THE RIVER NYMPHS OF THE PEMMIGEWASSET RIVER
by Matt Hopkinson and Doug Doremus
The river nymphs of the Pemmigewasset River had it out for him. In 1991, Doug Doremus unwrapped a Ranger canoe from a tree in the rapids below the West Thornton Bridge, and repaired it with several pounds of fiberglass. Now in 1995, at the same bend in the river, he and his friend, Matt Hopkinson discover how far the nymphs will go to get it back. Here is our story:
SATURDAY, October 21, 1995. 7:30 AM: “JUMBO….shrimp! How the heck are ya?” Doug returns the greeting by pouring Matt a cup of coffee from his aluminum percolator, the kind that feels at home atop the Coleman stove.
“Hey Uncle Matty, you’re late!”, he says with a grin. He’s a wiry Camel smoker and looks the ‘shrimp’ part of his name, but they call him Jumbo. In his late thirties, he still sports well-defined muscles and ribs, partly from malnourishment and partly from all his high-strung energy. He’s the kind of guy you might see for a moment, silhouetted on the ridge top in his Australian hat, the collar turned up on his drover’s coat, flapping stiffly in the wind. You look away. Then you look again, and he’s gone.
It’s spitting rain and the wind is blowing hard, leaves fill the air. It’s warm for this time of morning and time of year. Probably in the fifties. The forecast calls for heavy wind, light rain, clearing in the afternoon. Two guys with busy lives, even a weekend trip needs planning way in advance, so the decision is not whether to go, but rather how to deal with the weather. They grin, hold up their steaming mugs of black coffee to the weather and toast yet another adventure about to unfold.
Uncle Matty is a barrel-chested man with a quick sense of humor and an analytical mind. His job at the Quabbin Reservoir in Central Massachusetts lets him brush up on his wilderness skills. Give him a canoe and a pole, and he’ll go anywhere. Back when they hung out in college, Matt sported shoulder length blonde hair, but mid-life left him sporting a short cut with round patch of skin in the middle. “Hey, you ready? Let’s get your canoe on the Bronco II and we’ll drop your car at West Campton.”
“Just a minute. I want to pack a couple more things.” Jumbo heads back in and adds wool pants and gloves, as well as an extra hat to his dry bag. They load Jumbo’s gear and canoe in the drizzle. Throughout the week, the two of them tracked the forecast from the National Weather Service and watched it on the weather channel. They were different, and disagreed about whether it would rain or not. This morning, the local forecast for Massachusetts finally settled on rain, and a high wind advisory of gusts up to 50 mph. They never did say what wind direction. Jumbo reports the New Hampshire forecast had recently changed to rain, clearing late afternoon.
There’s a parking area down by the bridge in West Campton, where they drop the Corolla and inspect the river. Matt chuckles, “If it gets any lower we’ll be walking down the river!”
The Pemmigewasset River has it’s beginnings in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As a rocky brook, it follows the Kancamagus Highway for a while before it heads due south along NH Rte 3. In high water, it becomes canoeable somewhere north of Woodstock. Today it is at a low water stage, as is practically every other river in New England after a summer-long dry spell. Mid-morning they reach the put-in at Woodstock NH. They carry all their gear down the bank and over the rocks that are normally under water. They each hop into their respective canoes, prepared to pole, paddle or push their way down the river. This will just be an overnight trip. Ooh, that floating feeling. “It’s good to be on the river again!”
The wind is whistling up through the narrow river valley, bringing with it the warm, moisture laden air from the south. Jumbo’s paddle meets the gravelly bottom before he can get a paddleful of water onto it. He stows the paddle, stands up and hefts the 12′ aluminum pole he borrowed from Matt. Leaning into the gale, he relies on the drawstring to catch his hat. The pole gets a good purchase and his hands climb up to the end as he bulls the canoe across the scratchy bottom into the wind. “Nice pole! Kinda noisy though.” He’s used to the wooden one he liberated from a maple sapling.
At times, they wade, pulling their canoes through the shallows. Grateful for a respite from the wind and rain, they settle in to a hemlock grove and make lunch. Being in no particular hurry, Jumbo pulls out the Coleman, which he found in the dump, and fires it up for some hot drinks. A nice treat for a raw day. Matt sits on a damp moss-covered log and makes loud smacking noises as he wolfs down a pita slathered with peanut butter. “Hey Pigface,” his mouth still full of peanut butter, “The water’s boiling. What are you having?”
Jumbo’s gear is wet from the horizontal rain and he is a bit chilled, so he is changing into some dry clothes. “Make me a cocoa, Uncle Flapjaw!” Matt gets busy with the request.
Well fed and back on the water, they start the wind battle again. Jumbo tries to paddle in a tuck, out of the wind. Matt decides to pole and is blown upstream, his body acting as a sail. His laughter rolls through the Autumn air. In the end, trudging through the shallows, canoe in tow, works the best.
At 2 PM they pass the West Thornton Bridge, the halfway mark, more or less. The wind is so strong at this point, they decide to call it a day. The river is still scratchy-bottomed and about a foot deep. Matt is still farting around with some tracking lines he made up, the idea being to stay on dry shore and let the current (or in this case wind) push the canoe out into the water. Jumbo is way ahead so he stops along the left bank to scout for a campsite.
He stands on the shore and looks down the river. He knows he has been here before. Slowly it dawns on him, this is where he found his canoe wrapped around a tree nearly five yeas earlier. It was wrapped around a tree, two large holes punched in it. Jumbo looks at the spot, then looks back at his canoe, thinking of the hours of patching and sanding that went into it. “It’s mine, and I resurrected it with my own two hands.”, he says to himself.
Matt finally gives up on the lines and tows his boat downstream. He catches up as Jumbo emerges from a dry wash off to the left and they walk the shoreline looking for a campsite. “That’s where I found my canoe.”
“No shit.” is the reply, He’s heard the story before. Matt looks downstream to the spot where the river turns right, then zigs left out of site.
They walk along a dry wash again which rejoined the river some distance below. A few hundred from feet from the river Jumbo points to a level spot, high and dry, big enough for Jumbo’s cabin tent. “Below this is all private land. I think this is the place to camp.” Neither really feels like battling the wind anymore, so it’s a done deal.
They unload wannigans, the cooler-full-of-beer, a few dry bags and a huge pile of tent poles for that cabin tent. Weary arms ache from the tedious chore of bringing the gear to camp. After the last fetch they carry the canoes up five or six feet above the river level. You never know, with all this rain. They tie the boats in a thicket growing from the protruding root mass of an ancient fallen pine. Rain continues to fall. It is about this time that somewhere, in a cozy dry room, a small, doughy man from the National Weather Service issues a flood warning. Doug and Matt aren’t listening.
First order of business is the tent. The tent has an internal room for sleeping and an external screen-porch type of room. Jumbo has been raving about this thing for the whole trip, “You know, I’m just sick of sitting in a cramped tent. This one has plenty of elbow room and it’s gonna be great! I only paid twenty bucks for it at a yard sale.”
It’s not long before they’re outside, hastily covering the tent with a makeshift rainfly. Matt casts a suspicious eye at Jumbo, who for some reason has brought a mess of extra tent poles along. They sit in the porch section, hovering over the Ancient Coleman and the Almighty Coffeepot. “I’ll tell you one thing,” says Matt, “I’m not rolling my sleeping bag out until it stops raining!” Puddles form on the floor of the tent in spite of the rainfly outside and the growing city of tent poles inside. They take turns mopping out the floor.
Jumbo fires up the Coleman and they cook dinner. Off and on, two-burner comes back out to make instant oatmeal and hot drinks to warm up with. Matt fetches his now-wet Gore-tex raincoat off the clothesline and puts it back on to “wear it dry”. Jumbo is getting down to his last dry layers of clothes, but “Hey, no problem, the weather should clear any time now”. The rain comes down in sheets and the tent breathes in and out like a living being. The inside tent poles fall down and they scramble to reset them. Curse that pasty-faced weatherman!
At 10:30, they’re still waiting for the rain to abate, which should have happened a long time previous. Instead, it has gotten quite heavy. It’s Matt’s turn to check the tent lines and rainfly. From inside the tent, Jumbo hears “Holy Shit, Jumbo! The river is rising!” He springs up and grabs a flashlight. The blackness swallows the light. He shines it down. About twenty feet away the wash is full of water. Without saying anything, he lifts the beam slowly and neither of them can make out the far side of swift black current that now separates them from high ground.
Jumbo looks at Matt. Matt looks back. Four eyebrows rise is unison as they both exclaim: “The canoes!” With an urgency bordering on panic they race along the edge of the wash toward the canoes. There they are, still tied to the trees, but now they’re bobbing in the waves and out of reach. Jumbo is determined “I’m going after them.” At his feet lay a tangled mass of brush, logs and stumps. There’s no telling how deep or how fast the inky black water is between them and the boats.
“Don’t do it!” Matt says. “We don’t have life jackets or ropes!” Jumbo pauses, then they both run back to camp. The island is shrinking and the field mice, forced out of their homes are clinging to the bushes. Forced to scramble through the brush, they each take one side of their new island. They are close enough to yell at each other about water levels. At the tent, they automatically fall into their roles. Matt gets out equipment while Jumbo changes into wet clothes. Back to the canoes, and they shine their flashlights. The river has risen perceptibly and the canoes are in strong current.
Matt’s fearful respect for Keepers goads him “Don’t do it!” he says for the second time. Maybe it’s the way he said it, but Jumbo, already climbing out on log, stops mid stride. What he is doing right now sinks in. He feels as though something took his spine and yanked it right out. His knees begin to shake and he backs slowly down the log, back to terra firma.
“Shit, shit, what are we going to do?”
“Look for the highest piece of ground with a tree on it.” Like the mice.
There is nothing else to say so they head back to the campsite. The water is about ten feet from the tent. Without talking they both know what to do. They just start grabbing stuff and fill the wannigans and dry bags. An organized frenzy. Miraculously, they find a red maple about mid-island and which is the only one with a couple of forks in it low enough to climb and high enough to escape the rising waters, if it gets that high. They carry the first load to the tree together. Matt grabs rope and tie down straps and begins lashing all the gear to the backside of the tree. Jumbo makes several more trips and gets the rest of the stuff. On his last trip, the water is up to the tent. He takes one last look at his twenty dollar tent and says “To hell with it”, and leaves. The silted water seeps in through the screen door.
They finish lashing the cooler, the stove and the wannigans to the tree. They each take a long pull from the water bag before they lash that to the stack. They tie all the various dry bags, paddles and gear to the stack, and cover the whole thing with a tarp. They look around, the island is now so small that there is no where else to go. A scant hour after they first noticed the water rising, and they stand marooned on a ten foot island. They look up at the tree. Two miserable branches fork off the main stem, their last resort. Jumbo props up a corner of the tarp and hunkers down, out of the rain, trying to stay as dry as possible. The rain continues to fall although the wind weakens.
Matt, dressed in Goretex, is fairing a little better and does his hunkering down in the open, leaning against a nearby tree. “I’m gonna take a nap.” He says and pulls his hood down over his face. “Wake me up when the water gets higher.”
Doug looks at him in disbelief, but lets him be. Listening to the roar of the current as it overtakes the diminishing roar of the wind, he is alone with his thoughts. He lights up a Camel and waits. Forty five minute later, there is no dry ground left and he shouts to Matt: “Hey wake up! I’m climbing up now.” Matt wakes up, his feet are under water and his butt is about to get wet.
Jumbo is fairly well damp through and through, so before he climbs, he rummages around and finds the last of his dry clothes. The wool pants, gloves and hat. Jumbo says “Keep checking on me because I’m worried about hypothermia. I’m pretty wet and I’m beginning to shake now.” Matt reaches into his dry bag and fishes out a down vest. “Put this on.” he says. Jumbo doesn’t argue. He’s feeling the chill and planning on getting colder.
Matt hangs around on the ground for a while, but it is clear he is destined for the tree too. There is an indefinable finality to this moment, this ‘taking to the trees’. Jumbo’s silhouette appears in the night sky as he climbs, feet against the branch and back against the trunk, to the next fork. They each bring a flashlight and a length of rope to tie themselves to the tree in case they fall asleep. Then Matt clambers up the side of the gear pile, hanging on to ropes, finally dragging himself up to the first level, five or six feet off the ground. Thus they stand, their last resort.
The rain continues to fall, and the water continues to rise, higher and higher up the tree trunk, but the wind dies down. They each stand, on one foot, then the other, jammed into the steep crotches of the tree. It is obvious they have used up every margin of error, the next misfortune will be their last.
The storm sputters, the rain abates, and stars become visible through the ragged holes in the clouds. Brilliant, sparkling stars. The first messengers of good news this night. To Jumbo this means that without the cloud cover the temperature will drop and he might be getting much colder.
Matt is keeping Jumbo’s cigarettes dry in his jacket pocket. Next to it is the butane lighter, one of the few remaining pieces of survival gear. Jumbo says, “Hey, do you want a challenge? Light me a cigarette.”
“Sure!” Matt fetches out a butt with dripping hands and tucks it under his wool hat band. The lighter is more difficult. Matt has to alternately blow on it and flick the igniter until the mechanism is dry enough to get a flame. He finally gets a flame. “Here you go!” He passes it up to Jumbo. Matt considers lighting another one for himself, out of sheer boredom and want of a distraction.
A cigarette. “My last request?” he asks himself. In the end, he resists. Probably a good thing, since he might get dizzy enough to puke and fall out of the tree.
The two settle in for a long and uncomfortable night in the tree. Suddenly there is a tremendous crashing and rending noise upstream. They peer through the black silhouettes of the trees, trying to see what is happening. A huge uprooted tree, carried on the floodwaters has rammed into the leading edge of the trees that form their ‘island’. Like a battering ram, it knocks down the trees in it’s path, crashing and grinding it’s way through the woods. The sound continues to the left of their perch and continues a short distance past them before it loses it’s momentum. Matt swears, Jumbo shines his light into the hazy black, both fear for their lives. It is plain that several trees on their ‘island’ have succumbed to that one blow. A few curses and exclamations and they switch from a secured knot to a quick release one. Matt strains to see, “Do I see a huge tree floating past, with our canoes tied to it?” Jumbo sees nothing. “Well, I don’t think we’ll be paddling out of here tomorrow.”
The wee hours of the morning are punctuated with the sounds of floating trees and other debris crashing into the trees in front of and to both sides of them. Panic gives way to a resigned nervous anxiety. Jumbo shines his light straight down. Inky black water parts around the tree. The tarp covered gear is floating in the current, wagging like a dog tail. All the autumn leaves were hammered off the trees in a matter of hours, and they saturate the water, lighting up in the flashlight beam. Matt peers into the water, the leaves reveal which way the water is coming from. Looks like we’re pretty safe from a direct hit.”
Matt has his own watch. “What time is it?” he asks Jumbo. This saves having to dig through several layers of knitted cuff and Velcro closures, but really he is checking Jumbo’s mental state, since he is wetter and more susceptible to the cold. Besides, he has his flashlight out anyway, trying to signal the cars they can see on Route 3, through the woods across the river. At one point, a car pulls over to the side of the road not far away. Jumbo waves the light back and forth and they both shout themselves hoarse. Hope mounts as they watch each headlight momentarily wink out. “Some one is walking in front of the car!” Matt says. They are sure the driver has seen them. They wait for a signal back, but the retreating tail lights say otherwise. Dark thoughts. Damp spirits.
They while away the endless hours, trying not to think about the pain of standing on one foot in a sharp crotch all night. They talk at times, but they have to shout over roar of the current and past each others hoods. It takes a lot of effort. Matt starts singing “99 bottles of beer”.
At 96 bottles, Jumbo shouts “You aren’t going to sing that whole thing, are you?” Matt stops. Took more breath than it worth anyway. They crack jokes. Unfortunately, they already know each other’s jokes. They stop talking for a while. They’re both out of subjects. More endless time passes and they begin to discuss strategies in the dark. Which way will they cross in the morning? They settle on a course, review the facts and reject it. Then start from scratch. They don’t realize the task is impossible. One says “We’ll just have to wait ’til morning so we can see what we’re up against.” Then they start planning again.
Jumbo shines his light, and Matt reports the water is still rising, almost to his foot. Jumbo offers to climb up to the next fork, which is between two scrawny little branches over his head. “I doubt I could reach your perch, but it’s comforting to know there’s room to move.” Matt does a little mental math: five feet to the boats, five more feet to the tent, and at least another five feet up the tree. “Fifteen feet!”, could it be?
Eternity. Switch foot. Matt asks Jumbo how he’s doing. Asks what time is it. Three hours to daylight. Do “the challenge” and pass another smoke up. Watch the curls of froth and dead leaves flow past the tree. Stare through the trees into the darkness. Listen to the roar of the current. Wait.
By coincidence, tonight is the peak of the Orionides meteor shower. If there is one advantage to their predicament, they get to stay up all night and watch the falling stars. “There goes one!…Did you see it?”…”No, I wasn’t looking.”, and so on, all night. The sky is now completely clear and packed with stars. An occasional light breeze drifts through the trees, chilling soggy flesh. Jumbo is advancing through the stages of hypothermia and Matt feels his uncontrollable shaking through the tree. Matt shudders. Suddenly, Jumbo exclaims “What the hell is that?” and frantically aims his flashlight through the trees to the left. Nothing.
“What the hell is what?” asks Matt.
“I saw a big black shape, blacker than the night, drifting slowly past.” Now Matt gets really concerned. Hypothermia stage two, one to go. He has nothing to offer in the way of treatment. To enter that five foot deep current surrounding them is certain death, and anything useful is hopelessly out of reach. There’s a certain comfort, though, seeing all the gear faithfully bobbing in the eddy behind the tree.
“Three O’clock and all is…” begins Jumbo, waiting for Matt to fill in the blank with another good one. No matter what the circumstances, you just can’t maintain a level of panic for long. They are resigned to their long wait in the wee hours of the morning. Their tree is insulated from the main onslaught by many trees all around. The rising of water seems to have stalled out a foot below Matt’s foot. Suddenly, but in slow motion, a huge group of maples, crackles, leans, and finally tumbles into the current, taking down more smaller trees, and finally washing away altogether. The water level jumps to a mere half foot below the toe of Matt’s water-filled Maine Hunting Shoe. Tired of being scared and losing patience with Mother Nature, they each invent a new long string of swears.
Without the cover of those trees, the current shifted direction and they found themselves looking straight up through a clear channel almost to the bridge, and which could allow one of those giant battering rams right in. They were truly living on the edge now. “I think the water only went up because the current shifted.” says Matt, privately only half believing this, but it was possible and couldn’t be ruled out. “The true test”, he says to himself, “will be when debris stops crashing into the woods.” He waits for a long time, listening.
Switch foot. Squishy wool socks in rubber boot. “Hey, what time is it?” “It’s 4:30. How about the challenge”. Two more hours to daylight. The leaf-choked river water does seem to be remaining at a steady level with a scant half foot to spare.
Matt begins to muse to himself. He thinks of his wife and two kids snug in their beds at home, not knowing any of this is happening. It was 24 hours ago that the alarm woke him up and he stole out of the house, leaving his sleeping family to a rainy Saturday. “Life insurance? Yep. I sure hope floods aren’t excluded.”
Jumbo, chilled to the bone, is beginning to deteriorate. Long periods of uncontrollable shaking shakes the whole tree to the point Matt comments on it. Jumbo is beginning to lose the feeling in his wet, cold toes. It doesn’t help they’ve been jammed in a tree crotch all night. The moon rises in the east, two days before New and therefore about two hours before sunrise. A thin, cruel crescent. The first sign that the night will indeed come to an end. But, oh those two long hours.
Matt studies the water at his feet. It seems as if the water is starting to drop. Jumbo and Matt begin to discuss the merits of waiting for the water to drop and for the sun to warm the day, what to wear, and so on. Hope is slowly returning. Another long, cold hour and the day is with them. But the sun still refuses to strike them with it’s warming rays. The mountains to the west are all lit up and taunt them with the thoughts of warm sunshine.
Jumbo, his head about eight feet above the water, 14 feet above the ground, and 25 feet above yesterday’s river level is the first to feel the first weak rays of sunshine. From his cocoon of soggy clothes, he looks around at the trees and debris jams surrounding them. Many of the trees are home to small rodents with the same idea. The chickadees could care less, they flit from tree to tree, chirping happily. He sees something sort of shiny bobbing in the water up toward the head of the island. It really looks like Matt’s canoe, but there is too much junk in the way to be sure. That would be a miracle. The water has been dropping steadily over the past couple of hours, and he watches as Matt attempts to step into the current. Jumbo feels anguish at the mere thought of stepping into icy cold water. Then he watches as Matt scrambles back up into the tree. Still no footing.
By 8 AM, full sunlight begins to warm the day. Matt climbs down into knee deep water, his foot touches solid ground. Then he spots a new sandbar right behind their tree, and the water is only inches deep there. To Jumbo’s mental discomfort, Matt takes a paddle and makes an attempt to reach the boat. He makes it about twenty feet and is in waist-deep water, looking at heavier current through the trees in front. He turns back. By the time he gets back, the little patch of sand is dry and about six feet across.
“Ahh…solid ground!” Jumbo is now out of the tree too. He pulls the Coleman stove out of the muck and assembles it. He pumps, turns the valve, and lights it. Nothing. He gets some fire starting jelly that Matt has carried for about fifteen years and never used. He lights that and keeps pumping. It manages to kindle one little flame about the size of a match out the side of the burner element. Now this stove is one that Jumbo has rescued from the dump and is old enough that the burner elements are screwed together. He disassembles the burner element and finds it full of muck. He shakes most of it out of the main body and rinses the pieces out. Reassembled and with more fire-starter, the gas fumes manage their way past the mud to provide a big sooty flame, but requires constant pumping. Good enough. Out comes the Almighty Coffee Pot. They brew a pot of cowboy coffee, since the flame isn’t hot enough for the percolator. Who cares, anything hot is an indescribable luxury. Matt rummages around in his wannigan, that was also under water all night and pulls out two nice dry garlic bagels. Jumbo does the same and gets some apples. Not a bad breakfast, considering.
For the second pot, the mud has boiled dry and the stove has returned to it’s cheerful self. They leave the pot and make the second attempt to reach the canoe. “I can’t believe the thing could have survived the flood.” says Matt. “Besides, it was tied to a tree on the other side of the island, and that part of the island isn’t even there any more!” Jumbo was sure he saw the canoe from his higher perch, and could even see the symmetrical shape of the hull. When they finally reach the head of the island, through a jungle-gym of logs and trees, there is no canoe. Jumbo is disheartened. They decide that the only way out is to swim, and he dreads the cold water, after freezing all night in the tree.
One of the jokes of the night had been: “What if the tent was still there?” They get back to the “camp” and look around. To their amazement, the tent remained staked to the ground, but flat as a pancake and with about six inches of heavy mud inside it. They couldn’t move it, so they left it. Jumbo finds his hatchet about fifty feet away, Matt’s tarp under an inch or so of mud, and a pile of extra tent poles under a new pile of sand, ends protruding. Jumbo digs down nearly a foot to retrieve them.
The glorious sun bathes them in warmth. The hot coffee does the same from the inside. And the freedom to move about does the rest. A far cry from two hours earlier. The two review their options. One option is to cross the main channel to reach the road. They can see the road and the opposite bank is filled with sunshine. Another option is to cross the other way, still in shade, and full of trees and snags. Once across, they would have no idea how far it was to the nearest road. Jumbo chuckles, “I almost suggested we build a fire.” Matt laughs too, looking at all the firewood, sopping wet.
After much debate and scrapping of ideas, the two finally decide on the main channel. The current is strong, but the bend should help carry them to the outside. They reviewed strategies for swimming across. Matt insists “The river runner position is the safest,” thinking of laying back and back-paddling with his arms.
“All right, I guess so.” Jumbo prefers the crawl, for speed’s sake. Dressed in woollies, including a sweater (big mistake), they wade across a log jam to the river’s edge. Up close, the swollen fast current gives Jumbo the willies. He goes first. He plunges in and begins to swim. They both eye the large up-turned tree downstream and decide it will be easy to get around it.
Matt follows Jumbo in. As Jumbo reaches the main current, he shouts something, turns and begins to swim in a hard crawl. Almost as soon as he yells, Matt sees the problem. There is a second keeper in the middle of the channel, which was obscured by the first one. Matt quickly opts for the crawl, too. About 20 feet behind Jumbo, his lungs are burning from breathing so hard. The cold river water and heavy, soaked sweaters rapidly sap their strength.
Jumbo outswims Matt and makes shore. As he approaches the shoreline, he grabs a branch sticking out of the water. The heavy current instantly whips his feet downstream. A roostertail of water forms over his head. Facing downstream, he catches sight of Matt entering the rapids below. He watches Matt’s head bob up and down a couple of times, then he is gone from sight. Pulling himself ashore, he wants to lay there and pass out. “I’ve got to find Matt!” With a supreme effort, he stands. “What am I going to tell Nancy?” He follows the river’s edge in a shuffle, calling Matt’s name. All he can muster is a hoarse croak.
Still in the river, Matt is amazed how quickly he is separated from Jumbo by the current. Mid-river, he considers stopping for a breather, his arms are lead and his lungs are burning. The voice of reason screams at him “Don’t stop!” and he continues to swim as his arms lose strength. He sees a series of standing waves downstream, and he is headed right for them. He turns again and rides out the first set in true river-runner fashion, facing downstream, feet up, and doing the backstroke. The current is swift and powerful. Seeing a small eddy on the edge of the river, he rolls over again and swims for it. Two strokes into it, he realizes he missed.
He turns to face the next set of haystacks. He tries to get back to the river runner position. Nothing doing. He kicks his feet to get them back up to the surface, but the current fights him and they remain directly below him. The shoreline races past and he has a vision of a forked tree branch looming up to catch his ankle. The river pulls him under the waves as he ‘runs’ with his feet, trying desperately to get them back up. Time slows down under water, the roar stops, and he looks up through peaceful, tropical blue waves, fringed with lacy white froth. He bobs back to the surface, and disregards what he is experiencing. He doesn’t notice whether he is breathing, choking or in pain. His instincts have taken over and he is surviving.
Another eddy, and he swims for it again. Instead of fighting him, the current now whisks him to shore. He is elated. He finds the bottom on his hands and knees. “Not done yet!, I need to get out of the chilling water.” In knee-deep water, like Jumbo, he stands with a supreme effort. Waterlogged clothing, especially the wool sweater, weighs tremendously, and like Jumbo, the cold water has sapped most of his strength.
He thinks back to the backyard football games of his childhood. He had been the ‘tank’ then, and despite the pile of kids hanging on to him, he would rise and ponderously carry the football to the goal. He feels the weight of those kids again today, and one last time again he manages to straighten, and stands for a moment, gasping for breath. Finally, he summons the energy to climb up the bank out of the water and onto dry land.
He begins the trudge along the bank. Right away, he is stymied by a barbed wire fence, laying about six inches off the ground. Finally, he lifts his foot and steps squarely on the wire. “There! I made it.” Slowly, he makes his way upstream toward Jumbo’s landfall, a couple hundred yards back. He hears him call and calls back.
Two wet men, dressed in rain gear, life vests and wool hats, stand unsteadily by the side of the road. Thumbs out, they watch as car after car of spruced up church-goers avert their eyes and pass them by. Finally, a camouflaged man wearing a large knife let’s them ride in the back of his pick-up. At least it had a cap on it.
The final insult is waiting for them at the take-out. Jumbo opens the door of his car, and water pours out. The water line could be seen about halfway up the doors. They sponge it out as best as they can with wool hats. Matt starts to laugh, even the ashtray is full of water. Jumbo would have laughed too, if he wasn’t looking forward to a nice warm car heater. He gets in anyway and turns the key. The car shoots a big glug of water out the tailpipe and starts right up.
Epilogue: The man in the pick-up, whoever he is, told us this was the biggest flood ever recorded on the river. The river officially peaked at 17.8 feet above normal, at Plymouth. Roads were flooded and sections of town were evacuated. Things we were happy not to know about were the 18,000 gallon propane tank that was floating off it’s foundations in Woodstock or the Mad River Dam that was about to go. Reports vary, but it seems the heavy winds were from the south and laden with moisture. We heard that about 10.5 inches of rain fell on the flanks of Mt. Washington and it was that water that funneled into the narrow valley of the Pemmigewasset. The National Weather Service finally issued a flood warning about 2:30 in the afternoon, much too late for our purposes.
We did return on the following Wednesday and retrieved our gear. The river was almost back to its normal level. I carved a wooden sign to mark the high water level and we bolted it to the tree. If you plan to head down the Pemmigewasset River, look for the sign on the tree, about a half mile past the bridge in West Thornton, on the left bank above a drop to the right. It’s a couple hundred feet into the woods. Don’t fool with it, though. The river nymphs may be watching.