Canoeing can last a lifetime (or at least feel like it)

By Darlene Warren

BIG SANDY, Texas--We were ready that day, the four of us. It was a late-winter day that felt more like spring. We had no idea what the day would hold, but we were craving some distraction from your typical annoyances that come from daily employment and school and hoping to make a fond memory our two teenagers would keep forever.

Our plan was to canoe down a short strip of Big Sandy Creek that runs not far from our home in East Texas.

Having wanted to do this for quite a while, we were quickly running out of time. Our daughter was already a freshman at a local college and our son only two short years behind her. It was now or never.

Different folks

My husband had grown up canoeing the mighty Saco River, which runs through Maine. We had canoed the beautiful Buffalo, a national river in northern Arkansas, several times and our children had gone on canoe trips during summer camp in northern Minnesota.

We were proficient at using different strokes to make our canoe do exactly as we wanted. We certainly didn't see ourselves as novices. We even owned our own 16-foot aluminum watercraft (To be more exact, we were three-way owners of an interest in a canoe we had bought with some friends for a sum total of $75.)

We leisurely embarked that morning around 11 o'clock. With no more than the short distance we intended to float, we calculated a three-hour trip. We assured our daughter she would be back on campus in plenty of time for her 4:30 track practice that afternoon.

So our adventure began, packed with plenty of food and drinks to last the day. We had everything we needed. My husband's only regret was that he had forgotten his .22 pistol (in case of snakes, you know).

We were happy. Besides the chirping of birds, our laughter was the only sound that filled the morning air as we slowly pulled away from the bank of that grand old creek. As far as the eye could see (which was just short of the first bend), things looked like smooth sailing.

We spent the first hour enjoying the scenery and catching up on each other's lives. We talked of boyfriends and school happenings. We were a happy family.

East Texas deliverance

After a while the creek narrowed thanks to overhanging trees and jutting deadwood. We didn't seem to be making as much progress as we had before, and conversation began to slow.

As we floated farther and farther from civilization, we realized nothing looked familiar. We were totally alone.

The fear of being alone out in the backwoods of East Texas began to creep into my mind. Then the fear that we weren't alone took its place. There in my mind the two thoughts stayed all afternoon, swapping places for preeminence from front to back at each bend in the creek.

Then it happened. As we paddled through one of the narrowest places on the creek, we heard a deafening plop in the bottom of the canoe: a sound so loud it startled all of us. We were no longer alone. The sound had come from the area of the canoe directly behind the ice chest my daughter was sitting on. She jumped up screaming and nearly swamped the canoe.

Attack of the giant amphibian

"Sit down!" all of us yelled.

A giant bullfrog with a body well over a foot long had found its way into our boat, and it wanted out. But so did Rebekah. The yelling and screaming of a hysterical teenage girl can be bloodcurdling. Our perfect little party was over. Rebekah was yelling at the bullfrog, and we were yelling at her. Nothing, it seemed, was working.

Giving instructions at a time such as this is a futile exercise. Eventually we got her to sit down so we wouldn't all end up in the creek.

The bullfrog, of course, was still with us. Rebekah's instructions were to sit, stay and close her eyes.

She tried. My husband, who had been manning the stern, was valiantly trying to scoop the giant frog up and out of the canoe with his paddle, without much luck. Each time he nudged the bullfrog instead of jumping on his paddle, it jumped forward toward the quivering mass that was our daughter.

Giant froglegs on aluminum can create a thud so loud it leaves no doubt, even if you have your eyes closed, just where the thing is headed.

With each leap (actually, it was the landing) of the amphibian, the quivering mass rose off the ice chest wild-eyed and screaming, shifting her weight from one side of the canoe to the other. The rest of us were just holding on for dear life until the hysteria had run its course.

By this time the frog had gotten past Rebekah, and shouts of "Shoo him back this way!" had no calming effect on the college coed who had agreed to spend her Sunday afternoon bonding with her family. We were no longer happy.

How soon we forget

I'm convinced that amnesia is a mental defense against events our minds simply could not handle if we had to relive them.

I can't recall exactly how my son and I got that bullfrog past Rebekah the second time and into the stern of that canoe.

But we did. Except for the animal's brief attempt to crawl up my husband's pants leg, the excitement was over soon thereafter, with the frog leaving us as quickly as he had arrived.

With that incident behind us we just wanted to get home. We had had enough adventure for one day. Big Sandy Creek was quickly losing its appeal.

The waterway continued to narrow. Several times we portaged around tree trunks and roots that blocked our way, but there was no turning back. The only way out of this nightmare was forward.

Each of us took turns falling into the water. This creek isn't like the beautiful, crystal-clear Buffalo River we had floated many times.

The twists and turns of our old creek are so deceptive that most of the trip we had no idea where we were. Racing against the setting sun, we finally came to our destination cold, wet and tired. Our three-hour tour had turned into a hard, strenuous fight against nature.

One thing we can all agree on is how fortunate it was that my husband had forgotten his gun. Rebekah would surely have hijacked us back to civilization right about the time she heard that first thud, and we would never have made these fond memories.

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