We are now in the middle of January, with the NFL Playoffs in full swing (I like these weekends better than SuperBowl Weekend) and traditionally, the coldest part of winter is upon us. We have had a bunch of snow already, and more is expected this week. After several very mild winters, we are having one of the coldest I remember in a while. So much for global warming....
We have had several weeks of bitterly cold (for this region) weather, and there has been ice on some of the local ponds and lakes. It is exactly like it was in January 2004. Why is that significant? Because that's when this story occurred....
Hurricane Isabel hit us hard in mid-September 2003. While it wasn't even a Category 2 level storm when it made landfall, it still did its share of damage around Hampton Roads and all of Virginia. Pine trees were snapped in half and hardwoods were knocked down by the winds all over the area, and we went without any electric power or hot water for 10 days.
There were fortunately no fatalities around here, just a lot of property damage from the winds and flooding from the storm surge; but it was a very interesting couple of weeks, to say the least.... Believe it or not, I even have some fond memories of that period. Perhaps that will be a blog post for another day. But it is important to understand that even long after Isabel was gone, the clean up from that hurricane occurred for months....
Early Saturday morning, 1/17/04, dressed for heavy activity outdoors, I drove over to Bob's, and along with all the other guys, spent several hours hauling fallen trees, cutting wood, and stacking it for future firewood towards the back and side of his backyard. (As a sidenote, by his invitation I went over to his house a few weeks ago, and got a few last logs for myself. It's a little dry with a little bit of rot, but still burns okay.)
When we had finished, we walked over to the lake behind his house (a different lake than the one in our neighborhood) and admired how a thin sheet of ice had formed just about all the way across the lake. It was quite unusual for around here, and quite beautiful, too. Bob got a large stick and threw it out on the lake to see what would happen, and the stick broke through the ice making a slushy splash. The next thing we knew, his dog jumped from the shore where we were standing into the lake, breaking through the ice, himself. He then proceeded to play icebreaker with his front paws, swimming all the way over to the stick, where he picked it up with his mouth and then returned to the shore through the path he had just carved. We all laughed and admired the dog's heartiness -- and were thankful that wasn't us. (Play foreboding music of impending doom, here.... "Dun dun dun dun!".)
As we walked back to our cars, I asked Mike if he wanted to help me with a task.*
TANGENT ALERT: Several years earlier, Mike had gotten a pleasure boat, a Bayliner. A nice boat if you were on the river, but nothing I would recommend in rough water, or with more than four people if you want to fish. To make a long story short, Mike brought his boat down to the OBX for a Boys' Weekend one year, and all of us (I believe there were eight) got on the boat. (I believe there were eight, because that's how many got off the boat when we were done. And if we lost anybody, we haven't missed him, yet.) We had enough life preservers, so that wasn't an issue, but it was just too crowded to do any effective fishing. The waters of the sound were rather rough that afternoon, and poor Jeff D. and I (who got stuck sitting on the bow of the boat) would have been dryer had we just jumped in the water. I, at least, had some waterproof gear on. Jeff did not. He just laughed, maniacally, the whole time he was on the bow next to me. I worry about that boy....
We tried fishing the sound for about two hours, with no luck. With Ted on board, Mike had the potential for a mutiny for his captain's hat, as he struggled to maintain control of both the boat and his rowdy, wet crew. We traversed the waters under the bridge back and forth, trolling fake eels and casting towards the pilings. It was a complete waste of time, and numerous times waves splashed over the bow all over us and every one in the back, as well. How we didn't capsize, I don't know. But by the time we finally made it back to the marina, we were all wet, cold and miserable -- but alive. We vowed that never again would we try that! Ironically, we saw other boats catching fish, just not us that day. What else was new....
Then to make matters worse for Mike, as we were towing the boat back to the cottage, a gust of wind hit his boat's bimini, blowing it off the boat and onto the bridge as we were crossing it. Ted and I stopped (we were following him) and fortunately were able to get it before it had a chance to blow over the bridge and into the sound below us. It just wasn't a good day for us to go fishing with Mike on his boat. Or maybe it was just Mike.... That's why I have the asterisk.... He wasn't named Captain Tipsy for this adventure. But it was maybe the beginning....
Back to the story now. After we had taken down our Christmas tree two weeks earlier, I had saved it, instead of putting it by the curb for recycling. I had also gotten one of our neighbor's Christmas trees. I also had a couple of concrete construction cinder blocks and some rope. Why? I told Mike I wanted to take the trees out into the lake, and sink them in a deep section, so that come late March or early April we could go to that spot (which we would have marked) and fish for crappie.
Crappie are a large, broad panfish that gather in big schools and love deep cover. Where ever you catch one, you will catch a bunch. The trees would sink to the bottom of the lake (thanks to the cinder blocks tied to them) creating a nice habitat for crappie to school in. Then, in the early Spring, when the crappie are spawning, you just get some minnows or minnow-like jigs, and drop them on top of the sunken Christmas tree habitat. It's a great way to catch a dozen fish or more. And crappie are delicious. Other than trout, they are really the only freshwater fish I keep when I catch them. (I'll keep catfish too, but I give them away to anyone who wants them.)
|The white crappie is delicious, even if it has a funny name. I promise it is not a crappy fish to catch or eat.|
|The black crappie is just a little darker, with mottled markings (not vague stripes) but still every bit as delicious. Both species will gather in big schools, and feed voraciously when they are spawning in early Spring.|
Because our lake is deeper and wider than the one by Bob, there was no ice on it yet, so we would be able to canoe out into the lake without having to play icebreaker. The water temperature, however, wasn't much above freezing. Mike and I were both still wearing our heavy outdoor gear and workboots, but we had no gloves or hat on, as there was no wind, and we needed our fingers nimble to paddle and tie the blocks to the trees. I looked behind the truck, and Parke was coming up to us on his new electric scooter. He wanted to watch us, and maybe learn something. (He would, alright, just not what we thought he would.)
We unloaded the canoe and put it at the shore of the lake. We then got two sections of the rope, and tied one to the base of each tree. Next we took the other end of each rope and tied it to the back of the canoe. Then we put the two cinder blocks into the middle of the canoe, and Mike got in the front. I pushed the canoe from the shore and hopped into the back. We started paddling towards the middle of the lake. Parke turned around and disappeared back towards our house.
Immediately we realized that the drag of the two trees in the water made paddling the canoe a real effort. Instead of thinking twice about what we were doing and turning around, we pressed on. We struggled and teetered as we tried to maintain our balance in the wobbly craft and propel it toward the deep water. What should have been a two minute paddle turned into a much longer event as we both paddled together in unison, the trees floating behind us dragging like huge parachutes in the water.
We finally got to the portion of the lake I thought was deep enough. We had traveled about two hundred yards from the point, and the closest shoreline (a neighbor's house) was about a hundred yards away. We stopped, put the paddles down, and I proceeded to untie the rope to one of the trees. (We couldn't even think about enjoying a beer, with the tipsy nature of the canoe at the moment.) Next I leaned forward and grabbed one of the cinder blocks. The transfer of weight shifting in the canoe caused a major wobble, and we had to quickly counter the weight shift to keep from capsizing.
I had the block in my lap now, and tied the rope through the holes in the center of it. When the knot was finished I looked at Mike so that he could counter me when I let the block go over the side. He did, and I dropped it. We watched the block make a big splash and sink instantly, and the first tree turned upright in the water as the rope tightened ... and then the tree slowly disappeared into the cold, black water.... A moment later, however, it bobbed back up again. One block wasn't heavy enough to weigh down the tree.
"Crap", I said, and Mike laughed (nervously?). We were going to have to use the second block to sink the first tree, and then go back for more blocks. I got another section of rope and carefully reached for the tip of the tree sticking up from the water. Ripples panned out into the black water, as the canoe quavered some more. I think it is safe to say that probably around now, both Mike and I realized this was a doomed cause, but we were determined to finish the task... or what,.... die trying? (Play more music of impending doom.)
As I leaned over and tied the one end of the rope to the top of the tree, Mike countered the weight the other way. When I finally finished, I sat back up and now tied the other end to the second block. When the knot was secure I glanced at Mike, who countered again, and held the block over the side. "Kersplash!", the block went, and the tree went horizontal underwater, finally sinking into the deep black waters, never to be seen again. We breathed a sigh of relief. We were almost done. I glanced to the shore and saw that Parke had returned, sitting on his scooter by the point of the lake. I smiled. The other tree was untied and left to float until we could return. We started the turn around to head back to shore....
(You know how in a movie, whenever a "victim" is nervous about some fear - a bogieman in the closet, or otherwise - they check it out, only to realize they were mistaken. Then they breathe a great sigh of relief.... And right when you relax, suddenly the bogieman comes from somewhere else - like behind a curtain - and kills them? You jump in your seat in the theater, because it is totally unexpected....)
Suddenly one of us leaned to the side of the canoe for some reason I cannot recall. Regardless, the other didn't have time to counter the sudden weight shift, and the next moment happened so quickly, yet it was also in slow motion -- if that makes any sense at all. (Ah, heck. This is my blog. I can say whatever I want. It was Mike's fault. He tipped the canoe. But even this story isn't why Mike ultimately became Captain Tipsy. It was just the beginning....)
I remember the canoe tipping to the point of no return, and I remember thinking, "we are about to go in and get wet." The canoe flipped, tossing Mike and me into the brink. I went underwater briefly and popped right back up. My first thought was how COLD the water really was. It literally took my breath away. I treaded water momentarily, spinning around looking for Mike. He had popped back up and was beginning to try in vain to right the canoe. I realized how futile that was, and asked Mike if he was okay.
I wish this post could have the audio of how he responded to me. We joke about his response to this day. All I can say, is our testicles had instantly contracted into the bowels of our abdomen from the shock of the freezing water, and I guess his voice was affected, too.
I'm okay", he said quickly and in a very high pitch, like the yip of a Yorkshire Terrier. The one float cushion popped up to the surface and Mike grabbed it. I was glad he did, as I thought I would be able to swim to shore okay without it.
I looked to the shoreline and realized our shortest swim was to our neighbor's lot, so I told Mike to follow me. I started doing the breast stroke and turned and saw that Mike was moving now, lying on his back kicking, holding the cushion to his chest. Parke had disappeared again.
For the next few minutes, as we swam to shore, I remember thinking just how frigid the water was. Some water was in my mouth, and I spit it out in a stream as I stroked towards land. "This water is cold!", I remember thinking repeatedly. I also kept saying this mantra, as I was afraid my body may lock up in the freezing lake. "Hands, just keep paddling, legs just keep kicking, and heart please keep beating."
Occasionally I glanced over to Mike who was slightly behind me to the left. He continued to backstroke, face up, holding on tightly to the cushion on his chest. After what seemed an eternity, we approached the steep bank of the lake at our neighbor's. Because the lake dropped suddenly there, we couldn't stand until we were within just a couple feet from shore. When I finally could find some footing, we stood up. Never have I been so thankful to have my feet touch solid ground.... We felt extremely heavy, from both our soaked winter clothing and the fatigue in our bodies. The small cliff was about six feet high, and we had to literally grab branches and roots from young trees to pull ourselves up to the land, but when we did, we finally felt relief -- and complete exhaustion. Pausing for a moment, we looked back across the black water to the capsized canoe in the middle of the lake. I knew we couldn't leave that there....
We started walking down my neighbor's driveway from his backyard where we had beached, our bodies feeling like they were warming again, now that we were out of the water. As we approached the street, my wife came zooming around the corner in her Suburban. She got out of the SUV with Parke, and came rushing towards us.
"Are you okay?" she asked. "Parke came racing home and told me you guys capsized. I didn't believe him at first, because he had just come home a few minutes earlier and said the same thing, joking."
The Aesop's Fable of "The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf" instantly crossed my mind. That's when he had disappeared the first time, the little rascal.
|This is the lesson Parke learned by watching us.... Not how to create a crappie habitat.|
"He told me he was serious this time," she continued, "and when he started crying, I knew he was telling the truth."
She opened the back of the truck and got out a couple of towels. "Here," she said, "Start drying off with these."
I grabbed a towel as another neighbor who lives nearby approached. (Ironically, his last name is Pond.)
"I've got to go get that canoe now, before something else happens to it," I said to Susan and Mike.
"Do you want to borrow my kayak?" Mr. Pond asked.
"Yes," I responded without thinking. "Thank you."
"NO! You are getting in that car and going home to change into dry clothes." Susan interrupted.
"Then when you are warm and dry, you can come back to retrieve the canoe." She smiled at Mr. Pond, so that he knew her wrath wasn't being aimed in his direction. He wasn't the fool here.
"I thought you boys were IDIOTS for doing this in the first place!" She ranted. And she was absolutely right.
I told Mr. Pond that I'd come back later, and humbly started to get into the truck. (One of the first smart things I had done in a while....)
"DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT GETTING IN AND ON THE SEATS," she vented. "Get in the back!" (Well, maybe it wasn't so smart after all....)
Meekly, Mike and I quietly crawled into the back of the Suburban for the brief ride home. "Yes, ma'am."
When we got back to the house, she told us to go in through the Rec Room, go straight to the laundry room and undress. We complied without saying a word. By the time we had stripped to nothing but our towels, she had gotten one shower going for Mike, while Parke had gotten my shower going.
I walked back to our master bed and bath, telling Parke to make sure the water wasn't too hot. He said it wasn't.
As I stepped into the shower, I screamed in pain as the water scalded me.
"PARKE, I TOLD YOU NOT TO MAKE IT TOO HOT!"
He came to the bathroom door. "Dad, that's nothing but cold water coming out of the shower. Mom told me to do that."
I apologized to him, and that's when I realized that I had severe hypothermia and hadn't even realized it. I slowly worked my way into the hot (cold) shower, and finally started to get some feeling in my hands and feet again. The funny thing is, I hadn't even realized I had lost feeling in some parts of my body until they started to warm up... and that's when the burning pins and needles came. AND BOY, DID THE PINS AND NEEDLES COME! You know how your leg goes to sleep, and then the pins and needles come when it gets the blood circulating to it again? Well, it felt like my body had been in a coma! I can honestly say that never in my life, had I felt such painful pins and needles as I stood in that cold water, slowly warming it up. By the time I got out of that shower several minutes later, I was still freezing cold, but at least I could feel all my extremities again.
I got dressed in some dry clothing, and then realized I still had to go do the unthinkable... go back to the lake and retrieve the canoe.... I got a winter coat on, got some gloves and a hat, and drove down to the point with Mike who was also in some of my dry clothing now. We dreaded what we had to do, as Mike had had the same experience in the shower as me.
When I got there, Mr. Pond had the most wonderful, most appreciated present I could have ever asked for, waiting for me. He had gotten into his kayak (that he had offered me earlier) and gone out into the lake and retrieved the canoe, towing it to shore, himself. To this day, when I see him I thank him for doing that for me, as I was in no shape physically or mentally to do that. (The second tree was left floating in the lake....)
I thanked him profusely, and together, we loaded up the canoe and equipment back into Mike's truck, which we had left there in our hurry to get home. Amazingly, both paddles, the leftover rope and the beers were still all in the canoe. We hadn't lost anything when we capsized. Mike then got into his truck and I got in mine and we drove back home. We unloaded the canoe and then went back inside.
About that time Randy came over, having called the house earlier and hearing about our escapades from Susan. He asked if we wanted to do anything. I told him I had one agenda, and that was this....
1: Make the biggest fire my fireplace will handle.
2: Get my bottle of Wild Turkey 101, and a glass - three glasses, if they wanted some.
3: Turn the television on to the NFL Playoffs.
4: Sit as close as possible to the fire, while watching football, with a glass of bourbon.
5: Hope that sometime before 11 p.m., when the second football game ended, my testicles would descend again, and I would become a baritone again, myself.
That agenda sounded good to Mike, too. So he called his wife, we invited his family over (as well as Randy's), and we all had a nice evening, recounting the day's adventure. And how stupid we were. And how lucky we were. And how close we were to leaving our friends and families without the pleasure of having us around, anymore. A nice hot dinner of "comfort food" with a good bottle of wine ended a long, but exciting day. I went to bed that night, saying my prayers of thanks for my Guardian Angel being on duty that day, and more grateful for my wife and family than I had been in a long time....
The next year, I was asked if I wanted to participate in the Special Olympics fundraiser in Virginia Beach, called the "Polar Plunge". It was at the oceanfront, and was growing to be quite a big deal.
Since Clayton is fond of participating in the Special Olympics, I decided that if I was ever going to swim in bitterly cold water again, it might as well be for a good purpose. I agreed, and got almost $2,000 in pledges for my plunge. As fate would have it, the event fell on the weekend after Sheldon's birthday (February 3), so we decided to make a night of it, staying in an oceanside hotel that had an indoor pool, jacuzzi and sauna. I knew after the event, I'd want these amenities....
Even though some years the Polar Plunge has had 50, even 60 degree days here in Virginia, that was not the case my year. It was 38 degrees, and the ocean temperature was 35. Sound familiar? I was ready! A ring of Navy SEALs and other special forces in "drysuits" lined the approved area in the ocean's surf, for participants to plunge. The farthest ones were about 50 yards out. We were to go in one area, and exit towards another area, around a post, so that the flow of people would keep going in one general direction. That way nobody would get trampled or lost. The moment came when we were to take our plunge, and the master of ceremonies blew his whistle for us to go. I ran wildly into the surf with hundreds of other participants, but I was determined to do this right! I was going all the way to the farthest SEAL.
|The Special Olympics' Polar Plunge in Virginia Beach, is a great fundraiser for those willing to take the plunge....|
I hit the surf, and it was cold, but I kept going. A large wave approached and I dove through it. My breath was taken away momentarily, but this was a feeling I had experienced before. I broke through the other side of the wave and started swimming out to the ring of Navy SEALS that lined the perimeter. When I finally reached one, I "high-fived" him, and then swam parallel to the shore to the "exit area". Then I turned back to shore, and swam and body surfed back onto the beach. I had definitely taken the long way around the horn.
As I stepped out of the surf, my body felt warm again. But this time I knew not to be fooled. You can't be "warm" in 38 degree air. After a few minutes searching through the massive crowds, I finally found Susan and the kids. They congratulated me and gave me a towel. I also put my sweats back on as soon as possible. We quickly left the area and went to the hotel. There, we checked in and spent a wonderful afternoon as a family in the heated pool, jacuzzi and sauna. A nice seafood dinner later that evening, highlighted a great weekend for a great cause. It was a nice family memory....
Later that winter, Clayton entered the Special Olympics swimming competition. I had been training him at the local YMCA, swimming ahead of him, encouraging him every paddle of the way. It was a great way to spend time with him, doing something he enjoyed, as we practiced every week. I loved it (perhaps even more than him)... not just because it was a good Father/Son activity that involved exercise -- but because that pool is heated, too.
The day of the competition arrived, and he swam very well. But he was just as glad when it was over, too. He had had enough, by then, and was ready for some pizza. He still likes to swim, just not in "competition."
Me? I still enjoy swimming, too. I'm even okay with swimming in the winter still -- as long as it is in a heated pool from now on. My days of freestyle in the ocean and breast stroke in the lake, in January and February are over -- unless I'm in the Southern hemisphere,or at least near the equator. Let's just say I have a new and fine appreciation for 98.6 degrees. That's why I'm not kayak fishing right now.... I'll do that again when the water warms up....
Until next time,