EVANS COLUMN: First time flipping the canoe

Published 2:35 pm Tuesday, May 3, 2022

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This past weekend Alyssa and I went canoeing on the Blackwater River in the Florida panhandle. This time of year the weather is perfect for the Blackwater, which is slow-moving and not very deep.

It’s the perfect spot for a leisurely trip down the river, with plenty of places to stop for a quick swim. My parents live nearby, so that’s why we went there rather than a closer body of water.

We’d actually taken the kids one time before, though neither remembers it. The last time we went Austin was so small that he was in a harness, strapped to Alyssa, while I did the majority of the paddling. Autumn rode with my parents in their double kayak.

This past weekend was the first time we’d taken the kids back since then. Now at 2 and 4 (almost 3 and 5), they had different experiences. Autumn, the oldest, was terrified, and spent much of the day with my parents again. Austin was calm and loved every second, wanting to help paddle and trying to catch minnows in a small net.

It was a good weekend, and we were almost finished canoeing Saturday when disaster struck — sort of.

I’m far from an expert— without the grandparents and the help of others I’m not sure we’d ever get out to most of these places where we canoe — but I’ve never flipped a canoe. I was a clumsy teenager at one point (now a clumsy adult) and I didn’t even flip it then. That changed this weekend, and Austin was laying in the bottom of the canoe asleep when it happened.

I don’t want this to come across as a story where anyone’s life was in danger, as that was far from the case.

However, when I realized we were going to flip, my immediate thought was that my son, unbeknownst to him, was about to go crashing to the river’s bottom and get a really rude awakening, and who knows how fast even a slow-moving river can move a 2-year-old downstream?

To be clear, he was wearing a life jacket, and we’d never take him anywhere near water without one.

But in that moment, it’s amazing how quickly everything else — the jam-packed cooler, the brand new gear we had packed, clothes, food for lunch, my new cell phone and the paddles — become meaningless. I remember thinking I had to quickly get my bearings so I could locate him. It was a panic feeling.

It didn’t last long. Miraculously, Alyssa already had him in her arms. His hair wasn’t even wet. The boy didn’t cry a tear either. Call it a mother’s intuition.

At that point, I took a deep breath (the water actually felt amazing), but I had no idea what to do. We had a canoe full of water, paddles floating everywhere. Alyssa was holding Austin and being vertically challenged, she could barely touch where she was standing.

Our group of friends and family were nowhere around — some in front and some behind us — as we had gotten split up during lunch.

Sure, I knew we had to get the water out, but how?

Thankfully, right behind us, a group of men who we’d seen get on the river about the same time we did came rushing up. They saw what happened. They jumped in the water. They helped me gather all of our things, throw it in one of their canoes and helped me get all the water out. They helped Alyssa get to the next “beach” area off the river while I recovered our stuff. 

I didn’t get their names. One of them was talking about the Riverwalk in Columbus — just by chance — but we were both still sort of in shock, so we didn’t hear much of what they had to say. We knew we were all fine, but the flip was so quick and unexpected.

I’d like to think I’d do the same thing, no questions ask, and jump in the water and assist a stranger that quickly. It meant a lot for the entire group to quickly come to our aid, help us get our stuff, get back in the canoe and make sure we were safe.

This newspaper is filled with plenty of feature stories on the great people who call LaGrange and Troup County home every day. We love those kinds of stories. But it’s also a place where bad things are reported — shootings, crimes, wrecks. Things that make us say “What’s wrong with people these days?”

But really, Saturday’s experience just reaffirms to me that I think most people want to help and are inherently good. I’m guessing a few guys in that group had flipped a canoe before.

You often hear of those stories at the lake or at campgrounds. People just help those around them. I’m not saying we necessarily forget that courtesy in everyday life, but in the hustle and bustle of the day we probably don’t remember it enough.

For what it’s worth, Austin, who doesn’t seem to get too excited or too down about anything, never cried and got right back in the canoe to finish our float. Hopefully, he’ll keep that resiliency the rest of his life. At least he — and all of us — left the river with a story to tell. And my phone still works too, somehow.