I heard the trickling of creek water and it stirred me enough to wake me. “Mmm coffeeeee,” I groaned. I batted my eyes a few times and saw beautiful, dim sunlight spreading through thick green leaves when I finally felt brave enough to open them wide. I took a deep breath in and smelled the salt, the pine and a pinch of that delicious wood ash from last night’s fire, my nostrils opening with sensitivity to the smell. I rolled to the side and pushed myself up, leaves crunching under my elbow and then my palm. I was bewildered in the wild. “Oh, right.” I wasn’t in my giant comfy, fluffy bed as I thought; I was wrapped in a forest-green, plaid sleeping bag, still in my swimsuit and shorts from the day before.
Too much beer, I thought.
I finally sat up, rubbing the back of my head, sore from sleeping on the ground and took in my surroundings. The good ol’ Whiskey Chitto…a childhood favorite, and now, an adulthood pleasing pastime. I l-o-v-e being in the great outdoors, though as a child, you wouldn’t have believed that. Sure, I was athletic. I could pick up anything with a bat, racquet or ball and be decent at it. But I was no granola girl, not at the time.
I looked around for my parents – my mom and step-dad, that is. My mom was NEVER much for the outdoors until Vince came along. Now she’s in to fishing and four-wheeler riding…a true sight to behold. (The woman starches her camo for crying out loud.) I finally spotted her, full-face of make-up on, bright red tank top, down by the bank with Vince, sipping on a mug that I was sure was full of coffee.
“I don’t know how you drink it like this Tiff, black as night,” she said to me as I walked up. I grinned at her and snatched the mug from her hands and took a huge chug of that black elixir. “It’s heaven in a cup, mom.”
“Well, I miss my creamer. Do you want some eggs? I think that family over there is making breakfast.”
“What? I can’t just go ask them for breakfast mom, people don’t operate that way.”
“Well I do! I started talking to Lynn while I was making coffee; we traded. That’s them over there; Lynn, Jackson, her husband, and their son, Jake.” I surveyed the area…there were several families packing up their camping gear, getting ready for the last leg of the canoe trip. The Whiskey Chitto is only an eight-mile trip, but is split nicely if you choose to stop at each fluffy, white sandbar which is every mile or so, and spend the night under the stars. Really romantic, unless you’re with your mom. I thought about this for a moment and was glad I’d driven up separately.
I walked over and introduced myself to Mrs. Lynn and her family, taking note that Jake was exceptionally cute and wondered if I could sucker him in to abandoning his canoe to row with me. I’d spent the better part of yesterday canoeing from the middle of a three person canoe with all of my camping gear…and my mom’s…and Vince’s.
“You must be TiffanyJo! Your mom said you’d be over once you’d figured out someone was making pancakes and eggs.” I blushed a little and Jake slide over on the sand to make room for me; welcoming, warm and inviting…I liked him already.
We talked for a few minutes over hot coffee and breakfast, making conversation about the interesting people we’ve seen out here. The man collecting every snake he saw and throwing it in a bucket was at the top of both of our lists; I mean seriously, who does that? Jake told me that he was positive he saw a few alligators on the banks that were roped off. I gave him a few of my classic eye-rolls, but made sure to bat them just enough that he found them cute. Hopefully.
My mom eventually called for me and I thanked Mrs. Lynn for the breakfast and headed across the creek to my canoe. “Jesus, I’m glad you two think I’m strong.” My canoe was completely filled in the front and back of the canoe with sleeping bags and ice-chests and all sorts of other odds and ends that my mom insisted she bring. “I’ll see y’all at the next sandbar.” I plugged in my headphones after lathering on some sunscreen and headed off, leading the pack, though no one was behind me.
About an hour or so in to my trip, I came across a sandbar that looked like no one had touched it in weeks, which was odd since this place is flooded with people during the summer. I thought it would be the perfect time to catch a little day time yoga in celebration of the first International Day of Yoga…fitting since it’s the longest day of the year and beginning of the Summer Solstice. I was happily flowing through up and downward dogs when I heard something rustling in the greenery nearby. I didn’t think much of it and sat down to eat my peanut butter & honey sandwich…my favorite. I suppose the heat had zapped my appetite, because I couldn’t finish it. I stuffed the plastic wrap in my backpack and left the sandwich on the sand, figuring a bird or something would snatch it up. As I stood, the rustling grew closer and louder. I took this as a sign to get back in the canoe and finish the trip.
Since I was rowing solo, without another person in sight, I decided I’d challenge myself a little and stand on the middle row of the canoe, paddling like I was just off of some tropical island on a kick-ass paddle board. The water moved heavily under the paddle. I blamed my difficulty pushing on all of the shit my mom had thrown in the canoe. I eventually found a slow rhythm I was happy with and pushed on. The creek curved a little to the left, my canoe easing through the turn on the smooth water. I was smiling from ear to ear; the sun illuminated everything. “Instagram would kill for this filter,” I thought to myself. The water was shimmering, like a thousand coins under the hot sun; it almost hurt my eyes to look at it. The greens were vibrant, almost dream like. Surreal in a way.
I looked down at my arms and noticed how browned and freckled they were getting, compared to my forever stark-white legs. My legs rarely tan in the summer, and this bums me out to no end. When I looked back up, I notice that the creek was moving faster than I knew how to handle, the weight of the camping gear pushing me faster than I wanted…or could paddle. I was traveling solo on a path I’ve taken many times, I’m not quite sure why, but I was little worried. I focused my vision on the surface of the water, still standing, paddling as best as I could this way. When I felt confident enough in my strides to lift my gaze upwards, it was too late. My head met a huge, low-hanging branch and that was it, lights out.
I came to mid-stream and realized my arms were around someone’s neck. I forced my vision clear to get a good look at my rescuer. As his face was coming in to focus, I realized I hadn’t studied Jake’s face enough. Were his eyes this brown? I thought I’d made a mental not that they were blue like mine. His hair was definitely brown, but not this dark…and I didn’t remember him being the hairy type. My vision finally returned and it was all I could do to silence my scream. My little brown arms were wrapped around the neck of a giant Louisiana black bear.
The bear shook my stunned body off it’s back on the next sandbar and went back in to the water and plopped down, watching me. “The rustling, the peanut butter and honey,” I thought to myself. This bear had been following me the entire time in search of a bigger, tastier, blonde snack.
I started to speak but bit my tongue. “What the hell? Do you expect him to answer you? The heat has taken over your brain. You’ve gone mad.” The bear hunched down even further in to the water as if hearing my thoughts. My eyes never dropped its’ gaze; I was nervous to blink. There was something….understanding and familiar in his eyes. Something I’ve noticed before in strangers passing me on the street on my way to the mail.
Moments later I spot my canoe, floating languidly down the creek. “SHIT!” I managed to yell at a whisper. As if sensing my fear and dismay at losing all my things – including my mind – the bear made its way to the center of the creek and steered the edge of the vessel with the side of his huge body, thankfully towards the beach, where I lay paralyzed with curiosity at what I was seeing. I’d never encountered an animal of this size before, not this close anyway. I’ve only ever heard horror stories about bear encounters and how menacing they are. But here’s this giant black bear, Jake, I’d named him in my head, rescuing me and my canoe.
The bear paused and watched my canoe slide on to the shore, then returned his gaze to me.
I drew in the heaviest of breaths and laid back on the sand, closing my eyes. I figured if Jake was going to maul me, he’d have done it already. I looked up once more at the sky, thankful for my life and this gorgeous day and the kindness of a bear.
My alarm rang so loudly that I sprang out of bed, looking everywhere for either Jake. I looked down…no tan, no swimsuit. I looked around….no sand, no canoe, no bear. I fell back on my soft, fluffy, white pillows in sheer disappointment and laid there, paralyzed with curiosity about my dream.
I’d hit the snooze button, but I was too awake to lay in still silence any longer. I stood and realized I had a hunger, a specific taste for peanut butter and honey.