Last month I found myself paddling up a swampy bayou in Arkansas with my husband, Tim. It was about 45 degrees F. out, but down in the water in a canoe it felt much cooler, even though I was dressed in layers of insulated camouflage clothing.
As we paddled through and around the massive 1,000-year-old cypress trees and slightly younger tupelos, I was amazed at the magnificence of the ancient bottomland forest that housed beaver, deer, duck, and numerous species of woodpecker. But it didn't take long for me to feel guilty. We had left the four kids, dog, pigeons, and falcons at home in Upstate New York in the care of the oldest, Railey, who was home on a college break.
"Don't worry about a thing," she had said. "Have a great time - you deserve it."
We stopped for lunch at the only bit of ground above water. As we ate crackers and cheese, I decided to call home on the cellphone, which, miraculously, had service in the swamp. My 11-year-old daughter, Clara, answered.
"What's happening at home?" I asked.
"Oh, not much," she answered. "Although we don't have any water."
"What's the temperature outside?"
I didn't panic until I started to imagine frozen, burst pipes ruining the 120-year-old Victorian house. Clara told me that Railey had gone to the store to buy jugs of water. I hung up and phoned my mother, who lived in the same village. I asked her to call the plumber, who lived one town over.
"Well, there's a blizzard you know," she said. No, I didn't know because Clara had neglected to tell me that little detail. I guess they were expecting about 15 inches of snow and a windchill of 30 degrees below zero.
I waited 20 minutes, and then called home again. I was in the bow of the canoe and told Tim I'd do my best to avoid hitting cypress knees that lurked just beneath the murky surface of the water. This time Railey answered and said that John, the plumber, was there and had discovered that the water pump in our basement was frozen solid. We don't own a hair dryer, which would have made his job easier, so John detached the exhaust hose from the vent of the next appliance over and began thawing out the pump with heat from the electric dryer.
Ingenious, I thought.
"But we have another little problem," Railey said. "The electricity went off in the office and the living room."
"Ask John if he'll replace a fuse," I said.
I was feeling pretty good by now. Railey was handling things, and I felt like I could relax and enjoy the paddling.
Brrrnnnggg. Brrrnnnggg! It was an hour later and the call was from home.
"Mom?" Railey said. "Now we don't have any heat. I keep turning up the thermostat, and the temperature in the house keeps dropping."
"What's happening outside?"
"It's 10 below, and we're in the middle of a full-blown blizzard," she said.
Tim and I tried to wedge our canoe between some trees so we could have a conversation and not get swept downstream.
"When John changed the fuse, I bet he pulled out the one controlling the thermostat and it's not shoved back in all the way," said Tim.
Railey went down to the basement, opened the fuse box, and fiddled with the fuse. It wouldn't budge.
"Try turning it as hard as you can," said Tim.
"It won't move!"
It was now 5 p.m. at home on a Saturday night in the middle of a blizzard. I could imagine the snow blowing in the glow of the streetlights along the road in front of our house.
"You've got to get John back there and see if he can fix it," I said.
I called my mother, who told me in a disapproving tone that I had better plan on trying to get back home. I knew there was no way I could get back for at least 24 hours because I was sure the East Coast airports would be closed.
Tim and I turned our canoe around and began heading back toward where we had put in early that morning. The sun was low in the sky, casting deep shadows over the bayou. I felt chilled to the bone in my camo clothes and suddenly felt silly in my floppy camo hat, a Bob Denver lookalike with swirls of green and brown. "Gilligan does the swamp," I thought. My knee-high rubber boots were not much better at insulating my feet than plastic bags would have been. My worry about things at home was coloring my view of the swamp, which had earlier seemed so beautiful and mysterious. Now it seemed dark and slightly menacing.
We paddled on in silence and tried to keep to the main channel, which was discernible only by searching the muddy brown water for a current. The entire bayou was flooded. If you lost the channel, you could wander around the cypress-tupelo forest for hours and not find solid ground. It suddenly felt frightening, and I knew we were woefully unprepared for any kind of emergency.
Brrnnnggg! Brrnnnggg! It was from home.
"Mom? John fixed it," said Railey. "It was the fuse."
"Is everything OK now?" I asked.
"Yeah, Mom," said Railey. "I feel like I can handle anything, so don't worry about us. Have fun in the swamp. I mean, what else can go wrong?"
I turned to Tim and laughed. We picked up our paddles, pointed the canoe downstream, and made our way through the brown water and dwindling light. I thought about the invisible modern umbilical cord that connected the world of ice to the world of water as I gently pushed my paddle against the submerged cypress knees.