The two suburanites handn't had a weekend outdoors for two months, and the first few sunny, gentle days in March were too tempting.
"I dunno," Joe Sottosanti said about their plan to take two young daughters on a twoday canoe-camping trip on the Shenandoah River below Luray. "I think you're pushing it by a month or six weeks. Why don't you just camp or something?"
Sottosanti has been canoeing the Shenandoah for 20 years, in all seasons and at all stages of drought and flood. As head of Shenandoah River Outfitters he had refused to rent canoes to several applicants that weekend, and he didn't want to rent to the suburbanites. He should have been firmer.
"The river's too high and too cold and the weather's too chancy," Sottosanti said. "It's not drowing I'm worried about so much as hypothermia. Dump a canoe and get wet in a wind and your candle can go out mighty quick. And there won't be anyone else on the river to help you."
But they had assembled their gear with hypothermia in mind, and figured they had enough spares to get their party warm enough and dry enough fast enough even if both canoes should dump at the same time.
They were wrong.
They were four wet suits, three dozen candy bars and two adult portions of humility short of being adequately equipped.
One urle for preventing hypothermia is to build in a big enough margin of warmth to last twice as long as it could possibly take to get to a rarm, safe place.
Packing for that involves a measure of equipment known as a "zern," named after an outdoor writer who has become a legend in his time for being overprepared. Twice as much food and equipment as one could possibly need for a given outing under given conditions equals half a zern.
For the 25-mile overnight trip, the two had packed about a zern and a half, which would have been plenty if the weather reports had been reliable. But it rained twice as long and twice as hard as predicted, and temperatures forecast in the 40s and 50s dropped into the 20s.
A steady southerly breeze was promised, which would have provided a following wind; but the second day was a trial of galeforce gusts from the north that turned the difference between sunshine and passing clouds into the difference between warmth and hypothermia.
What an upset canoe might have menat at that stage of the trip hardly bears thinking about, because by that point there was little or no margin left.
The margin began to fade a couple of hours into the trip, when the two men violated Rule One of whitewater canoeing; they let the boats become separated.
Both of the men are birdwatchers and hunters, and they were poking along independently, working different sides of the river, investigating the various spots where wood ducks, mallards, herons, teal, black ducks, mergansers and -- perhaps -- eiders were resting or preparing for nesting. They wanted Karen, 13, and Laura, 11, one in the bow of each canoe, to get close looks at wild things in wild places.
The separation was only a matter of a few hundred yards, but the Shenandoah winds through its valley like a snake, and where the lead boat took a left channel past an island the trailing boat went right.
The lead boat stopped to wait at a point overlooking two of the channels, but the other boat took a third fork, passable only at high water. When the trailing boat did not appear after 15 minutes, the balance of an hour was spent trying to paddle upstream against the six-knot current and finally hiking along the bank. Meanwhile the other canoe was racing downriver in an attempt to "catch up."
Which was a violation of Ruld Two: everybody got overtired, and so hungry that there was no ready reserve of energy.
When they finally found each other, at the agreed-upon camping spot (known to the girls as Chipmunk Corner and to the world as Comptons Rapid), two hours of daylight remained for setting up the tents and preparing dinner. That would have been ample time except that, across the river, a young man was clinging to the rock cliff where he had washed up after his canoe overturned in the rapid.
Objectively, the young man was not in danger. He could have made his way up the cliff and across to the place where his friends were waiting. But he was dressed only in a shirt and jeans, and was so cold he was slipping into the clumsiness and mental funk that mark second-stage hypothermia. The afternoon showers had become a steady rain, and the light was beginning to fade.
The suburbanites unloaded a canee and angled acress the rapid to help the stranded man. After putting him ashore they counseled his friends to get him dry and warm as quickly as possible; the last bit of advice was that, before trying such a rapid on such a day again, they needed "a little more practice and a little more humility."
Goowing with the pompous rapture of Good Samaritans, the suburbanites then unwittingly proceeded to demonstrate the wrong way to try to cross a rapid upstream and dumped their canoe. The boiling hydraulic below Comptons Rapid tried for a while to suck the canoe and the canoeists under and downriver, as it had the young man's canoe half an hour before, but then relented and eddied the suburbanites, boat, paddles and all, to the bank. All they lost was their reserve body heat, which was of ourse a violation of Rule Three.
Meanwhile, across the river, the two girls were trying to start a fire with no dry wood to be found, and wondering what fool thing the grownups were going to do next.
What the men did was get back and get busy with the fire and the tents and some hot chocolate and dry clothing, but what with the rain, and the slowness and inefficiency of chill and fatigue, it was 10 o'clock before everyone was full of venison and mushrooms and rice and pudding and good cheer and sweet dreams.
And it was eight o'clock before ayone got stirring the next morning, which wasted two hours of warm sunshine that should have been drying out sodden clothes. Rule Four down the drain. Breakfast lasted from nine till noon, at which point a cold front moved in and the clothes that had not dried began to freeze. Still the suburbanites dawdled, a little reluctant to go back on the river and -- violating Rule Five -- even more unwilling to admit defeat and hike out.
Rule Six went by the boards when they piled into the canoes wearing nearly all their dry clothing. The few items in reserve were all pulled out and put on within the first hour of bitter wind, leaving only sleeping bags for refuge in case of a soaking in the river. But seven of the eight sleeping bags were in one canee, and if that boat had been lost... Rule Seven.
Enen on flat water a canoe is a wet boat, and the Shenandoah was far from flat in the folld and the wind. Riffles had become rapids, and each contributed a cup or a quart of water that soaked feet and legs. The snack food ran out early on, and with no candy to supply ready sugar to their metabolisms (Rule Eight), the girl went from miserable to numb. They were so heavily bundled they could not paddle to keep warm, and could not have done so for long anyway, endurance being a function of age and experience. That's what parents are supposed to be for.
The wind-chill factor was around zero; if anyone had spilled into the river it would have instantly doubled, bringing deep-body chill and coma in a matter of minutes without quick and effective action. There were locked summer eabins and a few year-round houses along some parts of the river. Perhaps help could have been had.
Finally, like a vision that follows a bad dream, there was Sherri Sottosanti driving across the river, hub-deep in the water that covered the bridge at the take-out point at Bentonville.
Over steaks we laughed about the dumb thing we had done, but all the way home my mind ran with thoughts I had suppressed each time we had approached a raped on the river that day: scenarios of swamping canoes and floundering girls and the kind of cold that requires good decisions and fast action while making both impossible.
It was hard to look at my daughter and think about such things. A man of middle age who still believes in the Weatherman probably doesn't deserve to have children.
At the very least they should take away his canoe.