Last weekend while enjoying a family BBQ, my oldest daughter was asked about the small scars on her leg. They were a result of her bike’s brake cable hitting her leg one infamous afternoon. This story first appeared in the Hunting and Fishing Journal several years ago, and with her recounting the story the other day, I thought I would post it here.
A Stormy Ride
A severe thunderstorm hit the town of Brunswick, MD last summer. High winds took out trees on nearly every street. Electric lines were knocked down, leaving many parts of town without power for two days. We learned of the level devastation only after the storm was over. We had lived it from our bike seats on the C&O canal towpath.
My oldest daughter and I had loaded our bikes and kayaks for a summer afternoon peddle paddle excursion on the Potomac. Our plan was a simple one. Our trek on this day was to begin with a peddle up the C&O canal tow path starting at the Lander boat ramp and ending at the Brunswick boat ramp, where we would climb into our kayaks and paddle down river back to Lander and the truck.
With our first stop dropping off the boats at Brunswick completed, we drove down river to Lander and began to untie the bikes from the rack. In the distance I heard the first clap of thunder. The sky was the typical Maryland mid-summer hazy; the kind of thick air common with Mid-Atlantic States during the summer months. Air so thick it can be seen and felt. We looked forward to the time on the water as our attempt to flee the stifling air and feel the coolness of the river. No dark clouds hung off in the distance sky, that we could see anyhow.
A second boom rattled down the Potomac River valley. Unable to ignore the pending risk of a thunderstorm, I walked to the water’s edge, attempting to find the source of the echoes. Three small children played in the river. Their dad, supervising, stood waist deep in the cool river water. Exchanging pleasantries, the local and I discussed the potential storm. I had been working in the area for the better part of three years, and we discussed our experiences with late afternoon storms in the area. “Think we’ll get hit by the storm?” I asked. “Naw, it’ll do like all the rest and will hit the mountain and either break up or go around, just like they all do,” he theorized. “Yep, that’s what I figured,” I responded.
I stood at the river’s edge a few minutes longer, looking up the river valley searching for the origin of the thundering sounds. No dark clouds loomed in the distance. Confident the unseen storm would break up and go around, like they always do, I walked back to the truck. My daughter had the bikes down from the rack and was ready to begin our ride.
She is her father’s daughter in many ways. Team sports do not interest her. She enjoys her time alone, is quiet and does not make friends easily, finding it hard to open up to others. These afternoon river floats are our time together. We float in different boats; we may not talk much; but the bond between father and daughter – two people with solo tendencies is strengthened on our trips like this one. I may linger to fish a riffle or pool. She paddles in circles taking in the scenery, watching baby wood ducks learn to swim or stalking close in on painter turtles sunning on a log.
We pulled the straps tight on our backpacks, mounted our mountain bikes and took to the stone path. Traveling inside the trees, our vision of the river and sky ahead was blocked. A mile into our four mile trek was uneventful except for the deer running across the path causing her to put on her brakes.
First came the winds. Gusts at first, then the gap between the gusts lessened. The darkness of the stormy sky reached overhead. The intensity of the sinister sky blew in with the increasing winds. A sunless sky of night, had I not a watch I would have thought it to be 9:30pm and not 2:00pm. The first rain fell, not in a soothing summer rain softness, but in violent form. Large rain drops that hurt when hitting the exposed skin. The size of quarters, the wind driven rain was pushed from the sky, not merely falling.
We saw the rain coming. In a wall traveling down the trail, our doom loomed ahead. We traveled north; the wall of rain traveled south, our paths crossed. In three seconds we went from dry to soaked. In less than a minute, not a dry spot could be found on our bodies.
We laughed at our situation. Our knobby mountain bike tires flung mud up our backs and onto our legs. Our vision blurred by the rain slamming our faces and dripping into our eyes. The winds violently tossed the tree tops along the trail between us and the river. We were now in a race. A two mile race to our destination and safety under the Route 340 bridge at Brunswick.
The thunder claps that once were far off in the distance now sounded in time with the flashing of lightning over the river. Through the trees, the river would light up in a brilliant flash of light followed by the roar of thunder, a mere second or less. Loud thunder, flashes of lightning, hard driving rain, and strong gale force winds encased us. Reaching the half way point, equal distances from the truck and the bridge, I stopped to discuss our options. Over the howling winds, I yelled, “you know, as dark as it is, even if we get to the boats, by the time the storm passes, we’ll be paddling back to the truck in the dark. Want to go back?”
“You sure? Maybe we can still do it,” she asked. But at that moment a flash of lighting and a gust of wind gave us our answer. All the sounds of the storm went silent as the crackling of a falling tree hit our ears. “This way! As fast as you can!” I yelled. We pushed on our peddles with every ounce of our strength. The tree fell across the path behind us. We turned, looking over our shoulders as we continued to ride, seeing the fallen tree a few feet from where we were parked a few seconds earlier.
More trees cracked, tops swaying in the steady storm winds, some falling on the trail ahead of us. The once peaceful stone path in the woods was now cluttered with branches big and small. The intensity of the rain increased. Lightning and thunder flashed and cracked in unison. We raced toward the truck. Fallen tree tops blocked our path. Some we rode around, others we had to dismount our bikes to climb over. We battled the storm and its’ furry on our return. I let her set the pace, a fast pace. I followed behind, pushing her on. The storm was still in full force when we turned the corner and made the last 100 yards to the truck. Seemingly in one motion, we dropped our bikes, unlocked the truck doors, and jumped in. The once dry seats quickly soaked from our dripping wet bodies, but we were now safe. We had made it. Nervous laughter filled the truck. The windows fogged from our heavy breathing and wet clothes.
We watched the darkness fade off to the south. The sun broke from the clouds. The winds calmed. A light rain continued to fall. We stepped out of the truck to survey the scene. A large tree top laid across the boat ramp, blocking its use. An Asian couple, who had taken refuge in another fisherman’s truck, joined us walking toward the boat ramp and the river’s edge. Their small rubber raft sat under a single branch of the fallen tree top. The pair of fishermen who had provided shelter from the storm for the couple looked on; realizing they were not going to be able to unload their bass boat to fish this evening in light of the debris on the ramp.
We had had enough excitement and gave up on our float. Driving back to Brunswick and our kayaks, we saw the destruction. No traffic lights flashed in town. The Fire truck lights flashed as they raced by. People were beginning to leave their homes to assess the damages.
Pulling into the parking lot at the boat ramp, we saw a large group of people milling around. Several canoes lined the shore. They had finished their last half mile of a float trip in the grips of the storm. Wet but safe, they talked of the battle on the river. We retold our saga.
The sun was shining brightly. The winds were calm. The thunder was again a distant sound. The storm had passed, but the damage remained. We once again talked of paddling the river, but ultimately choose against it. Instead we loaded the kayaks back on the truck and sought cups of hot chocolate, only to find the convenience store closed due to the electric being out.
Soggy but safe, we drove homeward. Every few minutes, my daughter would grin and recount the details of the storm, exposing the excitement and adrenaline rush she felt riding against and battling the storm. We had fought Mother Nature, feeling the rain and wind in our faces, at her best, or worse, depending on your view – a true adventure. That was until we got home and mom yelled at us for doing something so stupid.