When I was fifteen years old, my next-door neighbor Karen and I went canoeing out on the Lynnhaven River. Neither one of us had canoed much—Karen was just twelve at the time—and while we both could swim well, it’s a pretty murky river. At the time the eastern shore of the river was all wild (now, condos, restaurants, and beautiful homes line the banks), and it wasn’t unusual to see snakes and other critters.
We were in one of the inlets surrounded by high marsh grass when Karen asked if I’d heard about the girl at Busch Gardens who was killed on the flume ride. I hadn’t. She kept turning to talk to me, rocking the aluminum Grumman canoe, and said the eight-year-old girl was alone in the front of the log—which at the time were made of real logs; it would be after this incident they replaced the logs with fiberglass ones—and a muskrat which had nuzzled down beneath the wood near her feet, proceeded to repeatedly bite her up her legs. Her screaming went unheeded since the others in the back of the log assumed she was screaming at the falls. She died on the way to the hospital. Some time later in our outing when it was quiet and we paddled along listening to the cardinals, I slid my oar under her seat and hit her legs and feet with it. She screamed and stood up, falling out into the river. It was only about two feet deep at that point so she climbed in and we went home laughing and wet.
I’m not sure whatever happened to Karen.
But I know all about the flume.
Growing up I went to Busch Gardens whenever company came to Virginia from New York to visit, or when high school or college friends and I spent the day in the park, visiting the pseudo European countries, drinking beer at the Festhaus in Germany, and riding the Loch Ness Monster. In the early ‘90s, we had a family reunion in Williamsburg where the park is located and one day the entire Kunzinger clan, which is not a small number, invaded the Old Country. My cousin Audrey and I rode the Loch Ness Monster, but just as it came out of the first loop and headed toward the cave, it stopped on a dime, at a slight angle so that Audrey in the seat next to me was just above me. We were there about fifteen minutes when we heard a few people behind us getting sick. I prayed Audrey had an iron stomach and looked across the rest of the park. It turns out I liked the roller coaster better when it wasn’t moving and I could just look out and enjoy the view.
Then about seven years later we bought season passes and Michael and I spent more than a few hours riding the Loch Ness, the Alpingeist, and other such ridiculous structures designed to kill college professors while their sons sit by laughing.
Then one year we approached the Flume. The line was long, about thirty minutes, and from the switchback corral we could see the tracks which carried the log cars to the top, followed by a quick drop into the water, then another climb, another drop and around a few bends into the sawmill, where as the log turns slowly around the far back wall, it approaches a giant saw blade which, of course, the log plummets under just before getting there, down the watery drop into the pool below, where it finally moves another fifty feet to the end. Everyone screams. Really, everyone, all the time. A sniper with a shotgun in the trees could shoot away and would never be exposed by the victim’s screams.
The worker filled the logs leaving Michael and I next for the log making its death-defying plunge at that moment. Clearly, this clerk wasn’t even born when the girl died, but I had to say something.
“Did you know about the eight-year-old girl who was bitten by a muskrat and died on this very ride?”
“I didn’t,” he said with a chuckle, thinking I was trying to terrorize my son (Michael heard the story and knew the new logs were safe), or the patrons around us. To be fair, it was working on one couple who stood nearby. “Maybe I wasn’t working when that happened. When was that?”
“Oh, I wasn’t born. You’re serious though?”
“Yes, the logs were wood then and, well, everyone thought her screams were out of fun.”
“Oh, I guess so,” he said. “I suppose if it happens again no one would know until the ride was over.” We both laughed, him more than me.
Our log came and the worker, Michael, me, and the two behind us all checked the front and under the seats and climbed on. It would be the first of dozens of trips on the flume for my son and me.
What a ride. What a way to be completely and absolutely without exception in the moment. The cool splash of the water, the grinding of the tracks and the gentle heavy bump of the log against the blue, fiberglass walls of the flume. The sawmill “blade” buzzing away at full speed, and the laughing and screaming. There is no way to ride such rides and be wondering about anything else; not food, not what to do next, not anything, not even whether you remembered to lock the car which you could almost see from that height. Just now, just the thrill of pumping adrenaline and mist.
Then the drop.
Then the walking around the park soaking wet, thinking it might be best to do all the water rides at once and then change.
Out on the Rappahannock in the early hours, we paddle up Mill Creek and then over near Locklies Creek, up near the Norris Bridge and across to Parrot Island where we beach the Old Towne Canoe and walk about the marsh. A century ago the island was farmed, but now there’s barely enough solid ground to walk on but for a small patch in some woods where someone built a small blind. We’ve seen beaver there, and deer, and water moccasins move about the water but they’re skittish around people and boats.
On some mornings, early, Michael in front and me in the back, we row down the river toward the Chesapeake which rolls past right here to the east. There we beach the canoe and wade the water looking for shells and oysters or clams, beachcomb for driftwood and an occasional horseshoe crab in the sand. We rarely talk, and we never scream at the top of our lungs. We take it in, absorb the moment, completely caught up by the rising sun as we settle down into a routine of discovery and peace.
It is my blood pressure medicine; my anti-depressants, my muse. I’ve made many mistakes in my life, made some wrong turns, spent more than a few remorseful hours wishing I could do some things differently, hoping beyond hope for enough time to set it all right. But not out there, not where the water pushes us along as I push backwards. The very nature of canoeing is you must push what’s in front of you out of the way and behind you in order to keep moving forward. Out on the water one believes in himself, understands what comes next and how to approach it, what to aim for, what to push out of the way.