A short story by Susan H. Evans
Blond, thirty-something Cousin Billy tells me, “Sue, we need to rent a canoe and go down the Congaree Swamp.” Trawling through a South Carolina bog with B-movie creeptoids and festering sloughs seems too attractive to miss. I phone my daughter, Laura, that saucy blue-eyed minx, and she is in.
The day of our trip dawns sunny, and soon reaches 75 degrees. Before leaving his Charlotte condo, Billy asks prudently, “Aren’t you all bringing a change of clothes?” I don’t really see the point, but Laura and I tuck extra jeans and tee-shirts in our backpacks.
At Congaree National Park, we stop by the Visitor’s Center to pick up a map. Over the center’s entrance, a small chalkboard reads, “Be aware of submerged logs.” Hmmm. Oh well, who cares about a couple of dinky floating sticks?
At Cedar Creek parking lot, the banana-colored canoe is heavy as a pregnant elephant when we try to get it off the roof of Billy’s car. Under Bannister Bridge, Billy tells me to sit in the canoe middle since I weigh the least. He vaults in next to roost in front while Laura steadies the canoe—bucking like a bronco on Ritalin—from the bank. Then she flops in. I smile. Fraught with danger already, and we have just launched. It takes a gutsy woman like me to venture into the swamplands like this.
We glide peacefully under the forest canopy, with the river as silky as a blue ribbon, paddling past bald cypress and otherworldly water tupelo, their roots exposed like gums in a very pathogenic mouth, anchored in the bowels of the swamp. We row past a few downed trees and floating logs but manage to paddle around them. I love this oozy place.
After an hour of seeing no one, we row to a low-lying area and pull the canoe up on the shore, stretch our legs, and take a couple of pictures. Then we get back in the canoe. This time, Cousin Billy thinks it best for Laura to sit in front with me again in the middle.
Halfway back, Laura—redolent of Lot’s wife that just had to take one last look at Sodom burning—turns and leans sideways, saying “I think we are about to hit a log.” It is an ill current that flows no good. Her weight to the right as we smash into the log does it. Our canoe pitches forward and butts heads with another poorly appointed floating log.
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 stand up, sputtering a gurgling profanity, looking like a cat that has been dropped in a toilet, my hair plastered to one side of my head. The pockets of my denim jacket full of water weigh on me like sacks of ball bearings.
Laura, with all the natural grace of a rhinoceros, half-falls and half jumps out of the canoe, while Billy strategically scrambles into the fen before the craft turns over, and starts a slow descent into the bog. Billy takes charge and tells me that I must get out of the quagmire. I manage to squeak, “How?” He picks me up like I am a Dutchboy knickknack and sits my soggy bottom on a log.
Then Billy tells Laura, “Let’s just get the canoe up.” Laura scrabbles to help, and Billy, with herculean force, heaves it at a 45 degree angle onto the bank.
Meanwhile, I am morphing into an amphibian. Billy looks around and fixes his blue eyes on me turning green on my bole. He resignedly says, “Sue, you need to walk to the shore.” Shivering like a naked Floridian in February Fairbanks, I eye the thin layer of dark chocolate slime over the heavy leaf sludge. Screwing up my last crumbs of courage, I slog to shore, my sneakers filling up with muck as I go, and my throat in a wet pocket of my jacket. I make it to shore and find a rock jutting out of the sand, and soak into it as I wring out my socks, curse the swamp, and wonder why God hates me so.
As Billy puzzles out how we will all get back in the canoe, a flotilla of 20 or so curious gawkers in a tour group slowly move by, plying their oars smoothly in the water. Some faces register sympathy, some barely conceal mirth, but most just look at us sourly. Two hours in the water. Seeing no one. Now they appear.
The plump female ranger eyes our errant water bottle floating downstream, and motions to the bottle, suggesting gaily that we go get it. Billy and I ignore her; both of us would rather even poke her in the eye with a burnt oar than go after that bottle.
Later, Billy, Laura, and I get back to the parking lot. I retrieve my dry clothes from Billy’s Hyundai, and in soggy jeans waddle to the port-o-let. It reeks of abject defeat. I sigh.
Months later, Laura asks quite innocently, “How come we turned over?”