The old man and the creek

After waiting nearly a year for opening day of deer season, Joe wasn’t about to miss it. He’d been planning this trip for months, and had spent the last few weeks packing and repacking, making sure he had everything he needed. Finally the season opener was only a couple of days away, and Joe was ready. Eighty years old, Joe had seen a lot of opening days, but that didn’t diminish his excitement a bit. There was something special about the first day of the season, and the anticipation, the tingly excitement, was a large part of the mystique. The first day is always the best. Saying goodbye to his wife, Joe slid into his pickup for the long drive to his lease in the Texas Hill Country. During the trip he thought about where he planned to hunt on opening morning. Joe, his brother, and a couple of friends had been hunting on the same ranch for the past few years, and they had taken some nice bucks, but this year Joe planned to bag the big one. He’d seen the rubs and scrapes, and knew where the old fellow’s range was. He’d even found a shed antler that made his mouth water. Yeah, this was going to be the year. Joe finally arrived and met his brother and hunting buddies at the cabin on the lease. They started unloading their equipment and supplies, talking excitedly about the coming hunt the next morning. It had rained on all of them for the last hour of their trip in, but that was all right, too. A little rain never hurt anyone, and might even help. They finished unloading and stomped their feet as they ducked into the cabin, out of the weather. About dark Joe decided to make a trip into town to pick up a few last minute supplies, and the guys made a list of the things they needed. When Joe reached the low water crossing on the way back to town he noticed that the water, which had been barely running across the road a few hours earlier, was several inches deep now. He thought little of it as he splashed through. After spending a couple of hours in town, buying groceries and filling his pickup with gas, Joe started back to the lease. The rain had not let up. If anything it had gotten harder, and his wipers had a hard time keeping up, causing Joe to drive well below the speed limit. By the time he got back to the low water crossing Joe was surprised to see that the creek had risen quite a bit. He stopped and watched the brown torrent wash over the cement slab, trying to gauge exactly how deep it was. The stream he could normally step across was now thirty yards wide, and small tree limbs occasionally floated across the slab and over the little waterfall on the downstream side. Joe was apprehensive, but decided he could make it. The cabin was only another mile or so away, and if he didn’t get across the creek tonight he might not be able to make it in the morning. And he couldn’t stand the thought of missing the first hunt of the year. Late the next morning I watched as two of my fellow firefighters worked to pull Joe’s body out of the cab of his pickup. The truck had been pushed about two hundred yards downstream from the crossing, and was still over half submerged. Joe’s brother stood on the bank, watching. A lot of the magic had gone out of opening day for him. The rest would be gone when he got off the phone with Joe’s wife. I don’t know if Joe was married, or if he had children, or where he was from. I also don’t know exactly how his last day went, or what he was thinking when he started across the little creek that had become a raging torrent. I don’t even know what his real name was. But I do know that there came a point when Joe knew he had made a mistake. By then it was too late. It’s difficult to gauge how deep the flow is over a given crossing, even one you travel daily, and a foot of water is enough to float most cars and pickups. Shallow water can also be deceptive, since a washed-out place in a slab can be hidden under the muddy stream, giving the appearance of safety. Many underestimate the strength of water currents, and may overestimate the weight of their vehicles. It is significant to note that a two hundred pound human only weighs about fifteen pounds in water. If people weigh less in water, so do cars. Several other drivers in Mason County made the same mistake Joe did, but were lucky enough to get out of their vehicles and onto higher ground. Many of the area’s dry creekbeds, normally called draws, became deluges during the recent rains, and nearly all the creeks were uncrossable at various times. Just after dark on the second day of the season another call came in to the local fire department. This time a van had stalled in a low water crossing with a couple inside. They were about fifty, and the woman was a paraplegic in a wheelchair. And the water was rising. Time was especially critical, since another rapidly rising creek had to be crossed to get to the stalled van. After a long, cold ride on the back of a fire truck in the rain, firefighters waded into the creek and hooked a chain to the van, pulling it to high ground. The woman was carried to the cab of the fire truck for the trip back to town. At the first creek the water had risen several inches, almost to the point that it was uncrossable. Luckily the heavy truck made it through and everything turned out fine, but there were a few tense moments. If the truck had gone over with the couple inside it would have almost taken a miracle to get them out. Happy endings are nice, but they usually occur in fairy tales. The next time you arrive at a low water crossing that looks questionable, don’t try it. There’s nothing on the other side worth your life. Joe would tell you that, if he could . . . Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor writer, firefighter, and swift water rescue technician. Write to him at PO Box 564, Mason, Tx 76856 or email hemphill@ctesc.net

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