Sideways on the Pocomoke River

We were not born kayakers — that was becoming quite clear. Almost as soon as we’d paddled out of the docks at Shad Landing, near our campsite along the Pocomoke River, our boat began veering sharply and inadvertently to the left.

“Steer!” I called to J, who was sitting in the back. “You need to steer!”

“I am steering!” she shouted back. “You’re not paddling hard enough!”

We continued to swing off course, almost going sideways now against the current. At J’s instruction I dug in hard with the right side of my paddle, trying at the same time not to fling sheets of river water into J’s face. Slowly, we began to correct. And then (despite my strong paddling) we began pulling to the right.

Shad Landing, Pocomoke River State Park

We repeated this frantic exercise about a dozen times, S-curving against the gentle flow of the Pocomoke’s black waters (so colored because of the cyprus trees growing along its banks) for the better part of a half an hour. Our inability to move in anything resembling a straight line was so ludicrous that we gave up for a while, floating in the middle of the river while laughing hysterically. That laughter gave way and I became more panicked when two jet-skis buzzed along either side of us, leaving us bobbing precariously in their wake. Our untrained arms had already grown tired by then, and we decided that — rather than try to continue the well-traveled loop down a creek — we should just turn back.

And that’s when things got borderline stupid. With the current now at our backs, each misdirection was amplified, so much so that we nearly crashed into tree branches along the banks, and then — after completing most of a 360 degree turn — went blundering through a patch of fronds jutting above the river’s surface. We avoided careening into a passing canoe paddler (who looked on with an expression of great confusion) by again nearly running into the banks.

Somehow, we maneuvered our way back to dry land. J and I laughed and grinned sheepishly at each other as we stood back aboard the docks. “We’re not telling anyone about this,” she said.

I took off my life jacket and went to go pay for our 45 minutes of boat rental. “For sure,” I said.

***

This was J’s first time camping. We had been accumulating the necessary gear for the better part of a year, first buying a tent that was on sale last November, and then by making regular pilgrimages to REI for every sale thereafter. By the time we had all the necessities — sleeping pads, sleeping bags, cooler, stove … — the oppressive mid-Atlantic summer heat had set it. And so we waited. When we finally settled upon the last weekend in September, the forecast changed to rain. We pushed our plans back by one more week, but with a new determination that we would get out and make the best of any weather. That determination was tested when a cool drizzle rolled over DC on Saturday morning, but J had already prepped our food and our gear was all laid out. We loaded up the car, swung by the store for last-minute s’mores essentials, and set out down Highway 50.

When we arrived at Pocomoke River State Park — a low-key campsite suggestion from a co-worker — the sky was a light mix of blue and grey. We set up camp, went for our embarrassing river excursion, took a walk along a swampy path called The Trail of Change, and then circled back to our site to start building a fire. This would be another experience that would dent my (admittedly baseless) self-image as a natural outdoorsman. The rain from the previous days had left most of the kindling damp, and logs we bought from the camp store were so dense that they refused to catch. We burned a week’s worth of New York Times issues trying to get them started, but were left with only inky ash.

It was lucky that Terry, who was at the campsite across from ours, had seen our struggle. “Need some cheater fluid?” he asked, offering a cup of bluish liquid in a styrofoam cup. We gratefully accepted, but even doused in lighter fluid, the logs wouldn’t stay lit. Terry walked over again, wearing cuffed up sweatpants, flip-flops and a stocking cap, this time with a pile of kindling he had collected and an axe. He showed us how to build a little teepee out of the kindling and newspaper, then chopped down some of the logs we had so they would light easier. “Once you get that going, you just start stacking ’em like Lincoln Logs and keep on feeding it,” he said with a friendly smile. It seemed like Terry and his wife Chris were accustomed to offering this kind of help to strangers. The couple had spent many nights out on Maryland’s beaches during the summer, and retreated into the woods for fall, he said.

J and I watched the fire burn brighter even as darkness gathered in the forest. We saw stars through the canopy of trees, and for the first time in a long while, heard what night sounds like absent the crying of sirens. We ate potatoes and kielbasa out of foil pouches, and made s’mores for dessert. In the chilly air, I breathed deeply, and felt still.

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