"Send for helicopters, then, I don't care, just get me out of here now!"
It was more a cry than a command; and considering its source, it was also a bit of a shock.
He'd hiked the High Sierras and wandered the Gobi Desert, used up golf carts like teabags for games of suicide polo, and been nibbled by a tiger shark.
Now he was shrieking, "Do you enjoy my misery?"
The occasion was a canoe trip on the upper Potomac, a voyage designed for people with but passing knowledge of paddling. Naturalist Mike Gregory of the Maryland Forest and Park Service, who's been leading such jaunts for years, had planned to the last detail, even whipping up big bags of trail mix for half a dozen canoes.
He could not have planned for hysteria.
"I don't know," Gregory mused later. "In all the trips I've done, I've never had things get out of hand quite like they did this time."
Besides my adventurous but hysterical friend, our group included Max Holland and Sally Cammack, a couple of novice canoers from Washington; and me, who had last put paddle to water at a Boy Scout camp off the California coast.
For the two-day trip, Mike Gregory had advised what seemed two weeks' worth of provisions: tent, duffle bag, sleeping bag, 50 feet of nylon cord, flashlight, towel, soap, hat, four pairs of socks, two pairs of trousers, T-shirt, heavy wool shirt, tennis shoes, handkerchief, roll of toilet tissue, insect repellent, hard candy, toothpaste, toothbrush, comb, large sponge, foam rubber seat cushion, plastic milk container, sunglasses, suntan lotion, rain slicker and mess kit. "Mess kit?" Max Holland said during the drive up to Green Ridge State Forest in Allegany County, Maryland. "You never told us about a mess kit."
"I'm sure I did," I corrected.
"No, you didn't," Sally Cammack complained.
The adventurous friend grinned.
The weather, predicted to be sunny, did not look promising. As we barreled up I-70, leaving the highway only for a few wrong turns, a pea soup of fog and drizzle enveloped our car. "Don't worry, it'll burn off," I said. A few minutes later, hard rain beat against the windshield. "Yes," my friend said. "It'll burn off."
We arrived, half an hour late, to find our paddling companions -- a father-son team from Baltimore, a young couple from the suburbs, an older man from Catonsville, and three guides -- climbing into an idling van, the canoe rack trailing behind. A minute before, Gregory had given up on us.
"Hi, there," he said, extending his hand. He smiled broadly, or maybe it was a smirk. Everyone else looked uncomfortably close to sullen. "We might as well get started, then."
Under a heavy sky, but no rain, provisions lashed inside our canoes, we put in at Old Town, just west of the point at which the North Branch of the Potomac meets the South Branch -- the river dividing Maryland and West Virginia. Owing to a week of constant rain, the Potomac was running six feet higher than normal, and rushing along at perhaps four knots. It was muddy, too, and smelled of rot.
The adventurer, who had once run the rapids of Connecticut's Housatonic, took the stern, I the bow, as we fell into line near the back of the group. He steered through a narrow channel into overhanging branches -- purposely, I suspected -- and took up a suitably nautical chant: "Pull me hearties! Pull for all you're worth! Pull for every breath in your worthless life! Pull for every fiber in your worthless body! Pull for the love of God!" Getting the feel of my paddle, I stroked in time.
Pete and Erich Schlitzkus, the father and son from Baltimore, handled their craft like experts; so did Joe Luecking, the fellow from Catonsville, and his stern man, Ernie Metz, a forestry specialist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. So, of course, did Mike Gregory and his wife Sandy. We were a bit more tentative, as were Ruth Curtis and her friend Steve Smith. But the team of Holland and Cammack grabbed everyone's attention.
"Max, what are you doing?" called Sally Cammack from the bow. "Max? Max!"
Their canoe, broadside to the current, was beginning its third rotation. "Backpaddle, man! Backpaddle!" my friend shouted. Holland grinned a Cheshire grin, his eyes starting to glaze. From the lead position, Mike Gregory craned his neck, his face a mask of alarm.
When the group drifted into the main stream, where the Potomac widened to a couple hundred feet, he promptly ordered the canoes into side-by-side formation. Then he stood up in the stern to deliver some emergency instruction. Things went more smoothly after that.
The river stretched before us in a squiggle of horseshoes, winding through damp, musty country. Our goal was Bond's Landing, some 17 miles away. In the dreamy gray light of morning, there was a hint of jungle, though the spell shattered whenever we passed under railroad bridges, the Chessie trains rumbling by, or spotted people walking dogs along the riverbank.
Making time, our canoe caught up to the Schlitzkus team, who -- we were surprised to see -- had pointed themselves the wrong way near the Maryland side. "Backturn," Pete Schlitzkus said. "Careful, the current's running upstream here." My partner, my efforts to the contrary notwithstanding, steered into the eddy, and we whirled around.
Gregory pointed out a pair of kingfishers. Over the West Virginia shore, my friend spotted a turkey vulture, which he insisted was a sparrow hawk ("I can tell by the way it flies").
Meanwhile, he and I vied for the bag of trail mix -- a concoction of peanuts, cashews, raisins and M&Ms -- and made moves every so often to ram the Holland/Cammack canoe. Only mildly amused, they fended us off with their paddles. In the end, we fell far behind the pack, and pulled in late for lunch at a spot called Town Creek, about five miles downstream.
Gregory was dispensing ham-and-cheese sandwiches from a beer cooler. We wolfed them down -- three to a person -- and guzzled apple cider. Ernie Metz fished. We and some others fanned out along the C&0 Canal towpath, greeting oncoming hikers and chatting with some anglers in a row boat. No fish, they said. We returned, as usual, late -- after Gregory had started shouting for us. "Ready?" he said pleasantly. We set off again.
The rain began in earnest about half an hour into the second leg. It did not stop. The plastic ponchos from Sunny's Surplus did not help. "I'm wet and I'm cold," my friend announced. I paddled grimly, and suggested he do the same. We fell farther and farther behind.
Suddenly we heard lusty shouts at our backs, and the rhythmic splash of paddles stroking in unison through the downpour. It was an armada of Boy Scouts -- maybe a score -- and they were gaining on us. I'm not sure why, but I've seldom seen a sight as frightful. We paddled with new resolve, and managed to stay ahead for the next six miles.
We pulled into the Paw Paw campsite at late afternoon, almost missing our landing in the rush of the river, staggered up the bank and pitched our tent in a drizzle. Mike and Sandy Gregory raised a tarp to shelter a few picnic tables, gathered and chopped wood, and started the fire.
We napped, and woke to the yells of a scoutmaster berating a few churlish lads -- "Get moving, I said! Now do it!" -- and a dinner of chicken, carrots, mushrooms and green beans, washed down with cider and topped off with blueberry cheesecake. The rain stopped, so everyone -- including, it seemed, a division of Scouts -- took a stroll through the Paw Paw Tunnel, a 19th- century marvel on the canal.
By the time we returned to camp, it was dark, and the rain had resumed. Everyone scurried for their tents. From the sound of things, we'd pitched ours under Niagra Falls.
My partner looked haggard, spent and -- perhaps because of beads of mud caked in his wildly tossed hair -- near madness. In the candlelight, I noticed an unsettling glint in his eye.
" 'Would you like to go canoeing this weekend?' you said. 'It'll be fun,' you said. 'Sure,' I said. 'How's the weather look?' I said. 'It's supposed to be sunny,' you said." He shook his head. "Oh, how I loathe you," he added, and commenced reading a book. I had never seen him like this.
It rained all night and into the next morning. Somehow we'd forgotten to zip the tent shut, and awoke in pools of water.
"Wet," he shrieked. "My sleeping bag is wet. All my clothes are wet."
"Take it easy. So are mine."
He rifled through his clothes, only to find some visitors scampering hither and yon through the folds. "Spiders!" he yelled. "This tent is filled with Daddy Longlegs."
I rolled over in my bag, uncovering a hairy arachnid about the size of a silver dollar. "I think I've found a tarantula here," I said evenly.
"Don't be silly, there are no tarantulas in Maryland."
He glanced over to where I pointed.
"Aaaaaarrrrrrrrrrgggghhh!" we both screamed, and bolted from the tent.
Later -- after Mike Gregory had walked over a bridge to West Virginia to find a phone, raised Allegany County Civil Defense, and persuaded some colleagues to collect us -- we learned that the creature in question was a wolf spider: a harmless, non- biting bug-eater.
At a breakfast of sausage, eggs, cereal and coffee, our traveling companions seemed comparatively cheerful. Steve Smith and Ruth Curtis, whose tent had gotten so swamped during the night that she'd donned a bathing suit, said they wanted to press on. Sally Cammack straddled the fence. Max Holland, saying nothing, sifted the M&Ms from what was left of his trail mix.
My partner unsheathed his Randall knife and began hurling it doggedly at an elm tree. When it plunged into the bark, he pulled it out and threw again. Everyone watched in awe.
"I don't know if that's the best thing for your knife," Mike Gregory said with a broad smile. My friend grinned back -- crazily -- and continued throwing. Gregory started to say something else, thought better of it, and waited calmly with the rest for the vans to arrive.