When my wife sent me a text message, we just happened to be on a spot on the river where the water is flat enough that I was willing to open the dry box.
My youngest son, Robert, up in the front of the canoe, was in the process of eating his third of the four sandwiches I’d made for us for our river adventure. That meant I’d only have one sandwich, and I was more than a little ticked about it.
This was Robert’s first trip down the river, though, so I wasn’t going to get too mad over a sandwich.
“Storms starting to blow up around ATL and headed this way,” Jean informed me in the text message.
My pal Rodney was by himself in his canoe drifting a little ways ahead of us on the river. Behind us, somewhere around the bend in the river we call Catfish Bend, Jay and his friend Colby were fishing from their kayaks, and they were pulling river bass and brim out of the river by the armful. Nothing they pulled out of the river was worth keeping, but they were still catching fish by the dozens.
That morning, I’d promised both Jean and Robert that we would be off the water and wouldn’t get caught in the afternoon storm that was in the forecast. But I thought the storm would be coming later in the day.
At the risk of embarrassing my youngest son, I’ll tell you that he hates a thunderstorm. It’s okay to have phobias that completely freak you out. My phobia is balloons in a car. My kids have never known the joy of balloons at a birthday party because I am scared to death to be in a car full of balloons.
Robert’s phobia, at least, is a little more rational. While thunder is harmless, lightning will kill you dead. Balloons in a car, however, are harmless like thunder. But this isn’t about me or my phobias.
With Jean’s warning, I put my phone back in the dry box and snapped it shut, and I made some excuse to Rodney. He was with Jay and Colby, and I knew they’d be all right. They’re grown men and can deal with a thunderstorm on the river. But I wanted to get Robert off the river before the storm kicked up.
We drifted for a little ways as Rodney and I chatted about something – Rodney doesn’t care about storms and didn’t feel the same sense of urgency I had in getting Robert off the water. Finally, I told Rodney flat out, “I want to get Robert off the river before the storm hits.”
We still had a long ways to go to get to the bridge where we would pull out of the river – maybe three miles or so. Jean sent the text at 12:44 p.m. It was possible, having put in around 8:30 that morning, to be off the water by 2 p.m. But with all the fishing we’d been doing from our boats that morning, our pace had been too leisurely, and I doubted Robert and I could be to the bridge before 3 p.m.
We paddled steadily with just a little bit of hurry to us, and we got to the bend where the Middle Oconee meets up with the North Oconee. From there we had about two miles to go, but with the water being fairly low, it could be a rough two miles. We’d have to be careful to follow the channel of deep water, otherwise we could easily beach on the sandy bottom and have to work to get the boat back into deep water.
The confluence of the Middle and North Oconee rivers is a neat place to hang out for a bit. There’s a large dam on the Middle Oconee that goes back, possibly, to the late 1800s. If you observe the dam for a while, you can see the original dam and guess at the portions that were added. It was used at one time to power a mill, and in more recent times it turned turbines to generate electricity. Now it is just an obstacle for anyone paddling down the Middle Oconee River.
I would have liked to stop at this section of the river and spend a little time with Robert, because I think he would have been particularly interested in looking at the dam and understanding how it worked.
But the electricity Robert was interested in was in the sky, and presently it cracked and popped to remind us we were paddling with a purpose.
Under the canopy of the North Oconee, we’d not really been in a position to see the menacing clouds rolling in. But when we hit the confluence of the North and Middle Oconee rivers – the place where the Oconee River is formed – the river is wider and the sky opens up beyond the trees, and we could see just how quickly the dark clouds were approaching.
Both of us were now paddling for all we were worth, and when I checked over my shoulder there was nothing but ominous clouds threatening our existence. The thunder rumbled.
Robert, because he is young and ignorant, thought we still stood a chance of beating the storm. “If the storm catches us, will we go to a house?” he asked, looking longingly at the houses that periodically appear along the banks of the river.
I decided he should be prepared for the worst because I could see what was coming. “It is not an issue of ‘if’ the storm catches us,” I told him. “The storm will catch us. We will not beat this storm to the finish line.”
And then I gave him the worst: “Not only that, Robert, we will not be knocking on the door of some house and asking them to give us shelter in the storm. We will just paddle until we get to the bridge and pull the canoe off the river.”
As if to underscore the horror of the moment, a bolt of lightning flashed across the sky, followed by the immediate report of thunder.
“I saw that!” Robert yelled.
Now rain drops started hitting us.
“The only thing I can tell you to do is paddle faster,” I said.
The lightning was flashing and the thunder was crashing in a steady and terrifying way. I’ve been in rougher storms, but I was always in some sort of shelter – a house, a car, under a pavilion or in a tent. I’d never been this exposed in a storm where the lightning flashed so often.
The Oconee River is wide and the trees do not grow out over the river to offer any kind of canopy. The canoe felt very small and very exposed in the river. I wasn’t particularly nervous, but terror is contagious, and Robert’s panic was eating away at my toughness. I was as desperate to be off the water as he was.
We paddled hard and stayed close to the banks, crisscrossing the river as the channel of deep water moved from one bank to the next. My biggest fear was getting stuck in the gravely sand. I did not want to have to stand up and get out of the canoe to drag it to deeper water in the middle of this river with lightning lurking. Standing up, I’d be six feet taller than anything around me.
Several times, Robert’s arms were too tired to keep paddling, but I did not take a break. He was terrified, and each time the lightning flashed across the sky and the thunder rattled the boat, he would beg me, “Please, dad! Can’t we just find a house?”
Well, there were no houses to go to, even if I’d been willing. And through that particular part of the river, the bank doesn’t lend itself well to pulling out of the river. So I just kept paddling.
I tried to explain to Robert that we were safe. Or, safe-ish.
“We’re in the lowest spot out here. You can’t get lower than the river. The lightning isn’t going to hit us out here.”
I don’t know if that was true, and paddlers should not use my advice to my terrified 14-year-old as a rule of thumb. Since our journey through the storm, I’ve researched what to do if you get caught on the river in a thunder storm, and for every person saying to stay in the boat I can find someone else who says to get to shore and get out of the boat. The most definitive advice I could find is to stay off the water if a thunderstorm is in the forecast, but staying off the water means skipping a river trip, and that is always bad advice.
So Robert and I paddled hell for leather, and we did not get struck by lightning. If nothing else, it gave him something to do so that he wouldn’t think too much about the lightning and thunder.
The storm was for real, though. It knocked power off in Watkinsville, and that was only a couple of miles from where we were at.
I paused my paddling only once, to send Jean a text to let her know she needed to leave the house because we’d be needing a ride soon. At that point, my biggest fear was having my phone out of the dry box while the rain splashed against the face of it, so I tapped the keyboard quickly and then got it back in the box.
About the time we came ashore and pulled the canoe out of the river, the storm was done with us and went off to menace some other poor father and son.
Jean, who thought we’d be getting off the river much earlier than we did, had been waiting for us for an hour. She said as she watched the lightning flash all around her she was wondering how panicked Robert was. She also wondered how far lightning travels down a river.
I think she was more than a little relieved when we finally appeared, carrying the canoe up to the road.
“You really should do a better job of checking the forecast before you go out on the river,” she admonished me.
But I did check the forecast. I knew it was going to storm. I just kind of figured it would be later in the afternoon before it started.
Rodney called me later that evening to say he and Jay and Colby weathered the storm under ponchos on a sandbar. When the storm passed, they went back to pulling tiny fish out of the river. Then another equally fierce storm kicked up, and they got caught in that one, too. It was nearly eight o’clock before they finally got off the river.
I can’t imagine how miserable Robert would have been if we’d weathered the storm on a sandbar and then been caught in a second storm. The only thing that would have made him happy was if we’d found someone’s house to stop at.
So if you live along the Oconee River and you hear someone knocking on your back door during a storm, don’t be too surprised if you find me and Robert standing there asking if we can come inside for a bit.
And if you’d be good enough to make us another sandwich or two, that would be great.
Rob Peecher is author of the book “Four Things My Wife Hates About Mornings” and is less afraid of lightning than he is of balloons in a car.