Finally, I was out of the river and safe. But I was so cold. I was shaking all over. I didn’t know much about hypothermia but I knew enough to know I was a candidate.
I took off my cowboy boots, poured out the water, and put them back on. I used the lead line on the bow of our canoe to pull it to the bank. And then I tried to figure out what to do next, quickly.
I didn’t know where my boating partner, Kerry Sipe, was or if he was alive. When I yelled for him he didn’t answer. After our canoe overturned in the Neuse River on a beautiful, cold, December night he had been carried downstream by the current.
I didn’t know where I was, either.
But I knew I couldn’t be too far from the U.S. 64 Bridge over the Neuse, where we had originally planned to end our trip.
I considered hiking through the woods, staying as close as I could to the river so I wouldn’t get lost. But I decided the canoe would be the quickest way to find Kerry. Or, if I couldn’t find him, to go for help. Either way, I had to get going, I had to get out of there. I had to get warm.
I dumped the water out of the canoe and got back in. I didn’t have a paddle. I had let go of my paddle when the canoe overturned so I paddled with my hands, maneuvering the canoe into the middle of the river, into the current.
I don’t know how far I floated down the Neuse, quite a ways, around several bends, before I heard him: Kerry Sipe was singing.
He was sitting at the edge of what looked like a small island, maybe it was just a clump of trees, in the middle of the river. He still had the life jacket he had risked his life to save and, oh, so much better, he had his paddle.
Kerry had been in the water a lot longer than I had and he was not well. He handed the paddle to me, got in the canoe, and we lit out for the bridge at U.S. 64, for home, as fast as we could go.
And then we heard them — rapids, big ones! I didn’t even know the Neuse had rapids. They couldn’t be that big, not like the rapids Kerry and I had run on the Chattooga River down in South Carolina. But they were loud. And getting louder.
Maybe I had hypothermia, maybe we both did. Hypothermia distorts your hearing, maybe that was the problem. Kerry and I had paddled a river with real rapids so we decided to go for it, to take a chance.