunking in my chest. Could it beat any louder? Not possible.


   I hear a lion roar! Noooooo!

   Now it’s BAM BAM BAMBAMBAM! Could my heart beat louder than that lion’s roar? Or would it burst from my chest?

   I try to console myself that I am making progress. Will the lion get me? It can’t swim can it?

   The roar from the trees is louder than the racing rapids. My eyes scan the trees. Why am I looking up trees for a lion? Will it help if I see it? Noooo. I’m in a little bitty kayak in a perilous river without end. A little old-ish lady worn down by the mighty current and scared of everything.

    I stay in the dead center—I didn’t say the word ‘dead’, did I?— so that I’m as far from the impenetrable darkening foliage as possible. Maybe the lion won’t be able to get this far. Maybe? I calm myself—or try to, until a log moves in the shadow of what-would-be the shoreIt snakes sinuously. The log isn’t a log at all!—or so my scared self thinks. I see a giant crocodile.

  I start babbling aloud: “Don’t paddle. Pretend you aren’t alive. He won’t want to eat you.” I windmill the paddle so fast, no king of the jungle could stop me.

   Did I say king of the jungle? A lion? Is it lurking in the shadows? I can’t make out anything… but I can hear the …Roooar!  And my heart: Bam Bam BamBamBam!

   What about that crocodile? Pay attention, I remind myself. Pay attention to everything. I spin my head back to the crocodile, and…it’s turned back into a log—DANG! All that fear over a log. Now if I could just figure out where that Roooar! Is coming from…

    I’m beyond exhausted, but still fed with adrenaline. I’m out of one danger, two dangers, but face...? What?

    A dark form the size of a house cat jumps from tree to tree. A monkey!

    Now, I know. Nothing more than a howler monkey with a voice so out of proportion to its size that the jungle reverberates from this small mammal. Its howl can be heard more than three miles, even through impenetrable forest.

      Another fifteen minutes  will bring me to the Turtle Lodge at the end of the offshoot of this river. Another fifteen minutes and a boa might swoop down and coil itself around me.

    I’m making progress. Aren’t I? My inner voice yaps on jittering in terror.

   Passing under a thick mass of tangled branches, a Y in the river appears along with a batch of slim tree trunks gathered together under what appears to be a roof-like structure.

   And there it is—Turtle Lodge!

   As I pull up to the dock, several pairs of dark hands help me flop onto the wide deck, way too much like a half-dead fish out of water. Limp and spent.

   Ken looks down at me. “I had to get back to get another boat to rescue you. We were going to start in a couple of minutes. I just had to convince them to start before it got too dark....”

   Even if there was enough breath in my lungs, I would not be able to answer such foolish words, such ungenerous thoughts. Until my chest stops heaving, I am silent.

  Then the broiling anger hits.

   “NEVER! Never do that again. NEVER leave someone alone, especially a small woman in her sixties, in the jungle.”

   Ken looks sheepish, abashed, then pleads innocence. “I was about to...”

   With acid in my voice, I interrupt Ken’s lame defense of his actions. “I don’t give a shit what you were about to do. NEVER leave someone, anyone, stranded in the jungle.”

   That night, as the story ricocheted around Turtle Lodge guests, enhanced as it passed from person to person, all I could do was to make Ken repeat: never leave someone stranded alone. ..Never leave someone alone...never leave someone...never leave...never...

  Then I feel myself mentally float back to my yellow kayak on Jehnson Lake, where civilization, family, corn on the cob and filet mignon await for dinner.

   That’s healing. Family heals, even if today’s adventure doesn’t approach the intensity of my Costa Rican one, there is a resonance.

  Post-dinner, the motor on the pontoon quits while my family is halfway across the lake. Not hesitating a moment, daughter Terra ties a thick rope around a life jacket so the rope doesn’t dig into her skin. She jumps in the water, swimming coach that she is, and tows the hundreds-of-pounds worth of boat diagonally across the lake.

  Moving a full half-mile per hour, we are halfway to the dock when we are rescued by another pontoon.

   The refrain plays in my head...”Never leave someone stranded alone...never alone... never…”

June 18, 2021 17:38

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1 comment

Jerry Nourrie
06:30 Jun 30, 2021

Great writing. Unique style which I love. Thanks for sharing


Show 0 replies
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