We knew better. When you go on a canoe-camping trip on moving water, you're supposed to tightly secure all your storage bags and bins in your boat. That way, if you flip, your sleeping bags don't get wet. And you don't lose your food.
When Ed and I had led a group of middle-schoolers on a weeklong trip years ago on the Manistee River in northern Michigan, we'd given the campers black garbage bags to place inside a heavy vinyl sack. We told them repeatedly: "Double-wrap your sleeping bags and clothes. Tie the bags shut." So, I had no sympathy for the girl who threw her gear loosely into her canoe, flipped while horsing around, and had to end the day wringing out her sleeping bag and hanging it over a limb to dry.
But here we were, Ed and I and our two daughters, knee deep in the Buffalo River in Arkansas, picking pots and pans out of the water.
It happened so fast. Paddling with thirteen-year-old Barbara in the bow, and our dog, Rascal, in the middle, trying not to scratch the gel coat of our brand new Kevlar canoe on a gravel bar, Ed had swung his canoe wide into the deeper water by the bank and hit a submerged log just as Rascal lunged toward the tipping gunwale.
Over they went.
We'd been in a hurry to break camp that morning and had not laced the big white plastic food box shut. Nor had we lashed it to the center thwart. When the canoe capsized, the box fell out, the top flaps opened, and canned food and utensils careened downstream.
Barbara grabbed the paddles and Ed captured the splashing dog. Laura and I tied our canoe to a tree, and we all began combing the water for our stuff.
At that moment, the beauty of the clear turquoise water flowing fast over fine gravel was lost on us. Nor did we notice the striated splendor of the high cliffs above us.
Ah, here's our big kettle. But where's the lid?
I heard a shout and looked up. Downstream of us about two hundred feet, a man in a muscle shirt and cut-off jeans was standing in the middle of the river, calmly plucking items out of the water: a pot grabber, a measuring cup, a serving spoon, a can of tuna, plastic jars of mayonnaise, peanut butter, and jam.
"Are these things yours?" he asked with a broad smile.
We all make mistakes.
And sometimes the current is stronger than we thought.
May you have someone downstream when that happens. May a gruff and grinning someone help you gather your belongings and restore what you have lost. May you once again see the beauty above you and at your feet.
"I will restore to you the years which the swarming locusts have eaten." – Joel 2:25 (RSV)
Playlist: "Amazing Grace," Judy Collins, Whales and Nightingales, 1970.