Years ago, when I first started dating Andy, he took me on a kayaking trip to the Great Dismal Swamp here in Virginia. We paddled the 3 miles or so back to Lake Drummond and had a little picnic. It was absolutely beautiful as very few people ever go back there. Large motor boats aren’t allowed and it’s not all that easy to get to, so the traffic is pretty sparse. (Incidentally, the Dismal Swamp Canal can be used by shallow draft sailboats to transit he ICW, so this post isn’t totally disconnected to sailing).
When trying to think of something fun and unusual to do with my friend while I’m here, I thought it would be really cool to go back there on our stand up paddle boards (well, HER paddleboards). She loves to paddle and has never seen Lake Drummond, so why not? I tried to down play my reasons for buying the super duper Deep Woods bug spray. There was no need for her to worry about the bird size biting flies we might encounter. I tried to sound confident when I told her where we needed to park and put our boards in. I didn’t think it was necessary for her to know that all of my intel was gleemed from google earth and not any actual experience. I tried to be nonchalant when I asked her to text her boyfriend and tell him what time we got started and how long we thought we would be gone. No need for her to worry about things she hadn’t thought about yet (like getting lost or abducted or whatever). Because the chances were so remote that we would ever see one, I didn’t think twice to tell her that there were black bears back there. When it looked like she might panic, I reassured her that Andy said that at the rate we talk, anything of any interest would be scared away before we even knew it existed.
So off we went with our backpacks packed, complete with lunch, drinks, and bug spray. As soon as we put the boards in the water, it started sprinkling. Lucky for us, it was short lived and didn’t really bother us that much as it was a beautiful day. We were really into the scenery and my friend was starting to relax and enjoy our little adventure. We took a leisurely approach and decided to paddle on our rear ends/knees. I’m not sure if this was for any other reason than we were being lazy, but it was working for us. After about 30 minutes or so, I saw something about 100 yards in front of us swim across the canal. I was excited that we were actually going to see something bigger than a turtle so I said “oooohhhh…look at that!”
Then we watched this creature swim across the canal. It was fast. It was HUGE. It was black.
“What was that!?” she asked me.
“I have no idea”
“It was HUGE!”
“I’m a little freaked out!”
(laugh, laugh, laugh)…that’s me laughing at my friend.
“I think I’m going to vomit”
(laugh, laugh, laugh) “It was pretty freakin big! Come on, we’ll just be loud and it will go away”
“I don’t think I can go any further”
“I’ll go check it out…I’ll be right back” I was really, really curious.
So I paddled a few strokes then I stopped cold…I heard a loud growl or roar or whatever you want to call it. “ooo!!!”
“What? What did you see?”
“Nothing” I lied.
“What? What was it?”
“Nothing. Let’s just hang out and have a beer and give it time to go away.”
So we do. At this point we’re both thinking we saw a bear. So we’re freaking out a little bit but I’m still trying to convince her to keep going. I’m hoping the beer will do the trick. And I tell her how skittish bears are and we have surely scared it off now. I remind her that some people come back here in the hopes of seeing a bear (Andy being one of those people). Then I look back and I see the darn thing swimming back across the canal again, only a little closer to us.
“Nothing” I lied again.
“You’d better tell me”
“I saw it again” (me starting to paddling) “Let’s go”
“Where was it?” (paddling really really fast) “How far back?”
“Oh, way back there” I lied one more time.
So we hauled butt out of there all the time convincing ourselves that the bear was stalking us. We decided it was a mama bear with cubs and she wanted us to go away. We kicked ourselves for not studying up on how to survive a bear attack in the water on a paddle board and vowed to do this as soon as we got home. At one point, we were both hungry so we thought about taking our sandwiches out. Then I remembered that Yogi bear always loved a good picnic so we thought better of it and just paddled faster (but now we had a plan…we would just throw the sandwiches to the bear!). I turned around again and we saw a large figure in the middle of the canal about where the bear was. We convinced ourselves it was just standing there watching us making sure we got the message. When we got back out to the main canal, we stopped and had our lunch (and another beer) while recapping the whole thing.
Pretty soon, we saw a couple in a canoe coming from the same direction (hindsight, this was probably the figure we saw in the water…not a bear wagging his finger at us) and I paddled over to ask them if they saw anything. They were trying not to laugh at our story, as they politely informed us that they thought we might have seen a large beaver. “They can get to be 40-50 lbs. Bears are 200 lbs and almost 4 ½ feet long”
“Thank you…yes, yes, maybe that was it. Thank you”
They paddled off. We looked at each other and at the same time we said “That was a freakin bear!” I know they were probably thinking we should just take our “city-girl” selves back to the mall and leave the nature loving to people who knew what they were looking at!
We paddled back to the dock we had lowered the boards in on and a ranger on a four wheeler with a big gun on the back hollered across the canal at us, “You girls almost got yourself in a predicament. I was just about to lock that gate. There’s a boat launch down the way. You should use that.”
“OK, we’re sorry. Thank you” blah blah blah
Then we go to put the boards on her car and I see not one, but two no trespassing signs that I swear were not there when we arrived earlier that morning.
I don’t think we thought that whole thing through. My idea is to go back with more people so we lower the odds of getting eaten by a bear (my friend Ray politely told me that he didn’t think bears were actually known for eating people – but he didn’t volunteer to go either). But sadly, I don’t think I have any takers. If they only knew how pretty it was back there…
I later told Andy this story and he said he saw a bear just about every time he went back there…I think I’ll keep that to myself.