The wind was shoving the car around on I-40 as we headed to Eric's house to go canoeing on the Eno and try to catch a few bass. We'd seen the fisherman, cars lined up on Old Oxford Highway, the bank of the river dotted with men in baseball caps with five-gallon buckets at their feet. Eric had heard that at this time of year, when the bass were spawning up here, you could throw a line in the water and catch a foot-long bass with every cast. The kids were ecstatic. We’d have a fish dinner for sure!! Avid fishermen, my kids had previously done all their fishing with their dad or with Eric, but not with me. I got a fishhook in my finger at the age of nine and have not fished since. But this time, there were boats involved and I can't resist a boat. Plus, Eric's nineteen-year-old daughter, Ingrid, was here on spring break and we all wanted to see her.
I was nervous about the wind, but Eric assured me that down on the river it would be fine. We had a discussion about whether we should place a car at the boat ramp and paddle downstream or just put in at the boat ramp and paddle upstream and then float back. Deferring to Eric’s expertise, we decided it was too much trouble to juggle the cars and we decided to put in at the boat ramp. We loaded the red canoe and the yellow tandem kayak on top of the Toaster (my car) and packed all three kids in the back with the paddles. I backed the car up and we heard this awful crunching. I was afraid I had hit a tree with one of the boats, but happily the boats were fine. My back bumper on the other hand, was hanging half off the car. Oh dear. Fortunately, it's nothing but plastic (can someone explain this to me?) and Eric popped it back on in jiffy. Apparently I had backed into a rock edging a flowerbed. The rock was unscathed.
We put the boats in at the boat ramp, three miles from Eric's house. A pair of fisherman returning from the river offered us a bucketful of minnows for bait. We transferred the poor doomed little critters into our bucket and set off up the river. We would paddle upriver a ways, fish and float back. Easy peasy. It was hours before dusk, so we took our time, paddled and fished, trying to find that all-elusive spot where the fish would be biting. There was a nibble and then nothing. We had one more nibble, but no fish. George wanted to race, so we paddled upriver at a good clip for a short while, dragging the bait as we went. Lucy got her line snagged in a tree and Ingrid, behind her in the kayak, managed to free it. It was perfect shirtsleeves weather, warm with a light breeze. It was lightly overcast, so we didn't need to squint or worry about sunscreen. We were having a fine time.
We were having such a fine time it occurred to Eric that maybe we should just keep going. He figured by this time we were more than halfway to Penny's Bend where he lives and we could just go on up and pull the boats out at the house. He swears it was my idea, but I'm pretty sure I had no idea where we were. However, I'm a sucker for new territory and I had never seen this part of the river. So I voted to keep going. The sun was still pretty far above the horizon and the water was so fine and the weather so perfect. It seemed like the bridge at Old Oxford Highway was just around the next bend.
Except it wasn't. It wasn't around the next bend, or the next, or the one after that. My arms were getting tired. George started whining about the lack of fish. We hadn't seen one yet. Lucy and Ingrid were singing up ahead in the kayak and having a fine time. The sun came out and lit the white bark of the sycamores along the banks with a bright golden shine. We saw a dogwood, blooms just opening and some of the trees had new yellow-green leaves just uncurling. Surely the bridge was just around the next bend.
But there was no sign of it. The sun was dipping perilously close to the horizon. The river was narrowing and growing shallower. We negotiated a snag, dragging the boats across the sandy bottom with our paddles. Up ahead, Ingrid called out in her cheeriest voice, “We’re all going to die!” Lucy responded with a screech as we cracked up and then Ingrid followed up with “I didn’t say when!” Ingrid is a person you want to have along in any crisis.
The river got prettier and prettier. Huge truck-sized boulders were tumbled into her path, like the dice of giants. The banks got steeper and hills rose up on either side. There came a sound from the bank, the unmistakable sound of humans. A man and a boy were coming down the hill. We were saved! Lucy called up to them and when they responded Eric asked where we were. It seemed like a really stupid question because obviously we knew we were still on the Eno, but where? To our immense relief, he said we were just a quarter mile from the bridge.
The river got more and more shallow and the current more swift. Lucy and Ingrid got stuck and pushed back by a ripple, but Eric and I got through with effort. Ingrid got out and pulled them through and we kept on going. Dusk was definitely upon us and Eric was worried about getting the boats up the bank in the dark. With aching arms, we paddled on. Finally, the bridge came into sight, along with a dozen fisherman pulling lines with dozens of fish out the river. We had caught not a single fish and had barely even lost any bait.
The river became impossible to navigate, snagged with logs, shallow and swift. In a split second decision, the kids and I got out on a sandbank where we had seen a fisherman leaving with dozens of fish. I grabbed two sweaters out of the canoe and both fishing poles. Surely we'd catch one here! On the first cast, George snagged a log on the far side. Lucy started complaining that she was cold and hungry and it was getting dark and she was scared. I put a sweater on her and gave George my rubber boots to wade in and try to un-snag his line, but it was no use. He was wet to his crotch and my boots were full of water. He waded out and lifted his foot to his butt and the water poured out of the boots.
We were done. But by this time Lucy had snagged her line and we couldn't just leave the fishing poles and walk back to the house. I had nothing in my pockets at all, nothing to cut the lines with. I didn’t even have my car keys. They were in the tackle box and we had left the tackle box in the canoe. Some fisherman walked by on the path back to the highway and Lucy called to them. They asked if we were ok. It was almost totally dark by this time and the rest of the fisherman had left. I asked if he had a knife to cut the lines. He came down to the bank and just jerked on them until they snapped. Then he offered us some fish. I thanked him and said, maybe just a couple. He dumped his bucket into ours until I was protesting, but he just kept dumping. The bucket was half full of fish and we had a bit of a walk back to the road. That bucket got heavier and heavier as I walked. Eric and Ingrid appeared and Eric groaned over the fish. He was exhausted from dragging the boats the rest of the way up the river and carrying them up the steep bank to the house. The fish would have to be cleaned and as soon as possible. Silly me, I figured we’d just throw them in the freezer and eat them later. Eric was up for some time cleaning the fish, but he was good humored about it, telling me tales of fishing with his grandparents and his dad. His grandmother kept a worm bin for bait and always had her fishing tackle in her handbag along with her handgun. She was quite a character.
So after all that, we ate Chinese take-out and went to bed without a single bite of fish. But nobody really minded, especially not me. I only wanted a boat trip anyway. I don’t even eat fish. The smell of the river at dusk is enough for me.