3:19 PM — Finally put in at Cedar Ford on Maramec River. Spent past three hours preparing: one canoe, three inner tubes, three paddles, one small cooler shaped like fishing bobber containing three Gatorades, three bottles of water, and four beers. Crew: one teenage son, one nine-year-old son with turtle he just caught, one five-year-old daughter, one wife seeking rest and relaxation, and one man trying to get all things organized in timely manner and get on water by reasonable hour. Three-nineteen not reasonable hour; 3:19 late hour. Trying to slow down, though. Trying not to rush everyone. Trying to lean into rest, relaxation, groovy mindset. Take deep breath. We put in. Praise Lord, we now float downriver together.
3:26 — Son releases turtle back into wild. Too hard to hold while on inner tube.
3:45 — Wife and I crack open beers. No food required because I demanded everyone eat big lunch before launch. Didn’t want extra weight in canoe. Before leaving, quickly glanced at map. Have floated many rivers in Missouri before. Not first rodeo. Know how to do this by now. Guesstimate we will float three or four miles to destination at Maramec Spring Park, where I left truck. Should take three hours. Already looking forward to nice post-float dinner, campfire, s’mores. But that’s getting ahead. Be present. Here. Now. Groovy.
4:07 — Second-guessing decision to bring only one canoe. Tough call — six of one, half dozen of other. Wife and teen are able to paddle canoe, but other two kids? Middle son, bless him, moves body like one of those fan-blown balloon stick men flailing outside discount-furniture store. Should not be handed paddle. Five-year-old daughter? Happy to float along and keep eyes on shoreline for unicorn sighting but can’t paddle yet. And so: one canoe, of which I shall be full-time captain. I planned float; now shall execute float from stern with bobber cooler pulled on rope behind canoe.
4:10 — Quickly realize bright-yellow Walmart inner tubes cannot keep up with canoe. End up tying tubes with bobber cooler behind stern of canoe in order to make progress downriver. Not efficient progress, at times not even detectable progress, but today we take it slow. Have no problem with that.
4:37 — Pause on sandbar. Re-hitch tubes to canoe. Middle son wanders out into water, waves arms in air. Dad, watch my trust fall! Falls backward, splashes down.
4:43 — Horsefly has been following us for thirty minutes. Keeps landing on my neck. Swat it. Think it’s gone. Moment later, wife swats own neck. Horsefly plays human-neck ping-pong with self; must think it’s funny.
4:48 — Still no unicorn sighting.
4:52 — Pull onto sandbar to rest. Realize I am doing a lot of paddling. Do not possess what you might call detectable upper-body strength. Yet in moment I find I am able to focus, channel adrenaline, make body do things. Damn horsefly returns. Standing on sandbar, wife notices horsefly sitting on inner tube. Wife takes off shoe, raises it in air, brings arm down swiftly. Shoe bounces off inner tube, launches twelve feet into air, lands in river. Horsefly buzzes overhead: Zzzz hehehe. We float on.
5:27 — Wife at bow of canoe, I at stern, unicorn-seeking daughter in middle, both boys floating twenty feet behind us. Snake in water fifteen feet ahead. Boys, I say, boys, make for the sandbar. Wife says, Snake! Get to the sandbar now. We steer canoe to right of snake, toward sandbar. Snake now moving toward bluff on left, away from sandbar, head a couple of inches out of water. As we approach, snake moves more quickly toward bluff. Plan working. Boys safe on shore. Danger nearly past now. Oh. Leaf. Not snake after all. Just floating leaf that looks like snake head in same mysterious way that snake sometimes looks like leaf. Anyone could mistake for — OK, that’s over now.
5:32 — Horsefly gone at last. Leaf snake behind us. Stretch of low water ahead. Impossible to float over, so we stand, walk downstream pulling canoe containing daughter. Boys carry tubes. Then long stretch of deep water. Rearrange seating once again. Teen boy now in canoe. Wife, middle son, and daughter all on tubes. Someone gave middle son spare paddle, which he does not need. Uses it to splash me. Adorable, I tell myself. Float on.
5:45 — Another sandbar. Another break. Pull cellphone from plastic bag, gather family close for selfie. Snap photo. Look at photo. Everyone smiling. Everyone happy. This rare photo I shall treasure. What if this is last moment we’re all happy together? Possible. Likely. No, no. Don’t leave present moment to get nostalgic for moment not even past. Be here. Now. Everyone smiling.
5:52 — Wife’s tube pops hole. Water seemed swift enough to move tubes downstream, but nope. Snagged on rock. Tube quickly deflates. Shrunken tube now in middle of canoe, daughter perched on top. Not making much progress. Sunset in two hours.
6:25 — Paddling hard. Strong biceps, determined mind. Pause at sandbar. Most Missouri river sandbars actually rock or pebbles. This sandbar literally sand. Seems like beach to children. Teen and daughter plop down, build sandcastles. Middle son catches lizard, places on shoulder, declares it new pet. Wife and I smiling, happy to see this: teen boy plays like child, middle son loves all living things, daughter finds feather to plant as flag atop sandcastle.
6:40 — Time to go. Must keep moving. Check phone for update on progress. No service. Can’t be that much longer, maybe just around bend before we see bridge.
6:42 — Sky beautiful: deep blue pocked by billowy white. Sun’s rays catching branches of trees along bank. Bird in branch of dead sycamore. Notice white head. Bald eagle! someone exclaims. Not just one, two. No, three. Three bald eagles! Eagles take off, fly above us for few minutes, then land in tree downstream. And then — then — two golden eagles join them. For a moment all five eagles dance over us. Tell children how lucky they are to live in generation with bald eagles in wild, not just on posters of endangered species. It hasn’t always been this way, I say. Think about damage to Earth, creatures lost, yet this small flicker of hope floating above. Tell children anything is possible. Try to mean it. Always this battle against cynicism: mine, theirs. Always this search for signs that all might turn out well in end.
7:00 — Still no unicorns. Sun sinking behind trees. Growing concerned about distance. See young family on sandbar eating picnic. Wave, say hello, ask, Any idea how far to the take-out at Maramec Spring? Man thinks for moment, says, I’d say forty-five minutes, another mile, maybe two. Thank him. One mile manageable; two miles troublesome. Hitch my mind to location somewhere between manageable and troublesome. Say to family, All right, we can do this. Let’s paddle.
7:15 — Everyone in canoe now. Too much drag to pull some on tubes. Even bobber cooler slowed boat. So now: wife paddling from bow of canoe, then daughter cross-legged on deflated tube, then teen in middle seat helping paddle, then middle son, then bobber cooler, then me at stern, pretending to hear drumbeats and loud voice yelling, Stroke! Stroke!
7:17 — Wife yells, Oh, God, look! Dusk now, harder to see. What? I say. Bear! she says. To right, where riverbank gives way to pasture, large beast lurks in shadow of tree. Dark, terrible beast, now moving slightly toward us. Large, dark beast says, Moooo.
7:25 — Daughter mostly gone quiet, perhaps grieving lack of unicorns. Teen being useful, albeit grunting occasionally. Middle son keeping relatively still. Official sunset not for another forty-five minutes, but down here in river valley surrounded by Ozark hills, sunset now complete.
7:42 — Every bend in river brings new hope. Each time we clear bend and see more river ahead, tiny death in my heart. Paddle hard when river gets deep, thinking one final stretch will deliver us. Then hit shallow and must walk. Imagine us sleeping along riverbank, huddled in pile to stay warm, fearful of snakes that are leaves, bears that are cows.
7:46 — Quick assessment: Still have drinking water. No food. One soaked towel. Five life jackets. Wife in bikini. Children in swimsuits. Me in hot-pink shorts with little hammerhead sharks all over them, no shirt. Sharks have word balloons saying, Let’s get hammered! Shorts are size XL, whereas my waist is size S. Family refers to these as my party pants. Wear them on vacation and other times when trying to be fun dad. Not fun dad right now. Worried dad. Tired dad. Determined-not-to-die-alongside-family-in-Ozarks dad. Feeling-stupid-for-subjecting-family-to-consequences-of-own-poor-planning dad. Still-confident-we-can-do-this dad. Need-to-take-responsibility dad. Say, Sorry we got into this mess, but we need to stick together, OK? All say OK and mean it. All tired, all frustrated, all possibly worried about darkness, unknown distance to destination. No longer smiling. No longer happy. But still in same boat. Still floating down river together.
8:02 — Approaching bend in river. Large trunk of fallen tree in water. Strain to see possible path around. So dark. Wife says, I can’t see what’s ahead of me. Can’t see at all. Swerve to one side. Spin in circle. At last moment, see slim route past tree. Bark commands from stern. We barely get through. Wife and I bicker. My commands not clear, but also wife trying to steer from front, which doesn’t work. It’s hard to feel like I’m not in control, she says. I know, I say.
8:07 — Sky dark. Deep water now. Paddle hard. Wife begins to sing. Kids and I join in: “Big Rock Candy Mountains” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and “Just around the Riverbend.” Strain to paddle through choruses, grit teeth while finding harmonies. Ready for this all to be over. Ready to say, The End. Nothing ahead but dark river.
8:14 — Light ahead. Not our take-out, not destination. Just a house on a hill. Long staircase from house down to dock at river’s edge. We stop paddling. Can’t be much farther now. Head says we can make it, but gut says, Get help, you need help, ask for it. Wife says, Do we keep going? Boys say, We’ve made it this far. Now we see houses, must be close! Wife and I look at each other. Both nod. Both smile. I silence fear, puff chest, say, Let’s do this. Let’s get to the end! Ready? Everybody nods, including daughter, who might be dozing off. We paddle hard. Paddle swiftly. Paddle together and with more purpose than ever before.
8:15 — Canoe strikes shallow. We stand to get out and wife trips over edge, falls into water, whacks daughter’s head with paddle on way down. Ask if they’re OK. Wife sits in river for moment. Stands. We look at each other. Both not smiling. Must go back. Turn canoe around. Paddle to house. Tie canoe to dock.
8:16 — Make quick plan: we’ll all go together to knock on door. Bad idea for wet, scrawny man wearing nothing but hot-pink oversize party pants to knock on stranger’s door after dark. If I must look pathetic, best to look pathetic with cute kids.
8:17 — Daughter trips on stairs. Scrapes leg. Pick her up, carry her up staircase, walk around side of house. Through window: older couple playing card game at table with another couple who look our age. Two kids also inside. Content, enjoying evening together. Older man glances up from cards, sees us through window, raises eyebrows, walks quickly to door as I knock. Older man opens door, steps outside, asks, What’s going on? Wears T-shirt from ammo shop, which makes me think there must likely be a gun nearby for occasions such as this. Would prefer not to see gun right now. Tell him we’re trying to get to Maramec Spring, got late start, moved too slow, children getting cold, sky too dark. He says, Gonna take you another forty-five minutes to reach the spring.
8:20 — Notice man my age is standing in doorway with one of his kids. Y’all all right? Just need a ride up the road? I tell him we hate to impose but would really appreciate it. Not sure what else to do. Older woman appears in doorway, sees daughter, says, Y’all need towels, too? Yes, look at her. Y’all need towels. She disappears back inside, returns with towels. We take them, say thanks. She says, No worries, we’ve all been there before.
8:21 — Embarrassment not something I feel often these days. Care little about looking foolish for most part. But right now — grown man in soaked party pants, putting family in danger on river, knocking on stranger’s door after dark to ask for help — I’m feeling embarrassed. This is not how day was supposed to end. Was supposed to end in accomplishment. Was supposed to end in victory for family. Was supposed to end with campfire, s’mores. But also: I want kids to learn to ask for help. Want them to know it’s OK to admit mistakes. OK to look like wet, naked fool when accurate. OK to accept towel and a ride down road. OK to trust people, even strangers, in certain circumstances.
8:27 — Man asks, Y’all OK riding in the back of the truck? But older woman insists that daughter and wife ride in cab. Shivering middle son climbs in with them. Teen and I hop in bed of truck, sit down. Man starts driving up road.
Teen says, You always hear about this kind of thing happening, and now I’ve seen it, I guess.
What, I say, knocking on a stranger’s door for help?
No, he says, like, to be the one home, and have strangers knock and ask for help, and to give it.
I really thought we could make it. Glad they were home.
8:29 — Road curves around hills. Above our heads, where trees divide over road, a half-moon casts soft light over hills and valley. Looks as if the moon keeps moving along the road with us. Older couple said we could come back in morning for canoe, when it’s light. Teen and I spend drive gazing at moon, road like river we still float along, still in same boat, now carried by kindness of strangers. Who knows what’s ahead. We float on together.