A redneck finds peace just inside cell-phone range
It was a Thursday and the forecast was for clear skies and overnight lows in the mid-50’s...perfect conditions for camping. I had a new piece of gear that I wanted to field test and this weather was the perfect excuse to get away. The only thing that stood in my way was Friday...and it’s a bit of a stretch for a grown man to skip work so he can go camping and fishing for a day. Luckily I have some flexibility in my schedule...I decided that camping was the better choice and that work would be fine without me for a day.
As soon as I saw the forecast I began a checklist in my head: tent, sleeping bag, camp stove, fishing gear...I wouldn’t need much more than that and it wouldn’t take long to gather it all up either. I just about ran from the office once I decided I was going camping. I had to gather up some supplies with a quick run to Bass Pro Shops and I had to swing by a buddies place to borrow some gear but after that all I had to do was hook up the boat and go.
By the time my wife got home I was completely packed. She had recently given me a BioLite stove that burns wood and has a USB recharger for iphones and other devices and I was excited to try it out. Now you might be one of those types who decries technology on camping trips...but I derive great pleasure from snapping pics and sending them to friends who are stuck at work while I am playing hooky. I revel in the insults they hurl back at me from their cubes as they wait for quitting time to come. And if you take the anti-technology thing too far you end up looking like Ted Kazinsky (the Unabomber)...so lighten up.
After kissing the wife goodbye and giving her the grid coordinates to begin searching for my body in the event I don’t come back...I jumped in the truck and eased out of the driveway. It is 100 miles from door-to-dock and I had no deadlines to keep. I was going to be arriving at the marina after dark so speed was of no concern...launching at 9 PM was no different than 10PM as far as I was concerned. I snaked across north Mississippi with the setting sun to my back and I just enjoyed the sights of wildlife coming to the fields and small towns slipping quietly past me in the fading dusk.
Two hours later I was passing the small empty guard-house that sits at the entrance to the state park. The park appeared to be completely empty when I arrived. The only light around was from the marina and the full moon above.
I went through my pre-launch routine with the intensity of a kid unwrapping presents on Christmas morning. I simply could not wait to get the boat in the water and slip out into the dark river channel. Soon enough I had all the cargo from the truck loaded into the boat and was backing down the ramp. After tying the boat to the courtesy dock I parked the truck and returned to the helm.
Now it was real. Now it hit me. It was a weeknight. I was officially skipping work tomorrow and I was sitting at the wheel of my boat...the sonar dimly lit in front of me, the motor purring softly and patiently behind me, a full moon above, and only one decision to make...which way to turn when I leave the marina?
Before I left the dock I snapped a quick picture to send to my wife (keep quiet all you anti-tech types) snugged up my jacket, and grabbed a plug of Redman. I cast my lines from the dock and eased away from not just the marina...but from civilization itself.
Plan A was to head south for a few miles downriver and camp on a gravel bar where I caught a great smallmouth bass last summer. I know the smallmouth may not be there now but the bronze-back battle that took place there has forever cemented the place in my mind...it is hallowed ground to me. To camp at that place with a fire on one side and great memories on the other would be perfect...it would verge upon being spiritual. The wind was out of the north tonight and this spot would be sheltered by a big forested hill that rose steeply from my camping spot.
As I slipped past the big rock-wall jetty that shelters the marina I left the artificial light of street-lamps and dock-lights and transitioned into a purer form of darkness. This one lit only by the silvery-white light of a full moon. The weather was perfect which allowed me to see as far downriver as I cared to look...and from my current location I could see that Plan A was not going to work. 2.5 miles away I could see the inviting orange-yellow flicker of a large campfire on the gravel bar I had intended to use for the night. That was the only light I could see downriver...no boats, no houses, no planes...just a single campfire in the wilderness. Lucky for me I had a Plan B.
Plan B was to head a few miles upriver and camp on another gravel bar that forms the mouth of what is perhaps the most beautiful cove on the entire Tennessee River. It is a cove with high walls on three sides that forms a bowl. In the back of this bowl a waterfall crashes down from timbered heights into the placid waters below. This place shall remain nameless in the interest of keeping it all to myself (BWAAHHAHAHAHAHAAA!!!).
Giving one last wishful glance at the campfire to the south, I turned the boat north, hammered the throttle and enjoyed the rush of the boat getting up on plane. The bow rose for a moment and as I trimmed the motor out, the hull slid effortlessly out of the water and began to glide right on top of the surface. The water was uncommonly smooth which made for such an easy ride that if it weren’t for the wind rushing past your ears you might think you weren’t moving at all. Forward into the darkness I went, the wind and the water my only companions. My boat sits low in the water...low enough that I can reach out and touch the surface. From this vantage point you are almost one with the water. One of the simple joys of nighttime navigation is watching the very front of your wake splash across the glassy water next to you. On a night like this when I look to the right and I see countless moonlit droplets of water being thrown across the glassy surface it looks like diamonds being strewn across black onyx. It’s dazzling and twinkling white lights rolling across a glassy black sheet...it is a captivating sight. If I left right then it would have been worth the trip.
A few minutes later I approached my destination. There are a few coves in this area and in the dark it might take a few minutes to determine which one is mine. The moonlight is enough to degrade my night-vision so all I can see ahead is a pitch black mountain of land. I can see a rough outline of the ridge-tops a hundred feet above the water, and an occasional sliver of shoreline as small stretches of rock reflect the moonlight. I pulled back on the throttle, idled closer, and then cut the motor. Now the only sound that existed was that of the water rolling past my hull as I drifted to a halt. Peering into the darkness ahead my body language transitioned from the craned neck and furrowed brow of a man trying to hear something, to a broad and relaxed grin as I heard the dancing sound of a waterfall crashing to the surface of the lake.
I idled the boat the rest of the way in so I could enjoy every bit of my surroundings. I pushed into the cove with the gravel bar on my right. The water was low and the bar rose higher from the water-line in terraces to a height of perhaps 6 feet where it topped out in a wide triangular shape big enough for perhaps five or six tents. The gravelly point soon transitioned to dirt and then woods and then straight up to the top of the hill that formed the right side of what is basically a bowl with a waterfall at the back.
Louder came the splashing as I glided deeper into the hollow. Soon I had reached the back and I killed the motor. I sat in absolute awe, floating at the base of the falls. The water cascading down those rocks in the moonlight looked like a mountain of pearls falling down a black marble-staircase. In terms of natural beauty I don’t know that I’ve seen it’s equal. The sight, the sound, and the surroundings combined to create what might be described as heaven on earth and...unbelievably...I had it all to myself. It’s a bit surreal to think that these falls could be here every night looking this beautiful and for the most part nobody is ever here to see them. Natures beauty exists all the time whether we stop to notice or not...I guess I could think on that the rest of the night. At this point I was just glad that Plan A had gone to pieces...it also occurred to me that it is an absolute insult to refer to this beautiful place as “Plan B”. I might have to just call this “Plan A” all the time even if I don’t intend to start with it.
After a few minutes enjoying the beauty and solitude of the falls at night I decided I needed to get to work. I nosed my vessel onto the sheltered side of the gravel bar, secured my anchor and began unloading the boat.
I decided that the campfire would come first. I also realized that the wind had picked up which made fire location a bit tricky. I’m no Eagle Scout...but I do have Eagle Scout friends...so I know that there is an art to starting a fire...which is why I cheat. I had no plans of trying to start a “one match fire” tonight. I had a boat...and a boat can carry stuff...so in addition to packing in my own firewood I also brought my own kindling...and...wait for it...a small ziploc bag of match-light charcoal briquettes. Yes...yes...you can thank me for this wonderful idea. I bask in your applause and adoration as I get my fire started quickly and easily.
After getting the campfire started I made a few trips to unload the boat. As I was getting the tent set up I realized that there was already a heavy dew setting up...my shirt was damp from the last 10 minutes of being exposed. As a precaution I donned a jacket and threw the rain fly on tent.
After a few more minutes of toiling I had my camp set up...and you tech-haters better cover your ears for this next part...I realized I had enough cell coverage to get a text message out to the world from my little peninsula of paradise. This would be the start of several texts that would anger rednecks from South Carolina to Tennessee and motivate at least one to skip work with me out of solidarity. This had all the makings of a small revolution.
With my tent set up and the fire taking hold I got to really sit back and relax. As nice as the moonlight boat ride was...this was an order of magnitude better. A 50 foot waterfall and a crackling campfire provided the soundtrack to my evening. I sat on my campstool and looked across the river to the Alabama side and I could see nothing but wilderness. I’d never noticed before but you can’t see a single bit of manmade light from this spot on the river. Things just kept getting better.
Sitting in the glow of the campfire I began playing with my new toy...the BioLite stove. I packed it full of twigs and got a pot of water boiling, then plugged my phone in to slowly charge while dinner was cooking. Ahh...the joys of being a modern high-tech redneck. While the water was boiling I grabbed a fishing rod from the boat and slowly fished my way around this gravelly point. I didn’t expect to catch anything but it gave me something to do while waiting on dinner. Each time I looked back at the camp it was a reminder of how lucky I am to be here. A rolling campfire casts a glow that just screams “warmth” and “comfort”...two things that were increasing in importance as the wind picked up and the temperature dropped.
A few minutes later my water was boiling and it was time to take on the role of camp chef. This involved pouring the boiling water into a foil pouch. The directions tell me that 15 minutes later I should be dining on Pad Thai Noodles. Can you imagine? I’m sitting alone on a gravel bar on the Tennessee River, right next to a campfire and a waterfall...my camp-stove is charging my iPhone and I’m eating Thai food? Dude...what are the odds of this?
The rest of the evening is spent exchanging insults with friends who have cursed me for rubbing this spontaneous trip in their faces. The sounds of the falls and the fire are now joined by the occasional vibration of my iPhone as their digital responses arrive in my analog campsite. The first message I sent was a picture of my Woodsman's Pal machete next to the campfire. “Where ARE you?” came the initial inquiry. This from a friend who expected to see me at work the next morning. After telling him my location and advising him that he wouldn’t see me at work the next day he sent a message that’s not fit to print here...though it made me smile.
Their malevolent responses and insults came and went like the wispy clouds that crossed the sky and they brought me no shortage of entertainment as I poked at the logs in the campfire and pondered the next days fishing. As the night went on the one thing that really hit me was that I need to bring the family back here next time. As good as this place is by myself...it would be so much better with someone to share it.
Those were my thoughts as I watched the last of the logs burn up.
A hot bed of coals beckoned me to stay awake all night but the day was done. I needed to get up and fish in the morning. I finished up my campground chores by stowing my leftover food so the raccoons would’t get it, I doused the coals with lake-water, and after one more glance upward at the full moon I crawled into the tent. At this point I was very glad I had put the rainfly on because the dew was so thick it looked like rain drops on top of the tent...thankfully the interior was bone-dry and comfortable.
I laid there in solitude with the waterfall lulling me to sleep. The sound of the falls changed constantly as the water took an ever-shifting path from the precipice above to the lake below. These subtle changes caused the sounds to echo and shift back and forth as if the water were sometimes drawing nearer or moving further away. Slowly and without a care in the world...I fell asleep.
Call of the Redneck
For those unfamiliar with the sound of a Pterodactyl I urge you to Google the sound of a Heron. This is a wonderfully graceful bird whose voice couldn’t possibly be more mis-matched with it’s visage. Imagine a ballerina who sounded like Janice Joplin. Or a small child who sounds like Jabba the Hut. This is the type of mis-match I am trying to convey. The heron is a hunter...it stands tall and lean and graceful in the shallows as it stalks it’s prey. With lightning speed it’s sleek body strikes...its a wonderful bird to watch...one of the few I would take the time to watch really. But it’s voice sounds like a lifelong smoker hawking up the worst sort of lugie you could imagine. And it was this sound that awoke me from peaceful slumber at exactly 3 AM.
My first thought was “you’ve got to be kidding me.” My next thought was that I need to go out there and run that thing off. But...as they say “third time is a charm”...my third thought was that I have no neighbors...I’ll just lay here and yell at that thing to leave. Which is what I did. The call of the heron was answered that night by the call of the redneck. In that little slice of paradise I described earlier it went like this:
All silent in paradise as gentle waves lapped at the shore and the waterfall remained engaged in it’s game of perpetual motion when a great heron silently glides through the dark of night and gracefully lands on a gravel bar totally unaware of the tent 20 yards away.
The bird feels the need to express something...perhaps it feels the need to shout about the sheer awesomeness of it’s surroundings so it says at the top of it’s lungs “GRAAAUUUUUGGGGGGGHHH!”
From my spot in paradise it sounded like the Jolly Green Giant just puked on my campfire. Though I’ve heard it a million times before, I couldn’t believe the volume or the ugliness of that sound waking me up in the middle of the night.
After running through my options I called back to the bird at the top of my lungs “SHUT THE @$%# UP!!!” The bird harfed another lugie as it took flight, and then made fading puking noises as he flew off into the night to bother someone else...it was kind of a doppler effect of vomiting.
I smiled at the fact that I could yell that as loud as I liked without waking or offending anyone. That was one of the simple joys in life...and I was still laughing about it as the bird left and I fell back to sleep.
I awoke the next morning to low grey skies and powerful winds. I decided to skip breakfast and get straight to fishing before the weather got worse. I soon got a text message from a friend advising me to fish fast because nasty weather was soon to be upon me.
As I broke camp and stowed everything back on the boat I noticed something. At the edge of the gravel where the hillside starts to climb is where the first vegetation exists. Under grey overcast skies and amid the dull browns of the late fall woods something blue popped out of the ground clutter. I wandered over to it and was amazed to see a single blue flower growing here.
Even to an ordinary redneck this would be something worth looking at...but to a married redneck it’s even better. You anti-technology folks pay attention here...I took a picture of this beautiful blue flower and texted it to my wife at home. She awoke to digital flowers from her husband who was away...BOOM...instant points with the wife. Write that one down...use it...you don’t even have to give me credit...but trust me, it will help you get away on more fishing and hunting expeditions.
I wish I could regale you with stories of huge large-mouth and stout fighting smallies but the fishing portion of the trip was a complete bust. I motored over to the falls to get a quick picture and when I turned around to leave I was floored. As I looked at the mouth of the cove it appeared as though the wind was pushing the lake like traffic down a busy highway. There were 2 to 3 foot rollers and white caps rolling south (left to right) like a freight train. A quick word about my boat is in order here. You might recall that I said my boat sits really low to the water...it’s not a big craft. It’s 18.5 feet long and it doesn’t like rough water. This water was rough...almost ugly...and my small craft certainly doesn’t like “ugly” water. Luckily they were heading my way so it wouldn’t be too bad...but the trip back wasn’t going to be fast or fun.
I caught one bluegill before leaving the protection of the waterfall cove...then hopped from cove to cove as I headed south. I got a call from a buddy while in one of those coves who said that after seeing my pics from the prior night he decided to take a day off and go deer hunting. We wished each other luck and then got back to our tasks.
I left the lake with no luck on the fishing but the peace I found that night at the falls is as valuable a memory as any I’ve ever had on the water.