When I was ten, my dad and I embarked on a wild canoe trip down Staunton River. Little did we know, we were about to get caught up in a thunderous spectacle that would have even Zeus shaking in his boots. Over time, I’ve nostalgically referred to this day as The Canoe Ride from Hell.
Our itinerary had us putting in at Long Island with our destination Brookneal. An eleven mile route we’d paddled a half dozen times before, Long Island to Brookneal features a scenic river segment with Class II and III rapids that “should not be attempted by novice canoeists,” according to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.
No Ordinary Canoe
But we were no novices and we were no ordinary canoeists. We were scanoeists, our craft a 15′ Coleman Scanoe (1989 model). What is scanoe you ask? It’s a hybrid canoe, a cross between a traditional canoe and a skiff boat with a square back stern where you can mount a trolling motor if you so desire.
Now considered a relic of the past like Rave 4x Megahold Hairspray, the scanoe first appeared in 1985, manufactured under the Coleman brand and discontinued in 2001. Scout canoes, as they are called today, still exist.
For the purposes of this short essay, I will refer to our ride as a canoe and not a scanoe because even back then when scanoes were a thing (sorta kinda), everyone still said with a laugh, “What the hell is a scanoe? Do you mean ‘canoe’?” No, no I do not.
As we paddled along, we basked in the beauty of our surroundings: the trees along the water’s edge, the sound of birds, the ripples drifting behind water snakes and the calming hush of the current.
About two hours in, the sky began to turn. Nature has a mischievous sense of humor, and on this quaint summer morning, it decided to unleash its power upon us.
Nowadays it’s easy to plan your entire day around the weather. Hour by hour with the click of a button you can see the forecast and a radar. But in 1991, we didn’t have a weather app on a phone that fit snugly in our pockets. Hell, we didn’t even have The Weather Channel. Down in the sticks, basic cable TV was still years away.
Our trip, in accordance with how everyone plotted their water-bound outings back in the day, was planned around the following criteria:
- It’s 9 AM and the sky is currently blue. No clouds in sight.
- There’s water and we have a canoe.
- Last night the WSET 13 meteorologist said the forecast for today would be “clear skies during the day with a slight chance of a late afternoon storm.” We’d be out of the water and eating MoonPies and drinking bottled Coca Colas from Old Well Grocery long before late afternoon.
Arrival of the Storm
The beautiful blue hue of the sky transformed into a light shade of gray in a span of five minutes.
“Hopefully just a sprinkle,” my dad said.
And that’s how it started — a refreshing sprinkle.
Paddles in hand, we continued to glide along the river’s gentle current.
Then a low rumble.
The light shade of gray turned a menacing shade of gray.
Then a BOOM!
Lightning crackled across the horizon, its thin white fingers grasping for the river as the water’s current picked up. Ice cold rain drops pelted our exposed skin and saturated our shorts, my dad’s light blue jean cutoffs now a dark blue.
Battling the Storm
The river, which had once flowed serenely, turned into a raging rapids ride from hell. Our canoe bobbed and weaved like a middleweight boxer, threatening to dump us into the chaos below. We paddled like madmen.
Once sympathetic to our cause, Staunton River recast itself into a treacherous torrent. Swirling currents threatened to capsize our fragile vessel, as if the river itself conspired with the storm to foil our escape. We fought against the relentless turmoil, rocks once visible above the water’s surface now scraping into our hull from below.
“Keep it straight! Keep it straight!” my dad yelled. “We have to keep it straight!”
“I can’t paddle any harder,” I said.
“Hold on to your oar with two hands. Don’t let it slip. I’m going to get us to the bank,” my dad said.
My dad reached deep into his core, that only this moment could have brought forth, digging his paddle into the river with all his might. Our desperate strokes paid off as we made it to the river bank, crashing against a thicket of overgrown brush and downed trees which temporarily lodged our boat.
Finding Shelter Along the Riverbank
“I need you to step out gently, take this rope, and wrap it as many times as you can around that tree up there,” my dad said, pointing. “Then knot it. I’ll be right behind you. Do not drop the rope.”
Huddled beneath our canoe, we sought refuge from the wrath of the storm. Lightning cracked across the sky, illuminating the wilderness with its dazzling display. Thunder roared like a chorus of angry giants. It was a spectacle both awe-inspiring and, what should have been to me, terrifying.
“This isn’t the best place to be during a lightning storm,” my dad said.
“Next to a river?” I asked.
“Or wet under a canopy of trees,” my dad said. “We’re sheltering from lightning,” my dad paused looking up at the trees, “under a lightning rod… about 300 lightning rods.”
We didn’t have much choice. It was 1991. My dad’s pick-up truck was parked miles away. Cell phones weren’t a thing, so calling for help was out of the question. Even if it were possible, my mom was a good 15-20 miles away and would never be able to pinpoint our location in the woods off the side of the river.
The Naïveté of a Child and the Composure of a Father
This is the point in the story in which I must confess my childlike naïveté of the situation: I wasn’t that scared. An 18 year old version of me would have been afraid. A 30 year old me. A current me. But the 10 year old me, I wasn’t.
I’ve told my wife this story a handful of times. As I was rehashing it today, I told her how I wasn’t as terrified as I should have been.
“You were with your dad,” she said. “You felt protected, safe.”
And she’s right. When I look back on this day, my dad was relatively calm amongst the, incoming pun, storm. There were urgent demands he commanded my way:
- Keep the canoe straight so we don’t flip over (and likely drown)
- Don’t drop the rope before you secure it to the tree (otherwise, my dad may have been sent off down the river by himself, with me left behind)
But he held it together amidst the danger at hand.
The Retreat of the Storm
Eventually, the storm began to recede, like a retreating army exhausted from its conquest. The rain tapered off, and the thunderous symphony faded into distant echoes. We emerged from our makeshift shelter, lugging our canoe overhead, and contemplated the nearest road. Deciding against a trek that may lead nowhere but added exhaustion, we returned to the riverbank.
Staunton was flowing swiftly with its newly added depth. To be on the safe side, we hung around the woods for another hour eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (my dad) and cheese and mustard sandwiches (me).
Then we put in and made our way to the end of our journey. Because of the speed at which the water flowed, our trip was cut down by a good 45 minutes.
But we were home free, no longer just adventurers but survivors of nature’s whims — the canoe ride from hell forever etched in our memories, our misadventures on Staunton River another chapter written in our book of life.
My dad died on May 21, 2009, after a short yet swift battle with acute myelogenous leukemia. I’ve had this story in my head for 30 years, but had never written it down save for a few sentences here and there. If you read this today, I hope you are reminded of your own dad — your protector in childhood, the man who kept you safe, absorbing your fears into his own so your naïveté could live another day.
Happy Father’s Day!
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