A few weeks ago, Little Miss Sunshine and I attended our first* Girl Scout Camping Trip. It’s been a few weeks, the bruises are mostly healed, and after
extensive inpatient therapy a brief rest, I feel that I’m finally ready to tell the tale of the Tragic Canoe Incident.
I’m going to preface this story by telling you briefly about my own Tragic Canoe Incident that occurred when I was roughly Sunshine’s age. On a YMCA day camp canoe trip, I was a passenger in a canoe, and had my hand dangling over the side of the boat. In a rough current, another canoe careened into ours, smashing my ring finger and ripping out my fingernail. Afterward, I told several adults, none of whom helped me, and I spent the entire 2-hour bus ride home clutching my oozing, broken finger. At the ER, the doctor SHOVED MY FINGERNAIL BACK INTO THE NAIL BED. Which hurt as much as you would expect it would. My mom, of course, was furious about the whole thing, but she didn’t sue the camp organizers to cover my medical bills, because it was the 80s and that wasn’t a thing back then.
Okay, so, fast forward 20-whatever years. Sunshine and I are ready for our Girl Scout canoe trip. We arrive at the canoe rental place with the rest of the troop. The sky is overcast, but we’re holding out hope. That was our first mistake. Which brings me to Girl Scout Canoeing Pro Tip #1: If It Looks Like It’s Going to Rain, Go the Fuck Home. Which, of course, we didn’t do. So we get checked in, get our life jackets, and board a rickety bus to head to the drop-off point, 6 miles upriver.
The river in question. Don’t be fooled by the tranquil nature of this photo. Danger lurks slightly downstream.
We decide as a group that each mom-daughter pair should canoe with whichever mom-daughter pair they’re bunking with. In our case, that would be Stella and her mom, Miranda**. I’ve never steered a canoe before, but I can paddle like the dickens (does anyone actually know what a “dickens” is?), so I say I’m comfortable being in front. Miranda says she can take the back, because she and her husband have canoed before, and while he’s always been the one who steers, she knows in theory how to do it, which should be good enough.*** Which brings me to Girl Scout Canoeing Pro Tip #2: Get in a Boat with People Who Know What the Fuck They’re Doing.
We get ourselves into the boat, and off we go, paddling happily down the river. It’s a lovely day, not too hot. We take a few minutes to figure out how to keep the canoe going in a forward motion, and then we’re all good. Not 5 minutes into the ride, we see two hawks perched on a tree branch overhead. They take off and glide majestically over the water. The four of us watch the hawks, uttering exclamations of Awe and Delight because Nature is truly Magical and A Sight to Behold. Girl Scout Canoeing Pro Tip #3: Do Not Assume Nature is Your Friend, Because She Will Unleash Upon You Her Fury and Slap Your Ass Back to Reality.
Pitter patter, drip drop. A few raindrops begin to fall. As they splash down, we remark on how Refreshing it feels, and what an Adventure it is to canoe in the rain. At which point, the clouds roll in, a mighty thunder clap reverberates through us, and suddenly it begins to pour. The girls start to make little noises of complaint. We’re coming up to a bridge, and we see other canoeists pull over to wait out the rain under the bridge. But we decide to carry on because we are Girl Scouts Enjoying Nature.
Nature which is quickly accumulating in our boat, by the way. Miranda and I attempt to put a positive spin on it (“Well, now we don’t have to shower in the gross camp shower!”) but the girls are having none of that. Stella gripes that her feet are getting soaked, and Sunshine begins to sob and say she wants to go back to camp. Miranda and I recognize a lost cause when we see one–we pull the canoe over at a good landing place, get the girls out, and use our life jackets to cover our heads and keep the rain out of our eyes.
Luckily the rain stops as quickly as it started, the clouds part, and we’re able to dump the water out of our boat and get back underway. We spend another mile or two Enjoying Nature. It’s a sunny Saturday on the river, and the water is packed with canoes and kayaks. We remark about how crowded it is as we occasionally bump boats with other amateur paddlers. We joke that it’s a good thing the river is so crowded with people because (FORESHADOW!) if we crash, there will be lots of people around to help. Which brings me to Girl Scout Canoeing Pro Tip #4: Don’t Fucking Joke About Crashing.
Around halfway through our trip, things start to go south. The girls are starting to say they’re hungry. Stella declares that she’s starving, and opens Miranda’s backpack to fish out a sandwich. The river gets a little narrower. There’s a lot of debris in the river: downed trees, and big clumps of branches that have accumulated in huge piles like beaver dams. The river is surprisingly shallow, about 3 ft at its deepest. Our canoe frequently bottoms out on sudden shallow spots that spring up without warning. The other boaters in our area are, like us, having difficulty navigating all of these obstacles. We get stuck a few times and have to shove ourselves off the offending obstacles. There are a number of experienced canoeists and kayakers on the river, and they help people turn their boats around, get themselves unstuck. It’s a mellow, friendly, helpful crowd.
Which comes in handy should you, say, find yourselves in the following situation: A large tree root looms ahead. The current is moving your canoe swiftly along, and you find yourself trapped, unable to steer and bearing down on the tree. The current sweeps your boat sideways. You brace yourself for impact. The boat tips on its side, all contents and passengers dumped into the river.
So there we were: the canoe was sideways and lodged on a giant tree root. The girls and I were trapped against the inside of the canoe, the water rushing against our legs and into the canoe. As you may recall, Stella had opened Miranda’s pack to retrieve a sandwich just minutes earlier, and Miranda was now in the unenviable position of chasing her backpack and all its contents down the river. (Stella, meanwhile, was holding the sandwich aloft so it wouldn’t get wet. Above all else, SAVE THE SNACKS!) A movement in my peripheral vision causes me to turn my head, and I see another canoe containing two Dudes, bearing down on us. They tip and dump themselves out of their boat, but are unable to stop the boat itself from slamming into us. The girls and I are now pinned in between two canoes like the meat in a Canoe Sandwich. The Dudes attempt to pull the canoe off of us, but struggle mightily against the rushing water. The only thing keeping the girls from being squished are my legs, which are being crushed between the two boats and the force of the current. Enter Girl Scout Pro Tip #5: If You Crash, Try Not to Have a Full-Scale PTSD Meltdown.
Which is exactly what I did not do. Because as the torrents forced the two canoes together, crushing my calves in between, I decided it would be an ideal time to FREAK THE FUCK OUT. Realizing that I was about to experience amputation-by-canoe, I promptly began to scream, causing Sunshine to scream, and Stella to take another bite of her sandwich. I spent the next Seemed-Like-An-Eternity-Minutes gripping the girls by their arms so they wouldn’t get swept away, and praying to Jesus, Allah, and whoever else to please not let me lose a leg on a Girl Scout canoe trip, because that would be really fucking embarrassing.
Miraculously, the gods heard my pleas, because the Dudes were able to pry their canoe off me and haul it to the shore. I began to try to usher the girls out of the current and toward land, gripping each girl by an arm. Dude 1 handed me a pack of Wet Ones that had fallen out of Miranda’s backpack. Which was EXACTLY WHAT I NEEDED to help me pull two girls out of the raging waters. Dude 2, being INFINITELY MORE HELPFUL, hauled our canoe up to the shore for us. The girls and I collapsed on the side of the river, at which point Miranda waded back, reporting that not only did she lose nearly the entire contents of her bag (except for those Wet Ones! Thanks, Dude 1!), she also lost her phone, and her paddle.
I know you know where I’m going with this: we were LITERALLY up a creek without a paddle. (Girl Scout Canoeing Pro Tip #6: Hold onto Your Fucking Paddle.)
The four of us sat by the side of the river for a good ten minutes, watching other boaters go merrily by, and trying to figure out how the hell we were going to get out of this mess. Stella declared she was hungry again, having polished off her sandwich. Luckily, my backpack was not upended, so I had snacks. (Girl Scout Canoeing Pro Tip #7: Bring Snacks.) The girls ate pudding cups, Sunshine intermittently hiccup-sobbing, Miranda lamented her lost phone with all its photos of important life events which were so important she didn’t back them up onto her computer, and I wondered aloud why the canoe rental place didn’t offer a Rescue Service for Incompetent Canoeists. Stella was still hungry, so she had a granola bar, because why the hell not.
Just when we were giving over to despair, the heavens parted and a Savior appeared, in the form of a middle-aged kayaker who had somehow found our paddle! This wonderful man actually parked his boat (parked? Is that what you do with boats? Park them?) and walked our missing paddle back to us. Miranda greeted him with a hug, he helped us get back into our canoe, and we all thanked him profusely. Well, all of us except Sunshine, who was still crying.
The next couple miles were spent reassuring Sunshine that we were near the end, although in truth, none of us had any idea where we were. Stella chattered away, trying to reassure Sunshine. “It’s okay, Sunshine! We’re doing great!” If the Girl Scouts gave out a merit badge for being a BAMF, Stella would deserve it. This kid was Cool as a Cucumber the entire time.
We finally, FINALLY met up with the rest of our group. After regaling them with our Harrowing Tale of Survival, the group decided that Miranda and I should part ways and be placed in canoes with “more experienced canoeists,” aka People Who Know What the Fuck They’re Doing. (See Pro Tip #2.)
The rest of the trip was smooth sailing. I was paired with Competent Steering Mom, and while Sunshine wasn’t exactly chipper (okay, she was still huddled in a sort of upright fetal position), she wasn’t crying, either, so I called it a win.
We arrived at the pickup point, 4.5 hours after our departure. Bedraggled, bespattered, and
some word that starts with “be” that means tired fucking exhausted. And then we had to wait 45 minutes for the buses to arrive to pick us up because they were stuck by–I swear to log I am NOT making this up–a tractor parade.
Upon our arrival back at camp, Sunshine and I decided that the day would be greatly improved by the prompt acquisition of ice cream. Two scoops of cookie dough ice cream later, all was right in Sunshine’s world, and I was happy to have my Happy Camper back. Which brings me to my final Girl Scout Canoeing Pro Tip #8: Buy Ice Cream.
Little Miss Sunshine with mood-stabilizing ice cream cone
That evening the girls watched a movie in an outdoor theater, and the moms chatted by the campfire. Sunshine wanted to sleep next to me that night. As we were going to sleep, I asked her if she wanted to camp again next year. She got quiet and didn’t reply. I told her we’d think about it for a while. For now, we have a good story to tell, we solidified our mother-daughter bond through an Epic Ordeal, and I earned my very own merit badge.
*And possibly last.
**All names have been changed to protect the
incompetent with a paddle innocent.
***Theory = not good enough.