Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Back on Land

The 9th annual Patuxent River Sojourn was a blast!

Thursday was just a kick-off party, with dinner and a preliminary meeting before we did some drumming around the campfire and retired to our tents.

Friday was more adventure than anyone wanted, and much much less than what the media said it was. The river was flooded due to recent rains, much like the time we went out after a hurricane came through. Unknown to us at the time, the Brighton Dam about forty miles up river had been opened, surging the already swollen river. My completely non-scientific, based on memory and relativity, assessment is that the river rose a good eight feet by the end of the day. When we put in that morning, we were looking at about five feet more than normal. It would have been a great day on the water, but several factors were against us, the main one being that they wanted us all to stay as a group, which simply can't be done with some fifty paddlers and a narrow launch site. There's no way to wait on a fast moving and rising river. The call came in to secure our boats and abandon the river. We did, and reconvened at the 4-H center by the launch site to a gauntlet of EMTs and media. Leave it to the media to get in the way so much that a non-issue became the hot news of the day.

This is what one local station reported:
There are hardly any facts there (especially in the video version). Jim Bridges is not a spokesperson for the Riverkeepers, and no one was lost on the river for hours, or lost at all for that matter.

I was with one group of paddlers who secured our boats on the river as best we could and walked out. We were intercepted by the owner of the property we ended up on, who called the 4-H center, who sent a van and an ambulance to pick us up. By that time, there were helicopters in the air, making it near impossible for the safety boater among us to keep in contact with the others via radio. The ambulance was completely unnecessary, but the cameras were worse.

Here's what really happened: The dam was opened, causing much more water on that part of the river. It brought the waterline up so much that trees that should have been hanging overhead became obstacles. The sojourn leaders wanted to keep the group of fifty or so paddlers together, so they launched us bit by bit and told us to wait. The thing is, with the water rising and the current increasing, you just can't float and wait. Some people held on to trees, got turned to the side and got pushed over. Some people held on to trees that broke and pushed them over. Some people held on to trees and had their kayaks swept out from under them. Some people came to rescue those people hanging on to trees, got turned to the side and got pushed over. Everyone made it to shore. With so many separated from their boats, and the conditions of the current and rising waters, they stopped putting people in the river. We were ordered to tie off our boats as best we could and walk the half-mile or so back to the launch site. With unknown terrain on the side of the river, and fast expanding at that, some people could not walk out. They were rescued by boat and the empty kayaks were retrieved later.

We all regrouped at the 4-H center, ran the gauntlet of cameras and reporters, told EMTs that we were ok and gave our names, then had lunch, made a plan to recover abandoned boats, and started ferrying everyone to the day's camp ground at Mt Calvert, eight miles down the river. The day was punctuated with some bluegrass and contradancing.

Here is the word from the riverkeeper's official blog:

A few other articles and blog posts I found, filled with inacuracies, have people commenting by calling us all irresponsible paddlers. To those, I say: get the facts first. No one was ever lost, sojourn leaders were in contact with safety boaters on the river, and all people and boats were accounted for. The media turned it into a problem that really was not one. Everyone followed instructions, no one was injured, and we could have taken the river if a few things were done differently, but there were reasons for not doing it that way. I will hit anyone who doesn't know the real story and calls me an irresponsible paddler with my paddle.

Saturday morning had us spilt up into four groups and work on some restoration and education projects. I spent that time making a sign for a nature play area at the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary. At one point, the bit fell out of the drill and I picked it up, burning my fingers on the hot bit. It blistered instantly. I had never used one of those tools before and didn't realize the bit would get so hot. My bad, moving on. We got back with the group and had lunch, then split up into three groups for paddling the area. I went up the Western Branch, were we were supposed to have a tour of the water treatment facility, but they cancelled because we were delayed by the rain. It was still a nice paddle. Saturday ended with a sing along show by a group called the Bremen Town Musicians. They played folk songs that most people learned as children (The Fox, Oh! Susanna, and others) so we could all sing with them. It was unbelievably fun!

On Sunday, we paddled five miles or so to Mattaponi Creek, stopping at the rural life living history museums at the north end of Jug Bay. We did a night paddle on the creek, which was spectacular. I love that creek, it's my favorite place to paddle. Seeing, hearing, it at night was amazing. They launched us about a minute apart so we could essentially experience the creek by ourselves (which isn't safe, of course, so they did it in this very controlled way). My dad, who was just behind me though by quite a distance, and I saw two juvenile Barred Owls on our way down. On our way back, we met with the group who had walked to the bridge to try to call out some owls. They played a recording of the Barred Owl's call and at least six owls, two adults and four juveniles, responded. That moment was one of the most beautiful things I've ever experienced in my life.

We set out on Monday, the hottest day of our trip, for another eight mile paddle (I say another, even though we never really made the first eight mile paddle that should have been Friday). Somehow, we missed the creek that was to take us to the lunch stop. By the time we realized it, it was about thirty minutes back up river, where our final stop of the trip was forty-five minutes down river. Sojourn leaders decided it would be best to fill everyone up with water, sunscreen, and snack bars and press on. A couple kids started to experience heat exhaustion and were pulled to the support boat, a motor boat that could carry tired paddlers and kayaks that was with us for the whole trip except Friday (the boat was too big for that part of the river). I saw two kids run out of water on the way and look like no one could do anything about it. I told the paddle leader we needed to stop and refresh everyone, and we did so. That really seemed to help, and several paddlers told me so after learning that I had called that brief break. Unfortunately, there is only so much that sunblock can to for my fair skin, and I ended up with painful burns on my feet, thighs and forearms.

All in all, it was a very fun trip. I hope to go again next year for the lower part of the river. Now, I want to curl up with some aloe and my fuzzy kitty and sleep! Pictures haven't been loaded yet. Maybe tomorrow.

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