In April 2013, I spent a weekend with my boyfriend and his family in North Carolina. We reserved two nights at Brown Mountain Beach Resort, a quaint group of cottages near the Pisgah National Forest. (“Beach” simply refers to the sandy banks of Wilson Creek, the river on which BMBR is located.)
We -- my 26-year-old boyfriend Zach, his 23-year-old brother Tyler, their parents, and I -- spend the first evening barbecuing and bullshitting and sipping beer. The second day is to be equally as relaxing: fly fishing, followed by a late afternoon canoeing trip on Wilson Creek.
Around 5:00 p.m. on the second day, I change into my bathing suit, a pair of cotton shorts, a long sleeved top, and hiking boots. Around 5:15 p.m, a pickup truck loaded with a canoe, a kayak, and an array of paddles pulls up. Zach and Tyler and I hop in the back seat. (Zach’s parents have decided to stay behind. His mom says she’ll have a batch of warm soup ready when we get back.) There are two guys sitting in the front seat of the truck -- both named Dan, both exceptionally friendly, both in their mid-20s. The one driving might be slightly older.
The ride is short. We pull over beside a two-lane bridge, and the three of us scribble our names on waivers before helping to unload the boats.
I take a seat in the front of the canoe, and Zach settles in behind me. Tyler gets in the kayak and floats downriver almost immediately. As we slip on our life vests, Younger Dan explains to Zach and me that the trip “usually takes about two hours, but the water's moving fast today. This is the first bridge. You'll get out at the second bridge, and we'll be there to pick you up. Pretty simple." With a hearty push from both Dans, the canoe is in the water, and we're moving.
The river is breathtaking. This section is about 30 feet wide, with a smooth surface. The trees around us form a tunnel-like canopy. The bank isn't very high -- maybe three to five feet. Zach and I paddle along slowly; Tyler is far ahead of us in the distance, moving briskly. He eventually drifts out of sight.
I tell Zach how happy I am to be on the river. It's such a refreshing feeling, being out in the woods, no cell phones or cell service, no sounds except frogs and crickets.
After a couple hours we reach the second bridge. We slow down, expecting to see Tyler waiting on the bank. Nope.
I look at Zach and say something like, "Uhh?"
He responds, "Isn't this where we get out? Wait. What did Dan say? The second bridge, right? Maybe Ty thinks there's another one."
We discuss our options, ultimately deciding not to let Tyler continue alone. We finally reach him much further downriver. The three of us conclude that yes, we indeed were supposed to stop “back there,” but have traveled too far to correct our mistake. We'll just have to keep going until we see another bridge or a spot on the river that seems more inhabited.
We do not see another bridge or an inhabited area. In fact, the water just gets deeper and darker. The bank has risen from three to over ten feet in height.
I speak up. "Guys, I don’t think we’re going to see another bridge. Let's just look for a sandbar."
They agree, and we stop at the next one. We pull the boats onto it and climb the bank, which is no small feat. It’s covered with trees, bushes, and thorny vines. We eventually reach the top and look around. We're in what appears to be an old, abandoned corn field, three acres across at most, and surrounded by trees in every direction.
I ask Zach, "So what do we do?"
He replies, "We start a fire. It's going to be cold tonight."
I imagine many people would feel a tinge of panic or, at the very least, displeasure. I feel only a surprising surge of excitement. I think back to all those after-school “hiking” trips with my best friend from childhood in the woods that lined our old subdivision. I remember reading books like Hatchet and wanting desperately to get lost enough to enact a need for such nifty survival skills. (An additional and very important note is that I feel safe with Zach calling the shots. He grew up in Wyoming and has camped all over the west, from the Red Desert to the Rockies.)
“I need big rocks and lots of wood,” he says, and starts digging a fire pit. Tyler and I take off into the trees to gather firewood. Before long, there’s a pile nearly chest-high.
Suddenly, with seemingly little warning, it’s nighttime. I’m thankful for a clear sky, a large moon, and a decent-sized fire. It hadn’t taken long to start, thanks to a spare lighter in someone’s pocket. We finally sit down near the flames. We pass around a few jokes, talking and chuckling. Then, silence.
I wonder about the time. Certainly, we’d long passed the hours when Zach’s parents expected us back. I wonder about Young Dan, who was supposed to meet us at the second bridge. How long did he wait? We talk about rescue teams. Are they looking for us? I’ve never felt such a frustrating lack of control.
What a wild, unusual feeling, to know that you’re a missing person! To be alive and (for all intents and purposes) well, yet unable to communicate this fact to those worried about your well-being.
It’s getting cold. Really fucking cold. I pull my hair out of its ponytail and arrange it so that it covers my ears. We use our life jackets as cushions. Every now and then I hold one over the fire to warm it. It helps, a little.
After a few hours of darkness, we try to rest. I curl up with Zach on our makeshift bed, as close to the fire as possible. I look over at Tyler, who is alone on his cushion and shivering.
“Ty, get over here.” I say. “Come snuggle with us. Seriously.” Tyler hesitates for half a second.
The three of us sandwich together, a spoon with three layers. Suddenly, the panic hits.
“What if we see a bear?” I ask.
“You just scare it away,” Zach replies. “The Smokies have black bears, which aren’t that big. They’re not like grizzlies. Just make a lot of noise and it’ll run away. Black bears aren’t looking for fights. The only thing to worry about around here, really, is running in to a cub.”
“Can’t you scare the cubs away?”
“No! I mean, you can, but don’t. You should just get away from it -- fast. The mama is always nearby, and she IS looking for a fight, if she thinks you’re threatening her cub.”
Our resting doesn’t last long. Tyler manages to fall asleep, but Zach and I are soon sitting up again, looking at the fire. It’s getting dim. The pile of branches, which I’d figured would last far into the morning, is almost gone.
“Sweets, we need more wood,” Zach says both calmly and not calmly.
I respond that I’ll get more while he tends to the fire, and, with a remarkable amount of faked courage, I wander into the dense trees. It’s worth mentioning that I’m unbelievably scared of the dark, even when I’m at home in my pajamas and not lost in the dark forests of the Smoky Mountains. As I haul tree limbs back to the fire, something about courage crosses my mind. There is no faked courage out here -- forced, maybe, but not fake; it exists or it doesn’t.
Tyler is awake now. We figure it’s around 3:00. Suddenly we hear a sound in the distance. A voice? Zach jumps up and gives a loud shout.
After a short pause, the voice responds. I can’t make out any words, but it’s definitely moving closer, becoming more audible. Zach shouts just once more, then waits.
A noise. It’s definitely a noise, not a voice. A whimpering, like that of a baby. I know what that sound is, and it’s just yards away.
For the first time tonight, I’m genuinely, thoroughly scared. The three of us scoot closer to the fire. We stand there for over an hour, gazing intently into the opaque darkness, searching for eyes.
There was at least one bear cub out there, but we never saw it or its mother. Around what we later learned was 4:30 a.m., we hear voices -- real voices -- coming from the opposite bank, accompanied by flashlights. After putting out the fire, the three of us hurry toward the river.
The team is on ATVs, about fifteen feet above us. We paddle the boats to their side, and they drop down ropes. We shimmy up, getting caught on briars along the way. The team is made up of two guys and a girl, all younger than us and ridiculously friendly. They update us on the past few hours:
The authorities were contacted around 11:00 p.m., and search teams were dispatched immediately. Volunteers spent most of the night in airboats searching the seven miles of river between the two bridges where we were supposed to be. (We ended up three miles off course.) It was assumed that one of our boats had flipped, and that we’d subsequently taken shelter near the bank. They worried about hypothermia.
We wait while the team uses a winch to hoist the boats up from the river. A helicopter flies past, heading north. It passes again, heading south.
“That’s for you. Flew in from Spartanburg,” says the girl.
“Spartanburg, South Carolina??” I ask.
“Hell yeah, they got people all over looking for you. There’s 30 teams out there. Three counties plus the chopper.”
Within minutes, a pickup forces a path through the brush. It’s Older Dan. We open the doors and heat, glorious heat (!) billows out. We climb inside. “You were supposed to pick us up hours ago!” I exclaim. He laughs, and we apologize profusely for all the trouble -- a clear understatement. He replies good-heartedly that it’s nothing, it happens, everyone’s glad we’re okay.
The truck pulls onto a main road, where the night sky is lit up with lights from emergency vehicles. We roll down the windows and Zach’s parents run up to the truck. Zach’s dad’s eyes are red, and his mom’s are even redder. Someone offers us hot chocolate in little styrofoam cups, which we sip gratefully while signing hospital release forms.
Eventually Dan drives us back to our cottage. We arrive minutes before Zach’s parents, and are devouring bowls of warm soup when they walk in the door. Hugs. So many hugs.
After the exhausted parents go to bed, the three of us strip off our mud-caked clothes, grab beers, and jump in the cottage’s outdoor hot tub. Warm and thankful, we spend the next hour together in silence, watching the sun rise.