Guest Column  
by Chief Redelk, Many Nations Tribe - Rural Louisiana - USA

Chiefs adventure, The Flood of 07

It rained hard, thunder rolling, lightening flashing, a dark stormy night. Like some Neanderthal comforted by smoldering fires while drowsing to the soft drumming of falling rain, I lay half awake imagining the rushing water filling our creek, anxiously awaiting daybreak, I longed to investigate the aftermath of this storm. Finally, light trickled into the dark bedroom as a dim glow upon our dark curtains. Redfern slept peacefully as I dressed in the semi darkness being careful not to wake her. I felt that she would prefer to sleep rather than trudging thought the mud with me. I hurried to view the extent of the storm.

Gratefully, the fleeing darkness, had taken the drenching rain with it. Stepping into the cold morning was reminiscent of a distant rain forest. Damp fog crept along the ground in a ghostly fashion lingering in low spots thinning in higher elevations. Viewed from the safety of a high hill the swampy bottoms below revealed a sight of natural beauty. The large clearing to my left had been converted from dirty brown grass to a beautiful mirror of glistening water. I wondered if our little boats were underwater, or had I dragged them far enough up the bank. No experienced boat man would dare leave a boat near water without securing it; therefore, even if the water had reached them, they were firmly tethered to a tree and could easily be found.

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Painted dark green and striped with flat black paint; I had camouflaged the boats to make it difficult for unauthorized visitors to borrow them without asking.

Scanning the shadowy woods I eventually spotted two little lonely boats. They were sitting high and dry resting on the old bed frames where they have spend many lonely nights with only themselves and owls for company. The scene reminded me of an old painting hanging in a little country store. In my mind I can still see the clerk, humble yet perky, weathered but charming. An elderly little ole lady wearing clothes from back in the 50’s, still believing she is well dressed. Those old red, white and black plastic beads hanging about her grey-blue neck, husband long deceased (don’t ask her about him unless you have a lot of time on your hands). With a twinkle in her eye, she spoke of long forgotten times as she made change from an old cash register that would be worth more in an antique shop than the day it was purchased.

When I finally reached the boats they were only a few feet from the waters edge. Painted dark green and striped with flat black paint; I had camouflaged them to make it difficult for unauthorized visitors to borrow a boat without asking. The sound of rushing water overflowing the dam created a loud swooshing that sounded like a flock of ducks landing in mass, nothing short of music for the soul. The magic of the moment transcended time and swept me back to my early childhood and the old home place. We had a small bayou right in our own back yard. I remember being just a wide eyed kid, watching flood water, speed past like stampeding horses. Every year I would see our neighbors wading in the rising waters headed for higher ground. For some reason they choose to live in the flood basin while we lived high on the hill. I never understood why they didn’t just move away. Nonetheless, they were always welcomed at our home. The sight of their pilgrimage made me happy. I knew they would be with us for several days. Then, within a day or so, the water would start to fall and in a couple more days they’d be gone and our house would fall silent. I will never forget the sight of the lady with long wet, unkempt hair, carrying sacks of personal belongings over one shoulder while holding her dress above water in the other hand. Her husband carried the smaller child. The larger kids’ waded waist deep, their arms loaded with personal belongings.

It was always a fun time for us kids. At our house company was always special, we kids slept on the floor giving our beds to the adults but we didn’t mind because for us a flood was one big party. The house would be permeated with the smell of hot coffee, pop corn and the sound of laughter. Any other time we kids would be in bed early. But during the floods we were allowed to stay up later. We could hear the women talking for hours on end long after we kids were in bed. Early mornings found the kids peering out the windows watching the swirling waters as they rush past. We were on the lookout for Gators, Snakes or other animals driven before the storm. We were deathly afraid of Gators but to see one swimming so near was very exciting. Gators were on the top of our list of things to watch out for. Snakes were scary and magical; they were also a high priority, seeing one was almost as important as seeing a gator. The sight of a large venomous snake twisting and squirming across the swirling foamy waters always made my heart flutter. Snakes got an “OH, MY GOODNESS, what a snake” response but Gators were almost worshiped in a primitive sort of way as we watched in silent, fearful awe and talked about it for weeks. Sometimes we would get a fleeting glimpse of something unrecognizable bobbing out of the water. It could easily have been debris or parts of floating logs but we all responded excitedly believing it must be a Gator. The kid who spotted it first would point and shout, “Gator”, then all of us would intently watch the muddy water fully expecting a big mean Gator to surface. Back then anything that vaguely resembled gators or snakes were exciting. A crooked stick floating may resemble a large snake as it bobbed along in the current. For that reason even a floating stick received a lot of attention. No sighting had to be proven beyond a doubt. Just let something bob up and down in the current and our imagination could do the rest. Once in a while we felt sure it was a real Gator, Snake or Turtle, excitedly we called to the adults to hurry and see, but they never seemed interested and waved us away. Maybe they had seen too many old pine cones bobbling in the current, or they just didn’t care. Getting their attention was difficult, mostly kids in those days were ignored unless we broke a rule, and then all hell broke loose.

Often, I longed for a boat of my own. Watching the water rushing past like some ghost train with it’s destination to places unknown filled me with a longing to ride the drift and explore the vast wilderness this road of running water opened. I dreamed of building a boat out of some old wooden chicken nests that looked as if they would make a nice floatable. I was of the opinion “Just nail them together and they’ll float”. Those nest boxes were built good and tight. They were very tempting, but, I knew I would be in real trouble if borrowed a few of them and got caught.

Once I had tried building a box boat with some old apple crates. I nailed four of them together but they quickly filled with water and sank beneath my weight. Thankfully the unsuccessful float test occurred in shallow water. Year after year the water returned in force but one day the government or some higher power, cut a drainage canal and finally after thousands of years the yearly overflow stopped coming to our house.

Something natural and wonderful died and it was not the poor man who was killed while working on that canal. Somehow as he oiled the crane something fell and crushed his skull. The accident occurred way back in the woods behind our house. The canal cut right through our land and later we had to build a bridge just to get to the hay pasture. I knew exactly where the digging was taking place but my mom would not allowed me to guide those who can came for the man because I was too young to see such a sight.

Seems there were two men working at the time and the other man had walked out but was in no condition to take the rescue party back. Since we lived right there we had been able to hear the engine on the crane running and knew about where the machine was sitting. Mom gave that info to the men and they left. That part of the country was sparsely inhabited back in those days. Our nearest neighbor was about a half mile away. And we considered that close. I remember hearing the old folks talking about how difficult it had been for the men to retrieve the body walking in deep mud carrying a big man over a mile. In my mind I could vision the whole thing as if I had been right there. I thought about it for a long time but I never told anyone or showed any emotions, just tried to act as if it was none of my business. That was my first experience with death and it made me sick to my stomach every time I thought about it. I would remind myself that a man is strong and emotions were weakness reserved for children and women. Strange how we deal with life, I guess maybe that is why I don’t show emotions now, when someone dies, I just become very silent.

Our neighbors finally moved away. Back in those days, in the South, boys became men very quickly. By the time I reached 17 the military was my new best friend and first thing they did was cut all my hair off. That was first time I had ever been inside of a barber shop but I was not afraid. They took me for a long road trip from the swamps of Louisiana to the blizzards of Alaska and many stops in between. I was just 17 and fresh out of the woods and off the farm when I rode that bus to Great Lakes boot camp. Everything was exciting and new to me. One of the first things I learned was how to cross a street at a red light. Up till then I just walked across a street anywhere I choose because our small town had very little traffic. Seems no one ever explained how lights worked to me, maybe, there was no need. There was much to discover but no matter what I saw or where I went boats always caught my attention. In Bermuda the small yacht tenders gave me some ideas that I stored away in my mind. Mental images of little scows stuck with me all those years. You may say I have been making boats mentally most of my life.

Then one morning in the early 80’s my little girl and I visited the local library with intent. We were in search of a book about boat building. Having driven over bridge after bridge always looking for Gators and snakes in the waters below, we decided that boat building day was near at hand. I talked to Nicholle about the idea several days before and she was all for it, therefore we set out to find plans and build our first real boat. It would be built as a team. We accomplished our goal and built a nice little boat. I remember her hanging completely off the ground, with both little hands holding onto a chine while trying to help daddy make that bend.

With that boat we camped out and fished a lot but never rode any swollen rivers. Not something you do with a little smiley girl. For years the idea lay dormant and finally became encrusted with maturity and acceptance of adult responsibility. As a father I could not afford to take chances, I had children to raise. For daddies, dangerous adventures must be viewed as foolishness and strictly avoided. Carefully, I choose calm waters for the kids and me. I had a lot of respect for what the old folks had told me. Often they had warned us that those flood waters could kill. Many times we were warned not to stand close to the creek because the banks could give way. I had seen what happens when a large chunk of earth suddenly crumbles and in a swirl of rolling muddy water, disappears.

As I looked at that flowing, flooded bayou I felt that long lost urge to just jump in and move with the flow. I had been told I should never attempt to float a swollen stream in any boat, but, that was long ago, back when I was a kid. However, now I am an adult. That was then, this is NOW and I am about to become an old man who has neglected to fulfill an adventure for way too long. Life is slipping away with each passing year so the time for my adventure is now. I reasoned that my kids are all grown and they can make it fine even if something does happen to me. I realize at my age, there just isn’t anything I’m doing, that, someone else can’t do just as well or maybe better. Therefore I am disposable; for the first time in my life.

Realizing that, somehow made me feel brave. Suddenly the crust of responsible thinking was shattered with the foolishness of youthful reasoning and the long lost dream emerged like a newly hatched chick ready to explore a new world. So on this fine grey misty morning the rumbling waters called, and there were no adults to tell me NO! It’s to dangerous, don’t try it! Realizing the water would begin to recede soon and the chance for this adventure would be past, I hurried home for life jackets, trolling motor, and paddles.

I was greeted by Redfern who was by now fully awake. My 9 almost 10 year old grandson, Brown Elk was waiting for me there with her. There is nothing like a kid to add excitement to an adventure so I gladly allowed him to join the fun. Having gotten our supplies, Redfern and I returned to the water along with Brown Elk the 9 year old. By now, his two little brothers one 4 and one 7 who always follow Brown Elk like a couple of noisy unkempt shadows, were a few steps behind. Reminiscent of the ladies from my childhood, Redfern, like a mother hen chasing after her chicks, repeatedly warned the younger kids to stay far back from the waters edge. I launched my 8 footer and attached the 30 pound thrust engine supported by a fully charged12 volt battery. The 9 year old wanted to go along in the 7 footer. But, because the danger of going over the water falls is very real at flood stage, I was a bit cautious and concerned. Here in the beaver pond he could handle his boat using only a paddle but in the main channel a paddle would be almost useless. I decided Brown Elk could go but he would be in tow. Both of us wore Personal Floatation Devices and the ever watchful Redfern held her cell phone ready for emergencies. Our plan was to let the little motor take us up stream as far as we could go, then we would drift back home.

We hoped that we could make it as far as a highway bridge. Reaching the bridge has been our goal ever since we built these boats but it has never been accomplished because a big tree fell across the creek and is blocking our path. Portaging is out of the question because the land on both banks is posted. The tree hasn’t rotted and fell deep enough for us to float over it yet and this could take years. But today with all of this water we hoped to beat the odds and float right on over the top of that tree. If we could make the elusive bridge, we would phone Little Bear back in Texas and brag to her. She would be excited too. We were already thinking of making that call and just couldn’t wait to pull this off. It was difficult work but by constant supervision Redfern kept the smaller kids safely from the waters edge while Brown Elk and I launched both boats.

Brown Elk was instructed to hold a tow line and if or when I commanded he was to release the line then use his paddle to return to the landing. There were two currents we would be dealing with, one coming into the beaver pond (not real strong) and rushing over a long shallow dam and the main current (very strong) in the main channel rushing over the main dam and creating dangerous water falls.

Soon we were off and floating along. Long before we reached the main current we hit the weaker current head on and both boats shuddered and slowed to a crawl as the little trolling motor strained. It was clear that both boats could never be pulled by the little trolling motor against the main current. Not wishing to take a chance on disaster I terminated Brown Elk early, commanding him to let go of the tow line and paddle back to the safety of the landing.

In a moment my boat was hit head on with even stronger currents. In my mind that was a friendly current since it could not drive my boat over the water falls. It was actually pushing me into the safety of the shallow beaver pond. This friendly current was brutal but the worst was yet to come and in less than one minute I would feel its forces. Without hesitating the little boat walked past the friendly current and rounded the bend into the main channel to meet hell head on. I was surprised at the power that hit my little boat. The water pressure was tremendous; even in the boat I could feel it’s brutal force. One wrong move and I would be swept over the high falls instantly. The motor running at full speed made little headway. Water swirled like tornados all around me. We refer to them as suck holes down here because they can draw a swimmer right down and hold him under.

An ever changing pressure just beneath the boat was rocking it from side to side. White foam churned and floated past as if someone farther up stream were washing clothes with too much soap. The boat moved very slowly against that wall of water. I reached out with a paddle to help but instead of moving forward the boat spun to the right at a dangerous angle. I worked the engine to get the boat straight again but by then it had stopped making any headway and was totally stalled. Just as quickly as it had stalled the boat began to move sideways, back and forth in a wiggly fashion as if it were trying to imitate the tail of a swimming alligator. I knew that enough brush lay beneath me to keep a man under and hold him there until the water receded. It was all that brush and debris that created these suck holes. The channel had narrowed at this point, the deepest part of the creek. Nature had created a natural jetty and my boat simply could not compete. I had thought, once past this point the trip to the bridge could be accomplished.

Now, realizing defeat, I searched for a way to make a controlled turn and head back for the safety of the beaver pond. When, I finally made that turn the water pressure shot the boat toward the water falls at a tremendous speed. The little motor fought to hold the boat against that snarling current and after a few harrowing seconds we entered our friendly current helping us into the safe haven of the shallow beaver pond. Strangely there are two currents near the water falls, one leading into the pond and the other rushing over the falls. Assisted by the inward flowing current, Brown Elk, by now, had safely beached his 7 footer.

Thinking the much narrower boat would make a big difference against such a current, I decided to try the little 7 footer and make another attempt. This too almost ended in disaster. For years I have seen dogs going on for hours, jumping back from striking snakes and continually barking. I always wondered why they were so foolish as to play with snakes. Now, it seemed that I too had found my snake and was having fun staying just out of reach of death. After the trolling motor was changed from my 8 footer to the 7 footer, once again I too was tempting the snake.

The little7 foot boat moved along at a nice clip in the calmer waters of the beaver pond giving me false confidence. When the boat hit the friendly current pushing me back into the pond it was only slightly affected. The little boat seemed to enjoy the challenge, slowing, but bravely moving ahead. I now had an air of deliberate confidence about me. Today would definitely be the day we finally reach that elusive bridge.

As we glided forward, the direction of the friendly current abruptly changed and the boat was now immediately caught in the dangerous current. In the main channel, the little boat struggled, making very slow headway. The trolling motor worked hard for every inch of progress. Then slowly we worked our way into the treacherous jetty where the 8 foot boat had stalled only moments before. I was pleased as the little boat slowly struggled ahead believing that finally, we would make our goal. Now, we stood a good chance of making it to that distant bridge.

Then to my surprise, the smaller boat stopped. Stalled just as its bigger brother had done, it shuddered and began to rock from side to side. There was no doubt of the great danger I now was in. As the boat rocked back and forth squirming, dancing dangerously in the wild current, I could feel mighty hands moving beneath the boat, the hands of a mindless giant holding the boat, rocking me like some careless criminal rocking an infant, mindless of its safety. Any moment this faceless Giant could toss me out of the safety of my cradle of life. This boat being narrow, smaller, and less stable had actually taken me deeper into the swift jetty where turning back was no longer an option, and going forward was now impossible. I was in deep trouble having gone just far enough to become trapped in this dangerously deep swirling un-yielding current.

To attempt a turn now against that great water pressure would surely flip the boat in a heart beat. I was wearing a PDF but what if it caught beneath the water on debris? Could I shed the very thing that was intended to save my life and still make it to safety before being swept over the falls and possibly drowned? I had to think of something fast. The best way out seemed to be exactly as I had come in. To do that, I would have to back this boat up while keeping the bow facing the current.

Using the power of the motor to slow my decent, would hopefully allow the current to move me slowly backwards to a safer place before making my turn. Thankfully both ends of this boat were steeply rocked and backing up was logically possible. I knew, I had only one chance to do this right. My big adventure could become a really big disaster. The motor could not hold the boat for much longer under this stress; the battery had to be growing weaker. There was no time to dally, I had to act immediately. So I cut the power and the boat began to drift backwards just as I had planned. I smiled with relief and took a deep breath thinking this is going to be easier than I thought then suddenly the boat made a quick unpredictable turn dangerously to one side. The current felt as if the boat had been kicked by a mule. Like a quick draw cowboy, in a life or death gun fight, I shifted the power fully on, swiftly corrected, and watched as the boat struggled but slowly straightened once again to face the foamy waters. Working the motor from low power to high power and making fast corrections second by second, the boat finally arrived into a part of the creek where I felt a safe turn could be executed.

Making the turn was neither cheap nor free. Just as the boat rounded in the turn, the current suddenly shot it further down stream toward that dangerous water fall and for a moment it seemed ole Satan had finally come to collect his paycheck. In a desperate move I quickly applied full power straightened the boat and worked it into the friendly current now pushing me to the safety of the beaver pond. Back at the landing my family helped beach the boat. From where they had been standing, I had been out of their sight hidden by woods. In retrospect Redfern had not been aware of the dangerous events and would not have known to call 911 unless she could have heard my shouts for help over the flow of water. Gratefully, I had made it safely home.

Sitting down to gather my nerves I thought about what had happened, and what could have happened. I thought about how lucky I had been and how lucky I have been all my life. Yet, I still had not made it to that elusive bridge. I had to ask myself, had I been defeated? But, then I ask myself: has this experience made me wiser? Frankly I believe that I could have made that bridge in my Almost John Boat. Running the 6 horse gas engine would have made it a cake walk. But my adventure had to be done in my small boat with only an electric engine because long ago I had determined that.

So will I try something like this again? Maybe! Maybe not! But, one thing I learned is why those old folks always said, don’t get near a bayou when it’s kicking, swirling, and running like a herd of wild horses. That power can’t be explained, only experienced. Regardless of not making it to that bridge, I had an adventure for sure; an adventure which will last a life time. One that closes the hoop of childhood dreams with the reality of adult experience.