Was it just the day before yesterday that I made a comment about what happens to my brain when I don’t get enough exercise? Was it just yesterday I was bitching a little about being cranky from not enough activity?
Well, last night I was stiff and sore, seemingly permanently chilled, and had quite a lot of chest congestion…but I felt like I had DONE something. The downside is the my Kung Fu work-out was then not quite up to par…but we can’t have everything, can we?
But let’s start at the beginning of the story.
This story starts, as many stories like it do, with a phone call from Sue. She may be my best girlfriend, but I think she secretly wishes me harm.
“Hey, I’m cutting out of work early, and going on a swamp walk. Wanna come?”
“Um. What’s a swamp walk?”
“It’s fun. You get cold and wet and muddy and miserable.”
“I have to teach tonight.”
“Tammy specifically asked me to invite you.”
I never thought Tammy liked me very much, and as she is pretty much Sue’s other best friend and housemate…I figured it was a big gesture on her part and should be accepted.
“Well, in that case, I’d better go, as long as I’m back by five o’clock.”
So we set out. I borrowed Adventure Boy’s duck hunting boots, which went to nearly knee height and were water resistant. Sue thought that was over-kill, but I didn’t have any shoes I felt like getting swampy.
It sprinkled a little as we drove south on 169 to the Louisville Swamp. It’s a Minnesota State Park that encompasses a large expanse of Minnesota River Backwater. We arrived, and I was introduced to Don, our fearless leader. He and Tammy have been doing this as a yearly tradition for a very long time. I reacquainted myself with Mayann (“Mare” to the group).
We took the Manozumi trail for quite a ways into the backwater. It was dry. Bone dry. Which you would not have expected given the immense volume of rain that we had over the past few days.
Then we discovered the bad. The trail ended in a huge puddle. To the right of the puddle was…more puddle. To the left of the puddle was still more puddle with fairly swiftly-moving current.
People started taking off their shoes.
“You’re going into that water barefoot?” I asked casually. (At least, I think it was casual. I was going for casual. From the chuckles, I would guess I didn’t quite make it.)
“I want something dry to put on my feet afterwards” Tammy said.
MaryAnn poked me in the shoulder, “I’ll give you fifty dollars for your boots”, she said.
“Ha ha.” I quipped cleverly. At least, I was going for clever. I was still trying to sort out why we weren’t turning around and heading back to the car, our hike being foiled and all…
We started into the water. Don probing the ground before him to keep track of the trail. We could see a bridge up ahead, which spanned the fastest-moving portion of the current. I decided that they must know what they are doing, and kept going.
The water kept getting deeper. I kept thinking, I’ve still got some play with my boots. I’m OK. Then, one step went down way too far, and icy cold water filled my boot. Well, crap. Here I was, boot filled with water and I thought “I can keep walking and probably stay relatively warm…or I can go back to the car and sit there for hours with a wet foot.”
Each step got rapidly deeper after that. About the time the water got to my hips, I realized I’d have to revisit my paradigm. I could no longer afford to think of this as a “hike”. If I was going to continue this experience (and there was little choice as everyone else seemed determined to continue) I was going to have to think of it as “Research”.
If I ever have to write a story about how it feels to slog through hip-deep swampwater for miles in the Minnesota River backwater in early October…I will be able to do it with verve, precision and bone-numbing accuracy.
First, there is the cold (about 40 degrees F). No doubt about it, it’s cold. But if you persist in being in the water, your body eventually stops complaining about it, and it’s not really that bad. Then, there is the slippery feeling of the sludge under your boots and the uncertainty of every step. The next step might be a log, or a hole, or something alive (we’ll get to that). There’s the grainy green floaty things intermixed with slimy-looking half-rotted wood bits.
But there’s also the cool quality of the light in the swamp. It’s like nothing you’ll ever really see anywhere else, and it gives a sort of unearthly feel to the experience. There’s the swamp sounds and the sense of really becoming part of your environment. On a hike, you’re passing through the environment. When you’re hip deep in it, the relationship changes irrevocably and strangely, for the better. You become part of it, it becomes part of you.
“I wonder if we’ll run into any of those huge bullsnakes that live down here?” I mused.
“Snakes?” piped Maryann. She didn’t sound comfortable with the idea.
“Ah, that’s a bunch of bullshit.” Grumbled Don, giving me a little shake of his head when I opened my mouth to assert that there are, indeed massively huge bullsnakes that populate the Mississippi river valley.
I shut up. Right. Maryann didn’t like snakes. So it would be better to wait, and if she sees a bullsnake and has an aneurism, deal with it then. Probably not smart to give her one now…when there is a good chance that the snakes are getting ready to hibernate, and we won’t see any at all.
So we’re working toward the bridge, and the water is up to my unmentionables. I’ve only a couple of times lamented the fact that area has so many nerve endings. Most of the time, I think it was a pretty good idea to have them there. This was not one of those times.
As we approach the bridge, we realize that part of the bridge…specifically, the part we should be climbing onto in order to cross, is missing. Yep. The bridge is partially washed out. So there is current we have to cross. Not a lot, not very fast…but still, current. Not something to undertake lightly and without experience.
I spent a number of formative years hiking in the mountains and having various outdoor adventures with my family. I carried a snake-bite kit and knew how to use it. I’d been given instruction on how to splint a broken bone and other basic emergency first-aid procedures at age seven. No stranger to the out-of-doors and a certain amount of risk. We had to cross mountain streams from time-to-time, and it was drilled into me just how very careful one has to be when crossing water with a current. Currents can be deceptive. Cold water can cause muscle cramps or spasms, and hypothermia can come on without you realizing it, and impair your judgment. My dad impressed upon me the importance of respecting moving water. World class swimmers can drown in rivers, you know.
The difference is, my dad was always there, and he could lift me with one arm. Dad wasn’t here to grab me if something went wrong like a flood surge or something…but his voice was there, telling me everything that could go wrong, and everything I should do about it if it did.
You could definately feel the current, but as long as you kept your footing, you’d be fine. Not a problem for healthy, fit, active people. The edge of the bridge is at about hip height as well. We crawled onto it, glad to be out of the water.
What followed was roughly three-and-a-half miles of alternately climbing up and down perfectly dry hills, and slogging through icy cold water. As we tramped through one particularly long stretch of mid-thigh-deep water, I felt something large and heavy bump up against my boot…about mid-calf. There is a wriggling sensation against my leg, and something pushed off of it.
“Something just hit my leg.” I say, startled.
“Probably just a log.” Says Don.
“It didn’t feel like a log.” I reply.
On the other hand, it’s moved on, and it is not currently chewing on me, and even if it was, I’ve got these great boots. So. No problem. Don points out that it’s probably a carp, and he’s probably right…although my vote would be for muskrat or nutria…as it felt like it pushed off from my leg, rather than simply flopping against it. Snakes, turtles (both snapping and non-snapping), nutria, muskrats, carp, other kinds of fish…all of them live in the backwaters. None of them are particularly dangerous. I would be most worried about a snapping turtle, to tell the truth.
A little while later, something jumps near us. Nobody is startled. It was far enough away, and clearly a fish. A little bit later, what appears to be a huge carp gets pushed into a tree by the current, and starts flopping rather violently near us. That’s a bit of a jumper, but it’s clear that it is a large carp within seconds.
At one point we crossed a rapids that went up to about mid-calf. I would say that was the most dangerous part of the trip that we undertook. Still, not dangerous if you knew what you were doing…but probably more danger than was completely intelligent to undertake for mere recreation. If you lost your footing at that point, you would get very wet, and might get pretty banged up…but you would most assuredly be able to grab something and regain your footing before anything serious happened.
We tramped through fairly dry territory after the rapids. I don’t recall any big water. There was a meadow with a huge rock outcropping in the middle of it…some bit of pre-ice-age mountain the glacier left laying around. It’s really cool and looked fun to climb…but our legs and hands were too stiff and unlimber. Apparently, it is a tradition to climb this rock on the great annual swamp walk. Not this year, however.
The final leg of the journey, as in, the remaining ten to twenty minutes should have begun at the shelter…which is a small building with a small woodstove and a pile of firewood. Had we had time (and matches and kindling) we could have started a fire to get warm and dry.
But that would have been silly…because stretched before us…just past the sign that said “Caution, do not attempt to cross in high water”. Was a vast expanse of swiftly moving water.
Don and Tammy assured us that somewhere beneath all of that swamp water was a stone-work break-water with a small flood-gate in the middle of it. It was about six feet wide. It had no hand rails or purchase of any kind. The stone work was uneven and treacherous. Tammy went off by herself for a bathroom break. Everyone else went into the shelter. I went down to the bank, and looked at the yellow-and-black hazard marker in the middle of the water.
Normally, I mused, such signs are on metal poles and extend roughly five feet above whatever they are sunk into, whether that be the ground or what-not. The water was up to the bottom of the hazard marker. As I was musing on what it would like to be neck-deep in icy swamp water…and was wondering how I would cope with being completely soaked, a small log floated by.
Actually, it didn’t so much float by, as speed by. Much faster than the water had appeared to be going up to that point, and I realized that if the water was indeed neck deep, the speed of that current was probably much more than I would ever be able to handle even without the treacherous footing and lack of hand-holds. Even if I and Don and Tammy might have had a chance at making it, I didn’t see how Sue and MaryAnn (who are strong and fit…but tiny) would fare. I imagined the rolling turbulence on the upstream side of the submerged wall (as described by Bernoulli’s Principle), and the possible downward suction caused by the open floodgate underneath (also Bernoulli…what a downer HE turned out to be). I decided that the only conditions under which I would attempt that crossing was if I were being chased by saber-toothed tigers.
But I didn’t want to be the one to say it, as my previous nattering about currents and unpredictable waters and dangers thereof had proven less than prophetic.
I went into the building, and Tammy joined us. We drank our bottled water and munched on trail mix. It was kind of nice. Tammy and Don seemed determined to try the water outside. I shook my head internally, and hoped it would all work out somehow. I mentioned that the water looked deep, and the current stronger than anything we had come up against so far.
Tammy said “Just make sure, if you DO get swept off the wall, float feet first, not head first.”
I’ve always kind of thought that safety rules like this, while useful if you end up in a bad situation, sometimes give people a false sense of security. For instance, floating feet-first has several advantages over floating head first. The main three are:
1) It is the position that does the best job of keeping your face above water.
2) It makes it less likely that you feet or legs will get entangled in anything below the water that can drag you under (or, if they DO get tangled in anything, it gives you a better chance of untangling them)
3) If you are going to slam into any submerged hazards (like, for instance, submerged stonework walls), it is preferable that you slam into them feet first, thereby breaking your legs and feet rather than your head or neck.
It seemed strange to me that I, of all people, might be called upon to be the voice of reason. (i.e. The one who was going to chicken out.) I had finally found a group of people crazier than me. It was an unexpected sensation, and now I get why I actually have so few friends.
Don went in first, followed by Tammy. I insisted that Sue and MaryAnn go next, as I wanted to be able to make a grab for anyone who might get knocked off their feet…rather than having them grab me. I’m more than happy to try to help someone out, but if you grab onto me in the water, I’m kicking you loose. I was nearly drowned by someone I was trying to save once, and didn’t care for it.
Don and Tammy got about crotch deep in the water, and it wasn’t getting shallower. I don’t know if they felt the current so close to the edge…but they both decided unanimously that we were most certainly not crossing the big water today…which meant retracing our steps back…the whole previous 3.5 miles we had just covered.
It was 4:45PM and I needed to get back to help teach the kids’ class at 5:45PM. Clearly, I was going to be late. Very Late. Sue’s cell phone had a strong signal, so I called Rocky and asked him to please call ShiFu and let him know that I would not be able to make it to teach the kid’s class, because I was stranded hip-deep in swamp water miles from the nearest car, and would have to retrace my steps to get out.
“You waded through hip-deep water?” Rocky asked.
“Yes.” I said, matter-of-factly.
“OK. I’ll call him…be careful.”
We retraced our steps, moving more quickly over the now-familiar ground. As we were going through the stretch where the thing had bumped my leg, I spoke.
“Sue, have I told you recently how much I love you?”
“No.” Sue replied.
“Good. Because I’d hate to have to take it back.”
When we got to the washed-out bridge, we paused before plunging into the water.
“Look!” said MaryAnn, pointing to a huge bald eagle perched on a tree branch about fifty feet away.
We stared in wonder. The whole trip was worth that moment. As cool as it is to see the Eagle at the Minnesota Zoo, right up there by the glass a few feet away, and as cool as it is to see one that close in the wild…it is cooler yet to see one that close when you have spent the afternoon being so completely part of it’s environment.
When we got back to the cars, we stood around in our soaking clothing, staring at the map and exclaiming about how close we’d gotten to walking the whole trail. Jenny called, and expressed her regret at missing it. She was supposed to be taking an exam. Turns out, the exam was cancelled. She was livid.
Tammy got into her car, and re-emerged with a handful of homemade chocolate truffles. They were the biggest chocolate truffles I had ever seen. They were exquisite. Soooo good. Sue had a change of clothes in her car. Tammy had several, as she was packed for a business trip, and so MaryAnn could borrow some of her clothes. I took off my zippered sweatshirt and put it around my waist, zipping it up as high as it would go, and tying the sleeves around my waist to make a “dress”. All the wet clothing came off. I was there in my tee-shirt, improvised sweatshirt dress that reached just past my knees, and my bare feet.
It didn’t take long for Sue to change. As we drove home, Sue called Rocky and said;
“I have your wife here. She’s cold, wet, half-naked and starving. You don’t get her back unless I have a small vegetarian pizza and a beer waiting for me when we get there.”
Ah, pizza. Pizza is good. Pizza and fireplace and warm husband and hot shower and dry clothes. Very very good.