Climbing over the dune, we head for the sun-faded kayaks lying in the beach grass. The Delaware Bay is flat, tide out with the sandbar exposed. It is a perfect warm, July morning to journey into the Great Marsh nearby. We can leave Lewes Beach and within a half hour find ourselves surrounded by the natural beauty of the marsh, so different from combed sands where people already have begun to set up their umbrellas and settle into their canvas chairs, surrounded by ice chests and beach bags. I look forward to experiencing an adventure in a place I have never been. I think of the photographs I have seen of the salt marsh, and how I will be able to relax and breathe in the clean air and see egrets and herons, or even a hawk or an osprey.
My son Michael and I prepare for our kayak adventure. We don’t see each other so often anymore. He’s grown now and lives far away, having no interest in living in this Delaware coastal town. As for me, I long for the days when I would cheer for him in high school football games. I long for the days when his baseball caps lined the bookcase in his room, when milk cartons were left on the counter, and when my grocery list was pages long. It seems only yesterday that he was a teenager, asking me to edit his English papers. Now he is past 30, and only occasionally seeming to need me.
I tighten my life preserver and notice he isn’t wearing his. He says he doesn’t need it, the strong and competitive swimmer that he is. It’s a beautiful day and there are no waves in the Broadkill River. How can I argue with him? Even if the kayak he is borrowing capsizes, he would only have to climb back on again. We both have our water bottles and the lunches we packed, but we forgot the bug spray and flip flops. I think we should be okay.
We drag the kayaks into the shallow water, and pull them along until we clear the sandbar so we can climb board and begin to paddle.
I had promised Michael that the marsh would be a special place to visit, as peaceful and breathtaking as the Sierras in which we camped when he was a child. He isn’t completely sold, but instead would like to kayak to another beach up the Delaware River and relax in the hot sand.
Once we leave the beach, he paddles ahead of me as he circles the jetty into the Roosevelt Inlet. The water in the inlet churns from the wake of boats coming in and out from the Bay. I feel my heart pound in anticipation as I realize that I have to make it across the chop before another boat comes. The entrance to the Broadkill is on the other side of the inlet. I take a deep breath and push my thighs tightly against the side of the kayak to keep it afloat as I begin to paddle as hard as I can. The rough water invigorates me. I am no longer afraid as the waves lap against the side of my kayak. Water sprays in my face as the bow of my kayak slaps across the swells to continue its forward motion.
Michael already has moved into the Broadkill, though I am gaining on him. The tide is coming in strongly and I feel it pushing me along. Michael’s yellow kayak bobs and sways like a plastic container for a few moments as he waits for me. Then, once I am near, I see his muscular arms drive he paddles into the water. As I look around, he seems oblivious to the red-winged blackbirds shouting at him as he passes their nesting hideaways. Instead, he focuses on the bend coming up. Humidity hangs in the air and he begins to swat at black flies swirling around his head. I had not thought about the black flies. I am familiar with them as they always show up on Lewes Beach when the wind comes off of the marsh. But somehow, I had not considered that we would be entering their territory if we kayaked in the middle of the river. I wish I had not forgotten the bug spray.
“An adventure happens when something goes wrong,” says Michael, raising his voice so that I can hear him over the sound of the water. He continues to swat at the flies.
“Don’t say that. This isn’t a movie,” I answer back. Why is he being so dramatic, I think to myself. I want to capture some special moments that I can squirrel away with those I have of us and his brother Lars camping in the Sierras. In those days, he and Lars set up the tent and collected firewood as I set up the stove, unpacked our camping shower and put our food away in the bear box. Hiking and camping in the mountains was something the three of us had shared, following new trails and taking in new panoramas.
I look around to see the tall grasses of the marsh stretch toward a hazy, tree-lined horizon far away. It is so beautiful. I feel as if I am in a painting.
“What do you think is down there?” says Michael, focusing on the next bend. The current continues to carry us forward and the paddling is easy. I am in the moment. I see an osprey in flying above us.
“What are you looking for?” I ask.
“There’s got to be a beach, or something,” he says.
“There are no beaches, Michael. This is a marsh.”
I am beginning to think that we should have kayaked up the Delaware River. There are beaches along the banks and Michael does not seem to be appreciating the marsh. Suddenly, a deafening sound of a motor breaks the stillness. I know a boat is going to appear from around the bend and I begin to panic. We are in the middle of the river.
“There’s a boat coming,” I shout. “Get out of the middle of the river.”
“There’s plenty of room for a boat,” he shouts back. Typical, I think to myself. He never listens to me.
A good-sized fishing boat, maybe 35 feet, planes toward us. I can see the bottom of the bow above the wake. I gasp and paddle as fast as I can toward the muddy, mucky bank. Michael barely breaks his stride, continuing to maintain his position. Just as I imagine him run over by a drunken fisherman, the boat slows, dropping into the water. The fisherman had cut his engines so as to avoid us and to make sure that we were not overturned by his wake. He even waves, and I immediately feel guilty for suspecting his drunkenness. Michael waves back.
“Hey mom, look at the heron. It’s over there on the bank.”
So Michael is aware of the beauty of our surroundings. The lanky, majestic bird stands in the grass of a small tributary to our left. The feathers on the back of its head bristle as it comes to attention, watching us.
“I want to see how close I can get,” Michael says. “I want to see what it looks like when it takes off.”
He paddles into the tributary where the current has slowed. He barely touches the water with his paddle, sending the kayak forward. I watch him watching the heron. I can see he is enjoying the moment. I feel a sense of joy knowing that I have given my child a love of nature. The heron moves away from the bank, keepings its eyes focused on Michael. Then, as if there was a signal sounded, it flaps its expansive wings and rises into the sky. The cumbersome take-off morphed into a graceful flight. We both watch in awe.
With the heron gone, Michael turns back into the main channel. I follow.
“Let’s see if we can find somewhere we can tie up the kayaks and walk around,” he says.
I am dubious. Even as he speaks, he keeps swatting black flies. If he is getting bitten in the water, I can only imagine what will happen if we were on the marsh. Black flies are troublesome, and their bite can be painful.
“Over there. There are some trees over there,” he says, and increases his speed. Sure enough, there is a stand of evergreen trees. I assume they had been planted by a farmer. There is some cultivation in the marsh. We can see remnants of an old dock as we grow closer. Broken pieces of wood stick out of the water next to the bank. We pass the wood and find a small inlet. Old fence posts stand along the bank and into the water.
“Let’s tie up here,” Michael says. “There’s a flat spot. I can see it.”
We find a place along the bank where there is a bush large enough to tie our lines around. Michael maneuvers his kayak as close to the bank as he can. He jumps out of the kayak and stands in the mud, then climbs onto the bank, which at that point is quite steep. Quickly, he pulls his kayak out of the way so I can get mine into the same position. He then reaches down to help pull me up onto the bank, too. As he secures the kayaks, I grab our sandwiches.
“The ground is sharp. Watch out!”
Michael hops as if walking on hot pavement. I haven’t moved yet. Instead, I am trying to figure out where it is safe to walk for my bare feet. I see a patch of ground that looks as if it has been mowed. We are standing at the end of a gravel road. Dead grass lies around the area, but young stalk-like blades of wild grass poke through. I carefully walk on my toes, one foot at a time. I take off my life vest and throw it on the ground.
“Michael, sit on a corner of my vest.”
He manages to get to my vest and sits down on one side of it. I sit down on the other. He digs through our makeshift lunch bag, and pulls out two peaches and two cheese sandwiches. Just as we begin to enjoy the serenity and sweetness of the peaches, the attack starts. A swarm of black flies descend upon us. I have never seen anything like it. I gasp at their intensity.
“Oh shit,” Michael shouts. “They bite. Look. Blood. I’m bleeding.”
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the dance he does to get back to the bank, swatting flies and trying to find a safe place to put his feet. They are not biting me, but a few still hover around my legs.
“Let’s get out of here,” he says. So much for tranquility. The marsh loses its beauty as I grab my things and try desperately to get back to the kayak. I slide down the bank into the black mucky mud. My hands and legs and feet are filthy, but I forget to be worried about what sharp objects might be in the water. I just want to get back into the kayak and away. Michael is moving fast, too, and both of us are trying to untie the line so that we can begin paddling toward the middle of the river.
As we finally begin to paddle, I realize that we are going against the current. It is as if the marsh does not want us to go. I hadn’t expected the current to be so strong. We have to increase the pressure of our paddle strokes. Michael lets me move ahead, though at first I do not realize why. The wind from the ocean slams into our faces as we come around the next bend. I push my paddles into the water, but the wind joins the current to push me backwards.
“Michael, we’re not going forward,” I shout. I put my head down as if I were swimming. My breathing increases. My legs, which until now had been quiet in the kayak, push against the sides of the kayak as I force my shoulders forward. I am not sure if Michael is in front of me or behind. I feel alone against the current and the wind.
“Good work, mom,” I hear Michael from behind. I realize he must have fallen back to make sure that I am going to be able to make it without help. The day before our trip, he had purchased two ropes and put one on each kayak. It was for safety, he had said.
I hear another motor boat approaching, but I can barely look up. This time the boat doesn’t slow down. In a plane, it passes us and its first deep swell throws us toward the bank. A couple more swells are heading toward us. I brace myself.
“Hold on mom. Face the kayak toward the wake.”
I had been kayaking in the Delaware Bay for five summers and so a wake here or there normally wouldn’t bother me. I had learned how to balance by rotating my hips and pressing my legs against the sides of the kayak. I also regularly worked out in the gym so I was prepared to work harder with my upper body if I had to. But Michael wasn’t thinking about that. I see his body tense as he maneuvers the swells. He is worried about me.
“Mom, are you okay?”
“I am. Really.”
“Do you have enough water? Do you want to stop?”
“Keep going. Really. I’m okay.”
We decide to stop for a few minutes anyway, and make our way to a low-lying muddy clearing. Some sand is interspersed in the mud. As we approach, we see what seems to be hundreds of baby horseshoe crabs in the shallow water. We beach our kayaks and take a few minutes to walk amongst them, making sure we don’t step on them. The marsh is teaming with life. We are awestruck again, and find a log to sit on. For a moment, we forget about the black flies, which have seemed to have forgotten about us, too.
“Mom. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The tall grasses surround us and the water gently laps on the tiny spot of sand. The little horseshoe crabs glide around us, oblivious to our presence. No one else is around.
“Are you ready to go?” Michael asks.
“Yes,” I say. It is time to head back. We have been gone much longer than we had planned, and still have a good way to go.
Our journey back to the beach takes two more hours. My arms are shaky and my legs are numb, but I keep going. I fight back the fear that I might not make it, that I’ll have to stop again. I only have a bit more water left, as I take a swig every once in a while.
Then, just as we reach the mouth of the river, I feel the tide change. Suddenly, it no longer fights me. It begins to pull me toward the inlet. Michael starts to laugh.
“Do you feel that mom? The tide is going out and carrying us along with it.”
I am surprised to feel how much easier it is to get across the inlet and back to the beach. I lose my balance as the kayak hits the sand, but I still manage to climb out and pull it ashore.
“What a great trip mom,” Michael says.
It’s a trip I always will remember, a trip I can squirrel away with hiking in the mountains, high school football games, and baseball caps all in a row.