Moonlight Mud Cruise
The plan was to make indelible memories. The unspoken expectation was the memories would be the positive kind. Expectations don’t always work out.
I would soon depart Washington, DC for a life in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. A camping trip to Assateague Island National Seashore was on my pre-move Bucket List. Early May before the tourist crowds seemed to be a propitious time. The weather forecast was clear.
On arrival, the island was sunny and warm. There was no need to track down the Chincoteague wild ponies that are the island’s main attraction. They are EVERYWHERE from the moment you enter the Park. Although these feral horses are legally wild, their behavior belies that fact. They are not averse to human contact and many of the ponies are aggressive beggars. Park brochures warn you to stay a safe distance from the beasts because they can charge, kick and bite. Apparently, no one informed the ponies to similarly keep away. They readily approach cars, picnic tables, camping tents, and anyplace they darn well please. It’s a simple life. The horses spend their days eating; begging for food; eating; causing traffic jams; eating; mating; and eating.
A full day of touring the island, photographing the horses and hiking the beach was capped off with a fortifying crab stew dinner at the Globe Theater restaurant in nearby Berlin. It was dusk when I returned to my site in the Bayside Campground. A ruddy orange, near full moon was just breaching the horizon.
My campsite backed up to the tidal marshes adjacent to Sinepuxent Bay separating the island from the mainland. The moonlight was bright enough to cast a slight shadow and illuminate the wispy clouds. I made a spontaneous decision to take a short moonlight kayak cruise through the wetlands before enjoying the campfire. It was custom made for creating a timeless recollection. What could possibly go wrong?
Pulling the kayak off the truck, I realized it was an act of faith that it was still seaworthy. It spent the winter hanging beneath the deck. The sky blue bottom was marred with ugly brown drip marks where the deck above had been re-stained last Fall. When I had lifted it from the hanging straps, a squirrel nest had dislodged from the inside and tumbled onto my head. I dropped the boat and beat my skull to ensure no vermin were relocating to my hair. My father taught me, “If you take care of your equipment, it will take care of you.”. If true, I am soooo up shit creek.
When I put it in the water, I was relieved the kayak was watertight. Buoyed by the good omen, I secured my life jacket and launched before second thoughts could arrive. The scene was idyllic. The moon was luminous and reflected off the tentacles of water meandering through the marsh. Calls and responses of the night birds drifted from the trees.
The nearby woods sheltered me from the freshening breeze. It also protected the bugs from dispersal. While my repellent kept them from biting, they swarmed annoyingly. I kept my mouth closed to avoid inadvertently ingesting a serving of bugs for dessert.
To steer clear of the choppy water of the open Bay, I wended my way among the narrow channels of the wetland. Paddling in and out of small tributaries, I worked a good distance across the bog before feeling a chill and turning for home. As I started to head South, so did the excursion. When I ran aground the second time, I realized that at low tide these wetlands turn into mud flats.
Using the paddle as a pole, I pushed off the bottom and moved with more urgency down the narrowing canals to keep pace with the rapidly retreating water. The water was winning the race. As luck would have it, the night was also turning darker. It was an inconvenient time for the moon to choose to play hide and seek. Note to self: even ‘wispy’ clouds can significantly block the moonlight. While I’d had the foresight to bring a headlamp on the camping trip, that foresight didn’t extend to bringing it in the kayak.
Stuck on another mudbar, I couldn’t discern a path forward. Well, … if not prepared, the explorer must be flexible. I decided to exit the boat and haul it overland a short distance to a wide channel with access back to the campsite. Good plan, but the topography wouldn’t cooperate. The first sign of this was when I stepped out and my foot sunk into the muck. While this wetland floor was adequate to support saltmarsh grass, my body clearly exceeded it’s carrying capacity.
The alternative of spending the night in the kayak until the tide turned was unappealing. I resigned myself to my legs receiving an unexpected mud spa treatment and trudged through the ooze. Something that should have been common sense, only now came home to me. May is still early in the warm season. There had not been time for the water to heat to it’s comfortable Summer temperature. The ocean liquid that was pleasant to paddle across was damn near frigid to wade in at night.
Mostly, the mud was shallow and topped at my ankles. But, occasionally, it reached my calf. At those times, the swamp grabbed tight and tried mightily to remove my Teva sandals. As reluctant as I already was about this unexpected ramble, the idea of a barefoot stroll through this quagmire was intolerable. I struggled to free my legs and footwear intact and tried to chart a course across firmer ground that would support my weight. I had limited success.
Dragging a kayak across land constitutes a portage. Portage is a French word and sounds exotic and adventurous. It conjures images of Lewis and Clark on the Corps of Discovery Expedition. In reality, it translates in English as ‘slog’. An equally rare term, but one with far less glamorous associations.
Scanning the dewatered swamp, I abandoned the notion of returning to camp by a wetlands water route. My new plan was to traverse the bog and use the open Bay to paddle back toward the campground. Although my legs were cold, my slow progress had me sweating. Trying to be optimistic, I told myself this effort would count toward my weekly aerobic exercise regime. Small satisfaction.
Sitting in tedious meetings at work, I would glance out the window at the Potomac River and daydream about spending the day paddling. Right now, the warmth of the boring conference room seemed an enticing alternative. It proves the grass is always greener. To divert my mind from the muck sucking endeavor, I tried to distill lessons learned from this misadventure. At work, while evaluating whether to launch a new project, I would counsel staff not to jump in without thinking it through because things are always easier to get into, than out of. This fiasco seemed an apt example for that precept. It brought another cliche to mind: that I should practice what I preach.
The uneven terrain, mud holes and slashing vegetation made the crossing seem like a marathon. Eventually, I reached a sandbar at the edge of the Bay. Pausing to catch my breath, I imagined that for any rational stranger passing by, I presented the suspicious image of an ancient smuggler: dragging a cargo across an uninviting swamp in the dark without any lights. Not to worry, there were no sensible people out and about.
With the cold returning to my body, there was no advantage in further delay. Rinsing the mud from my legs, I was thankful that I retained my two sandals. Pushing the kayak into the open water, the stiff breeze was no longer blocked by the onshore trees and began to push back. The good news was that it scattered the bugs. The bad news was that it was blowing from the direction I had to travel. Deciding a straight line was a quicker path than hugging the beach with potential snags, I aimed straight across the inlet. While better than schlepping the boat across the mud, the paddle home would be no piece of cake. Heading into the wind meant each wave I cut through sent a chill and salty spray toward my face. I must have offended Poseidon in a previous life.
To my right, there were blinking green lights on channel buoys. Farther away to the North, red lights marked the Park access bridge. Beyond that lay the dim glow of Ocean City. None of that was helpful to me as I headed in the opposite direction toward the dark Park. It was probably only fifteen minutes of paddling, but it seemed longer. I finally reached the shore near where the campground should be.
The land was an undifferentiated black smudge. The wind had brought in thicker clouds and the moon only intermittently peaked through to shed some minor light. The tops of the trees were silhouetted against the sky. That was of little assistance as I wasn’t landing in the treetops, but in the unwelcoming abyss below.
With nothing to recommend one spot over another, I picked a random patch, landed and debarked. My eyes adjusted only slightly to the gloom. It was enough to see there was no obvious path through the thicket. Rallying my tired limbs, I lifted the kayak onto my shoulders with my head inside. Using it as a battering ram to protect my face from the tangle of branches, I plunged into the undergrowth. Low bushes scraped at my legs. Where was the protective mud layer when I needed it?
Each time I stopped, the woods were silent, but for a few birds. However, once, I heard a footfall ahead. It was impossible to see in the dark, but from the sound, it was too big for a rabbit and too small for a wild pony. I heard it again. The thought bubbled up that the only animals that size are nasty or carnivorous.
I told myself I shouldn’t be concerned. After all, I did have a 12 foot kayak on my head. However, it was unclear how great a defensive weapon it would be in the underbrush where I could barely move. To bastardize Robert Frost, the woods now seemed “hungry, dark and deep”.
Of its own accord, my mind did a hypothetical analysis on whether it was better to be sprayed by a skunk or attacked by a rabid fox. Neither was attractive. Emboldened by my exhaustion, I determined to assert my rightful place on the food chain. I let out a roar to warn off any potential predators. Even to my ears, it sounded like an asthmatic clearing his throat. Despite that weak effort, I persisted with the concept that making noise should deter wild beasts.
Talking would probably be even less effective than my pitiful roar. Screaming could convey eatable weakness. Since I never learned to whistle properly, my last recourse was singing. I have a limited repertoire. It was the wrong season for Jingle Bells. I can’t do justice to the Star Spangled Banner. So I settled on Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup”. I loudly launched into the redneck anthem:
“Red Solo cup, I fill you up
Let’s have a party, let’s have a party
I love you, red Solo cup, I lift you up
Proceed to party, proceed to party.”
If the beer-soaked words didn’t intimidate any wild beasts, perhaps my off-key caterwauling would. With the lyrics reverberating inside the kayak, I continued thrashing through the woods. When I ran out of the words I remembered, I listened for my visitors. Silence. Good news.
However, in the quiet, my imagination offered up an unwanted image of a snake lurking near my open toed sandals. It was likely because I’d seen a number throughout the day. At the moment, I couldn’t remember whether these reptiles were nocturnal. Not wanting to dwell on it, I told myself, ‘don’t even think about snakes’. Inevitably, the minute you say that, all you can think about is snakes. I had to get out of the woods. After some quick charging, I burst panting into a grassy field.
Breathing heavily and with my chest heaving, I forgot about snakes. Not because they don’t slither in grass, but because a new thought erased them from my consciousness. It was replaced by the idea that if anything is more ubiquitous on the island than ponies, it is their droppings. This was triggered because my left foot stepped into a squishy pile of … something. I was momentarily hopeful it was merely a misplaced mound of mud. However, a pungent and undeniable aroma reaching my nose told me that was wishful thinking. “Shit!”, a loud and descriptive curse escaped by lips and echoed across the land.
I dropped the kayak from my head and rubbed my foot vigorously back and forth on the grass while trying to avoid any more piles. I was only partially successful in knocking the dung from between my toes.
Looking around, I realized I’d made it back to the campground. My site was a hundred yards away. Fed up with the evening, I grabbed the handle of the boat and began pulling it along the grass. At this point, my lightweight craft embodied the proverbial ton of bricks. I motivated myself with the notion of a hot shower to warm up.
As I dragged the kayak past the few occupied sites, I had that sixth sense feeling of being the object of strange looks. The other campers probably wondered whether I was stealing a boat in the dark; or, had been the source of the bizarre singing from the nearby woods; or, the rude curser. Or, all of the above. Regardless, I was in no mood to allay their misgivings with a friendly greeting.
Reaching the truck, I quickly grabbed a towel and warm clothes and headed to the shower to ward off what I imagined was incipient hypothermia. There, I received the coup de grace for the evening. No hot water. Great! Since, I was covered in salt and muck and manure, I steeled myself for the chilling soak. How bad could a cold shower be? Pretty freezing bad! I swear the water had to be pumped directly from the nearest glacier. If the military is looking for a replacement for waterboarding, I know the ideal substitute. Managing to survive, I got moderately clean. I will be making a submission to the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s shortest shower.
At least the campfire started quickly. As the flames defrosted my toes and tea warmed my entrails, I spotted ponies grazing near the water’s edge. I had a greater empathy for the chilly downside of their daily existence. Together, we enjoyed the sight of the timeless moon peeking through the clouds.
Photo by Gabriele Motter on Unsplash