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  • Writer's pictureSeth King

The River Comes Alive at Night

July 4th falling on a Tuesday already made the week different. Student ministry needs were minimal. It consisted of preparing for the weeks to come. We were only working two days anyways. After spending hours reading and writing, I was itching to do something fun and energizing. I had been researching different creeks and rivers around our area and found a place I had been wanting to fish for a while. Since the days are long in the summer, I knew this day was perfect for the attempt. Besides, name another bass fisherman who doesn't love a good 80 degree evening with cloud coverage!

I ran down to Austin's office to make sure his afternoon and evening were free. (Austin works with me at the church. The dude is one of the most intentional guys I have ever met. He has been a good friend to me!) We immediately nailed down a meeting time, just enough time to hook the boat up and prepare a fly rod with streamers and poppers. At 5pm, we took off to what we thought would be a simple float with simple conversations... Little did we know what was ahead...

After dropping Austin's truck off at the take-out, we headed down county roads toward the put-in. As I pulled under the bridge, what we saw was a classic stunning scene of Alabama backwoods. The creek was beautiful. The water was crystal clear. A rock bottom full of fish were already in clear sight. I knew this was going to be special.

We locked the truck up, dropped the boat in, and began our float. After untangling my leader inside of my reel, I put together my cheap ole faithful four weight and began teaching Austin the basics of poppers, casting, and sight fishing. Although we didn't catch any fish, they sure did love attempting to take the bug, It was a bit too big for them. About every cast, bream and bass were hitting it hard. Setting the hook was difficult. The action was worth the effort...

Before we knew it, the watch showed 6:45pm. We packed the rod up and decided it would be best to float on before the sun set. As we began our journey, there were multiple shallow shoals in which we had to pick the boat up and carry it to the next section of deeper water. All was fine until we rounded a bend and were faced with what would be the first of multiple similar challenges. Before us was a tree that had fallen across the creek. Without much thought, we approached it, stood on top of it, pulled the boat over and across it, and hopped back on to began rowing downstream. The water was unusually deeper on the other side. I remember not being able to see the bottom, which at this point was very different from the rest of the creek. As I was rowing, on my left, I saw bubbles coming up from the bottom of the creek. It was almost like someone was swimming below us! As soon as Austin made what I thought was a careless guess, what surfaced was exactly what was stated- a snapping turtle, the size of your bedroom pillow, right by our boat! The only thing I knew about snapping turtles were the videos on YouTube of people sticking hotdogs in front of them to watch them strike it at the speed of light. Growing up in southwest Georgia, I had heard of these things taking toes, fingers, and even feet off of swimmers. Now whether or not that is all true, I don't know. But in that moment, it was a reality for me and I was terrified!

After whacking that thing with my paddle a couple of times, we were on our way as fast as possible! Austin still gets a laugh when talking about this moment, but truthfully, I have some things on him... so keep reading!

This was the beginning of the scariest two hours of my life. I am not flippantly stating that either. We ran into shallow water again so we decided to hop out and begin the drag. As we walked to deeper water, Austin started losing his ever loving mind. To be honest, it startled me. After multiple attempts that ended in failure, the word finally was articulated in the most fear filled tone- SNAKE. Austin jumps into the boat, pulling the weight of it completely out of my hands. Following suit, I dive in as well! As he is screaming, "Snake!" I am screaming, "Where?!" Low and behold, a little copperhead runs in front of the boat, gets about four feet from us, turns around and stares us directly in the eye! I pulled my phone out to snap a picture of it right quick. Bottom line is this- I don't play with snakes. I can witness to this as well- Austin doesn't either!

So what follows? It's summarized into this statement- the testing of our faith and the exposure of our fear. As we hop back into the boat, we cover some ground before approaching the next test. In front of us was a tree that had fallen from the left of the creek. The top of it was covering 70% of the flow, leaving us with just enough room to skirt around it. As I point the front of the boat to the left, I begin back paddling in hopes to position ourselves to easily avoid the issue by floating around it. Luckily, my piloting skills were on point. We allowed the boat to slowly swift through the run. As we entered the run, Austin spins his chair around, bringing his knees to his chest, and begins screaming at the top of his lungs! I couldn't really understand him but I saw where his eyes were directed. As I followed his eyes, I finally saw what triggered his reaction... Just to the right of the boat, about shoulder level on the dirt wall bank, a curled up water moccasin entered into a starring contest with me about five feet from my chest. Without thinking, I unhinged the paddle from its socket and pinned its head against the bank. It's 4 foot long body began to squirm, and so did I. In efforts to solve the issue, I incidentally pushed us backwards. The snake ran off and I rowed away! We circled to the tree hoping to hop over it like the last one. Before we could gather a plan, two more water moccasins were laying by the boat on the brush below the tree! I anchored down as we caught our breath, still panicking about the current situation.

Here's the deal. We are in the middle of no where. The sun is just below the tree line. We have about one hour and 20 minutes to get to our takeout spot before it becomes too dark to see. I switched packs before our trip and although I have my medical kit, I had left my headlamp. One venomous snake bite puts us in a world of danger. We both knew it.

We finally catch our breath. Before we devise a plan, we look to our right to find the two snakes... gone. Without much of a choice, we decided to hop the tree, pull the boat over, and move along. As Austin climbs up onto the tree, he immediately begins laughing. This wasn't the humorous laugh we all know too well. This was a nervous laughter that indicated we had no clue what to do next! Just on the other side of the tree, an even bigger snapping turtle sat fat and happy. We were now between two snakes and a snapping turtle. One slip or trip and we fall into the hands of one or the other! At this point, I began to see our current reality... We are navigating waters full of snakes and snapping turtles. Every step at this point matters. I hesitate to say our lives were at stake, but if you were there, you would agree with that description. Regardless, we gave ourselves a mental check, gathered our breath and strength, and proceeded to pull the boat over the tree and move on down the creek.

After leaving what I consider to be a nightmare of a situation, the sun was now gone and it was starting to get a bit dark. What followed was the siting of another snake... and then another one... We stopped documenting with the camera and put our heads down. What you see in the video above is what we encounter multiple times after that. We even had to get out of the creek onto the bank to maneuver around a tree. Austin, while swiping for snakes, hit a pretty large moccasin with the paddle which made for another moment of sheer fear. There were times where we stopped and didn't speak. As soon as I got a bar of phone service, I called my buddy Jon and sent him our location. For about 30 minutes he tracked us, following us down county roads until he found our take out spot. He kept us calm as we carried on.

I remember toward the end, we were pretty confident in how far we had come. Although it was getting pretty dark, our eyes were adjusting just well enough to press on. I pulled up our map to see how close we were. As I was reading the map, I noticed ahead that we had drifted up to a fork in the creek. Both sides were stacked high with brush and fallen trees. The map showed that we had actually gone the wrong way. We were now stuck with a decision. Do we ditch the boat and run through the woods until we hit a road? Although this seemed promising, it was hardly possible. It was so thick that there was no way of getting out. Plus, who knows what we would be stepping around in the dark. We were border line about to call search and rescue. We still had to choose the direction we were going to go. As Austin processed the situation out loud, I was panicking inside. I was tired of telling Caroline everything was ok. I wanted to be home. Seven snakes later, I had had enough. We decided to stop and pray. (I know this sounds really spiritual and petty. If you were there, you'd understand this move.) After asking for spiritual discernment and safety, Austin came to the conclusion that we needed to go right according to the map. As I looked at the tree line, I noticed a vivid difference between the two options. The right side was extremely dark on the other side of the brush. On the left, there was a shade of light that traced the bend of the tree line. This implied to me that the water was still running as opposed to the other side that was basically a dead end.

Austin trusted my judgement and God came through as He always does! After pulling the boat vertically over a tree that was 5 feet off the water, we hopped back in and paddled hard. By this time, the water was deeper, wider, and seemed to actually be headed toward our intended destination. I was so excited, I began rowing like a mad man. We were getting further away from snakes, snapping turtles, and spiders (some of which I ate) and closer to the bridge where Jon was waiting! Austin and I were celebrating like we had won the lottery. We overcame so much. We were exhausted, disgusting, and fatigued. Our bodies were scraped up. He had a gash on his legs among other things. My chest was scraped up from falling a few times. I had a hole in my hand from the rock I pulled out earlier when I was trying to get away from one of the snakes. Needless to say, we finally were done...

Or so we thought.

As the darkness was starting to settle in place, our eyes were simply making out shapes in the bare light provided by the cloud covered moon. We were joyful, knowing that we were close to our takeout point. We could hear the car horn around the bend where Jon was waiting to use his spot light to shine us in! Just as we were about to turn on the home stretch, Austin begins panicking and yelling my name, asking me to stop the boat in a tone unmatched by his previous vocalized fear. I tried to quickly assess the circumstance but I couldn't see anything because he had turned around and starting making his way toward me! As soon as I realized what was causing this, I saw it. About four and half feet above the front of the boat was a limb of a tree extending over the water. On that limb, a 5 foot water moccasin was draped across the limb with some of his body hanging off in the most relaxed manner.

Austin was not having it. He almost ditched the boat, which with how dark it was would not have been the brightest idea. I grab his shirt, threw him down and yelled "Just lean back!" My only intention in that moment was to get us to this bridge- a snake was not about to stop me at this point! As soon as Austin's butt hit the boat, I gave one last monster row. I will never forget this moment. It was slow motion. Both of us leaning back, basically flattening our bodies, we drifted right under the snake as we starred above at what could have been a bad situation... I still get chills to this very day!

As we took a deep breath, we rounded to the corner to find Jon on the bridge shining his light on the water, providing us with a clear visual on our last stretch home.

We made it.

A lesson was learned that evening. Actually, there were multiple lessons learned! A few of them pertain to trip details and planning necessities. The primary lesson didn't revolve around those things though. The primary lesson learned is as follows....

It doesn't matter what circumstance you find yourself in or the level of danger that surrounds you. What truly matters is who has your back. Who is with you, pushing you to carry on. There were many moments when I was ready to throw the towel in and call for search and rescue- Austin pushed me to keep going. At certain points, I remained steady when Austin was struggling with fear too. At the end of the day, we had each other's back. And now, we have a story to tell. A story about an adventure on a creek that went into the night. And during the night, that creek came alive.

Over the river and through the woods... as we go.

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