Floating the Cahaba River, Part 2 ; the storms

Continuing on from Yesterday’s post (It’s linked there in case you missed it)….

We were awakened on the 2nd day between 5:30-6am by rumbling thunder. It started raining, and Shannon immediately got up and out of the tent to secure the tarp over our heads. As he worked, the rain started pounding and he continued digging a deeper trench around the tent. We picked a spot on the opposite bank to keep an eye on the swell of the River. We watched it for a little over an hour, and that’s when we reached for our phones. We both had texts from concerned friends and family members who had their eyes on James Spann. I opened my radar app and all I could see was red. My mind immediately went to the “tornado section” of the river we’d just come through towards the end of our float the previous day.

Not the actual radar – but an accurate representation of what I was looking at

Shannon was prepared to wait it out until it all passed by. I was absolutely not. I said, “I feel like we’re sitting ducks here – There are giant trees all around us and I’m afraid that if we sit here we’re going to end up under one of them”. That’s when he pointed out our 2 choices; sitting here and hoping for the best or paddling out in this mess. By now it was about 8:30am, and while storms were forecast all day long, it looked like worse ones were coming in the late afternoon. There wasn’t a good option, but I felt much better leaving the river bank, so that’s what we did. We packed up all of our gear in the pouring rain and headed out, not having any real clue about how much time it would take us to get to the Living River Take out spot.

We paddled hard. For the first couple of hours the rain wasn’t terrible. It was a steady, light rain that sometimes would pick up a little. We were able to keep our clothes and feet dry under rain gear and hats. The thunder would rumble off in the distance, come closer and closer, eventually pass over us, dump rain, and then taper off. Shannon was keeping track of our location through the map app on his phone, and had brought a metal army ammo box to keep our phones waterproofed thankfully.

After about the 3rd hour, with the water level above our comfort level, we came to a spot where there was a washed out bridge to the right, and a large tree down to the left. There was a waterfall/rapid that went strait through the middle of it, and I could tell by looking at it that it had the potential to be a problem. As is usually the case, I positioned my canoe behind Shannon’s, and took his exact route over the falls. Right as he slid down it, I realized that there was a large concrete piling which was part of the washed out bridge, directly to my right. I over-corrected to keep from plowing into it and as I did, dipped the left side of my boat too far under, capsizing it completely. Everything in the boat, myself included was dumped into freezing cold water. I came up quickly and grabbed the end of the boat and started yelling “I’m ok”! The river was moving quickly, and Shannon was doing his best to keep from floating away from me and to get as much of the gear out of the water into his boat. He told me to swim for shore and pull myself out of the water.

We eventually found my capsized canoe at the next turn

The river bank where I landed had no beach. It was a long mass of twisted roots that were at water level, with about a 6 inch piece of root that I could stand on out of the water. The river bank was directly behind me and it was about 4 feet strait up. This was all happening very fast and as I saw Shannon’s boat disappear around the bend I heard him yell “I’ll be back for you!”. (Insert surprised face emoji). I had no idea what that meant but I knew that if anyone could save the day it was him. I fully expected to see him paddle against the current and appear in front of me in his boat. About 5 minutes later, I heard him up above me loud whispering “hey!” and that’s when he informed me that I was going to have to scale this four foot muddy bank behind me. I honestly don’t know how we managed it, and without the adrenaline on board it wouldn’t have happened. I dug my fingernails into the wall of mud and somehow made boot holes in such a way that I could grab his hand and he could pull me up. When I finally fell onto the ground above and looked up, I realized that we were in something of a front yard. It was a scene out of deliverance, and that is not even a slight exaggeration. There was a run down air stream trailer with a rusted out beat up old truck beside it. Shannon motioned for me to be quiet – we didn’t want to wake the inhabitants and be accused of trespassing.

We walked back about 100 yards or so to where his boat was safely tied to a tree and climbed back into his boat. He asked if I wanted to change into dry clothes now or after we got my boat back.

I can’t say exactly why I decided to snap this photo of this moment, except that if I died I wanted my kids to know that I had been having fun when it happened!

We came upon my boat before we got to a spot that was easily accessible for a change of clothes. Shannon roped it and we drug it to a sandbar. Luckily I had a dry pair of underwear, a dry shirt, and a dry pair of pants and although my boots were soaked through, I had one dry pair of socks. Shannon gave me his outer rain jacket, and he covered himself in the tarp. I realized in this moment that hypothermia was a real threat. We were now approaching the 4th hour and we still had a good ways to go. We paddled as hard as we could for the next couple of hours. My arms burned like nothing I’ve ever felt before but all I could think about was the radar I’d seen on my phone that morning. There was nothing to do but paddle through it. It would thunder and lightening and rain and then let up. It did this over and over and over and it never fully stopped raining.

Around 2pm we finally FINALLY reached the take out. Just as we were approaching the bank, for some reason (involving high stress and low blood sugar perhaps) I reached outside of my canoe to “see how deep it was” before I stepped out of my boat. As I did this I dumped it over on it’s side, and as Shannon had floated up to me I somehow managed to grab the side of his boat and dump him in as well. We were at the take out, but we were now once again soaked to the bone, with our gear floating around us. We had to scramble to get it back before it was swallowed up by the now fast flowing river. Just as we got everything onto the bank, and realized that we were once again looking at a hill of mud in front of us that would have to be *conquered* in order to reach the truck, another storm hit. It started absolutely pouring rain and thundering. It was an absolute nightmare.

This was when I started that uncontrollable laughter that only comes when you’ve truly lost it. I believe they call it the pseudobulbular effect? Or maybe it was pure psychosis. All I know is that I was having to hide my face because every time one of us slipped in the mud and fell down while trying to GET THE HECK OUT OF HERE I had an uncontrollable fit of laughter that I kept having to hide from Shannon. He was in survival mode, and neither of us were having any fun at all. He ended up having to use ropes tied to the trailer to haul the canoes up the bank and onto the road so that he could then load them. I was bringing up gear one piece at a time and we tossed it all into the back of his truck.

The first thing he’d done when we got out of the river was start the truck and turn the heat up on high. By now I was shivering so hard my teeth were chattering. It had taken us about an hour to load everything up and we were fully exhausted. We sat in the truck cab with the heat on full blast, staring strait ahead, and passing a bottle of whiskey back and forth between us for about 15 minutes before we could stop shivering enough to move.

Shannon’s blistered, waterlogged hands post-take out.

Obviously, we lived to tell the tale. It could have been much worse. It was this trip that I fully realized how extremely skilled Shannon is at not only outdoor adventure skills, but survival skills. His instincts and reactions were intact when mine were completely gone.

All told on the 2nd day from where we set out in the morning to the Living River Take out was about 22 miles of the 42 total we covered in those 2 days, and we did it in about half the time from the day before. When we got back home, after showers and naps, we read the reports of the tornadoes and storms that had touched down all around where we’d been all day, and one in particular, had hit only about 20 miles east of where we’d camped. I can promise you I’ll never chance it like that again.

The next time we went and floated the Cahaba River, was in much better conditions! I’ll tell you about that next!

5 thoughts on “Floating the Cahaba River, Part 2 ; the storms

  1. Pingback: Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge | Heads East, Tails West

  2. What a terrifying experience!! I wouldn’t have wanted to wait around either and probably would have tried to paddle out too. Capsizing is one of my biggest fears while canoeing, but glad to hear that you weren’t injured. And hey, as miserable as the trip was, it sure makes for one heck of a story!!

    Liked by 1 person

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