Up The Creek Without A Paddle

Gary L. Benton

© Copyright 2003 by Gary L. Benton


Drawing of the author by himself.

There aint’ much a country boy likes more than fishin’, but camping is a close second. In my youth, my camping buddy was a guy named Bill. Bill was, and still to this day remains, a close friend of mine. Problem was, when we got together he always attempted to kill me. Oh, not directly, but he would automatically assume the leadership role and some of his decisions cost us dearly. I distinctly remember two camping trips where his decisions almost cost us our lives.

It was a freezing day in January and we had about three inches of snow covering the Missouri Ozarks. Bill and I decided to go on a float trip down the nearby Little Piney River for a few miles and camp over the weekend. His mother would pick us up on Sunday afternoon. This trip, according to Bill, would challenge us and test our winter camping ability.

Our destination was only about fours miles away and if we took it slowly and cautiously it would be no problem to reach. The first day of the trip we got a late start and put into the water at about dusk. We wanted a mile or two behind us, before we would be forced to camp for the night due to darkness. That was our biggest mistake!

The current was lazy as we meandered down the snake shaped river in all directions. As soon as it got dark, we began to look for a place to spend the night. We could not find a place, because the river had eroded the banks on both sides of us to the point that ground level was now about three feet above the river. While we were looking for a place to land the boat, we had to use a flashlight. We also used the light to look for rocks, logs, and other obstacles in the river.

Suddenly, we entered a stretch of fast water! The river turned sharply to the left and picked up considerable speed. The boat, without any warning, struck the right bank, drifted sideways, and leaned over enough that we started taking on water. It was only a matter of seconds before I decided to abandon ship and leave the captain of the Titanic to his own doom.

I jumped into the cold water and made my way to the nearest bank. While swimming, I had seen most of our supplies drift pass me headed down stream. I could still see them as they floated toward the Mississippi River. As I looked around me, I noticed Bill, a stronger swimmer than I, was already on the same bank. Now, how did that happen? When I was in the boat he was still sitting there cursing.

As I stood and looked at Bill, he gave me a weak smile and said, “Look at yer shoe laces.”

I glanced down and watched ice begin to form on the laces and on the outside of the shoe. In a matter of seconds the whole shoe was encrusted with ice. We both knew we had to do something and do it very quickly. To hesitate would mean our deaths.

As I looked around in fear, I noticed lights across the river. I pointed to the lights and said, “Bill, we have to get to that farm house and quickly.”

My buddy didn’t say a word, but nodded his head in agreement. Slowly, Bill and I re-entered the water and swam to the other side. Gradually and drunkenly we made our way to the farmhouse. Strange, but I no longer felt cold. I seemed almost warm and comfortable as I fought the urge to stop and sleep. This lack of concern suddenly triggered an alarm in my pea brains that told me we were close to death. I think the both of us were ready to give up when we literally ran into a gate.

The gate latch cut Bill’s hand as he forced it up and open. As the gate swung open we could hear the aggressive barking of dogs. I was angry, all this way to have a mean dog eat me up. The cold had deadened Bill’s hand to the point that he was not aware he had been cut by the sharp corners on the latch. We would remain unaware of his injury until we thawed out later.

I remember voicing concern about the barking and growling dogs, but we soon discovered they were locked up, thus not a threat. We sluggishly made our way up to the front door of the farmhouse. We knocked and knocked, but no answer. Then we pounded the door. Still we received no response. We both knew we had to do something and fast. It was then I noticed a light in the barn.

We made our way to the barn and opened the door. We were immediately welcomed by the sour smell of animals and of fresh manure. However, in our condition we hardly noticed it. The barn was full of sheep and two old milk cows. Dangling throughout the barn was heating lamps.

With grins we both undressed and used the lamps to warm up and thaw out. The pain we experienced sent tears running down our red cheeks. How had we escaped death? We were both a frozen mess. I believe we resembled frozen T.V. dinners more than we did humans. Bill’s big toe had ice crystals under the nail. It was then that his recently cut hand started to bleed. We wrapped his injury in pieces of his tee-shirt and the bleeding soon stopped. All of my life I have always hated to be in a barn, but not that night.

After a couple of hours warming up in the barn, we decided to attempt to walk to Newburg, which was about a mile away. Our clothes were still slightly damp, but we thought they were dry enough for our purposes. We quickly dressed and made our way to the nearby county road that lead to town. The snowing had quit and full moon was to be seen. As we walked, I noticed the little white puffs of air as we both exhaled. It was still cold, very cold.

We sang, or I should say Bill sung, I have never been called a golden throated talent, all the way to town. Once in town we went to an all night restaurant and Bill called his momma to pick us up. She warned us both to get some hot food and drinks in us. Like most healthy young men, eating was never a problem at any time.

We ordered eggs, bacon, hash browns, and biscuits and gravy and ate as we waited for his mother. We consumed cup after cup of hot scalding coco. We spent the rest of the time discussing just how close we had come to dieing.

The next day broke freezing cold as we drove back to the river to retrieve what we could find of our camping gear. We found very little. We were able to salvage the boat, one tackle box, some odd bits of clothing, and one oar. From what I remember, that was about it.

Surprisingly, neither Bill nor I ever got so much as a sniffle out of our mid-winter Little Piney swim. But, never again would we venture out on the water during the winter. We had learned our winter camping lesson well, or had we?

Just a couple of weeks later Bill came by and we decided to go camping in a cave. This would be safe, right? While it was still winter, we thought there was no danger as long as we stayed off the water. Wrong again.

We trudged through the drifting snow and soon arrived at our prehistoric suite. In just a few minutes we had a fire going, the sleeping bag was laid out, and a quick dinner was cooked and eaten. You may have noticed, I used the words sleeping bag, as in singular. See, we only had one sleeping bag. Bill was rich by mountain folk standards of the day, because he had his own sleeping bag. I had an old wool blanket.

We were talking around the campfire when I got up to add some wood to the dieing flames. I felt a slight burning sensation on the bottom of my right foot and thought I had stepped on a burning coal that had popped out of the crackling fire. I danced around and fell down on my blanket. The second my body struck the wool blanket I felt two, then three hot, pinpricks of pain on my upper back. I almost went out of my mind trying to determine the cause of this pain. I knew then it wasn’t from the fire.

Bill, as usual, grinned and asked me if I had been hitting the “moonshine.” It was at that moment I saw movement on the floor of the cave. I looked closely and saw the floor was swarming with brown bees of some kind. Bill’s grin died quicker than an egg suckin’ dog on my grandfather’s farm. He quickly threw his sleepin’ bag out the front of the cave and started making chicken like movements with both of his arms and yelling something I could not understand.

Finally, in frustration, he pointed upward to the ceiling of the cave. As soon as I looked, I could see bees falling from the cracks in the ceiling. Apparently the warmth of our fire had awakened them. Now, earlier that evening the two of us had undressed to our underwear, because of the heat in the cave with the fire going. At this point, we didn’t take the time to dress, or even to shake the bees off of our clothing, we just ran out of the cave as fast as we could into a driving snow storm.

Looking around the mouth of the cave we spotted a crack in the ground that we could crawl into so we would at least be out of the wind. Quickly we both crawled into Bill’s sleeping bag and made ourselves comfortable in that broken piece of rock. Well, let me say as comfortable as two guys can get in one sleeping bag.

The next morning dawned with the sun reflecting off of the newly fallen snow. Bill jumped up, ran into the cave, and returned with our clothes. As we stood out in the open dressing we realized the bees were long dead, but we still shook every piece of clothing before we put it on. We weren’t sure if dead bees could still sting or not, so we were still discussed the possibilities in detail as we prepared to leave.

As I looked over at Bill I wondered if I would live to see the age of twenty. At the rate we were going I would be lucky to see nineteen. He quickly picked up his sleeping bag and we slowly made our way down the slippery snow covered hill. And, to think we liked to winter camp because there were no snakes or bugs and we actually thought it was safer to camp in the winter. We had a lot to learn.

Four years later, after completing three United States Air Force survival schools, I realized that Bill had only been training me for them. Those schools were a breeze when compared to camping with Bill.

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