Swimming With Serpents

Joli Villella

© Copyright 2021 by Joli Villella

Photo of a snake on a tree branch.

Just as the two summers prior, I could feel the excitement bubble over in my stomach chasing away the last tendrils of anxiety, my ever present friend, as each mile carried us further away from civilization and closer towards freedom. I knew the moment I stepped from the packed van and breathed for the first time in a year true nurturing air, all my cares would fade away into nothing as mother nature flooded every sense. This was the healing power of the Buffalo river, the sight of our long awaited adventure. Everything was better here and I do mean Everything! From the wind whispering sweet nothings over your shoulder to the warm kisses of the doting sun, to the cool ripples of the water teasing your toes with inviting promises of her silky caress. The Buffalo was as close to Heaven as one might get on this plane of existence and quite frankly I would be ecstatic if she really was my final destination of eternal peace, the only place I ever felt such bliss.

It was a lengthy seven hour canoe float from our take off point to the campgrounds where our gear awaited. A full day on the water complete with anything a simple soul could ever need to truly experience living. This year was special as my best friend and I were now capable enough to take a canoe together and enjoy the day away from our families, just us and the river. While it was a decent sized party of people we knew from our church on the water today, everyone launched, sailed & stopped at their own pace so we wouldn’t necessarily be traveling together. It was up to us not to capsize or deal with it if we did. For the most part the Buffalo was peaceful, though she had some tricky rapids here and there if you weren’t familiar with the sudden changes. Rising up on each side of her banks were gorgeous cliffs transitioning from tan to brown then gray. I imagined scaling them free handed like cliff hanger and leaping off to the breezy water below. Plenty of the river reached more than 100 feet deep but the best parts were the clear sections where you might see 60 feet below you the colored rocks waiting at the bottom. While it was breathtaking, I could never look down for long while swimming as my overactive imagination would conjure the most terrifying creatures waiting to drag me under, pretty laughable since otherwise I was filled with serenity in this majestic setting.

Thanks to our moms triple checking our supplies and mine in particular relaying again the importance of reapplying the spf 100 sunscreen to my vampire skin it took far too much time before we were finally, finally settled in and being shoved off the bank, adventure beginning! I sat in the front, Jazmine steering in the back as I was a good foot shorter than her tall slender frame so she could see over me easier, and admittedly had a little more control with her volleyball muscles. We fell into an easy rhythm like we did with most things in life. We liked to joke that we were actually sisters, she was just left in the oven a little longer having that perfect golden complexion one could only achieve by being blessed with mixture. We headed off, bright morning sun glistening lovingly off the smooth surface. As we separated from the group, finding our own space, sound fell away besides the gentle slurps of our paddles pushing through the water. We were in paradise and I simply could not imagine anything more exhilarating and simultaneously peaceful. This was my element. My heaven on earth. Arkansas eutopia.

We sailed on for a good two hours before making our first stop to take a swim break. The water was deep enough here where we couldn’t touch the bottom if we tried with a perfect small bank unoccupied by anyone else. We laughed, splashed & vegged out on some snackage while making my momma proud I even took time to slather on the sunscreen, although I was already growing pink. Before long we were ready to sail out again which was quite hilarious not having the luxury of our dads to shove us out while we sat comfortably at the ready. Since I was remaining in the front and as I mentioned before, quite the midget, it fell to Jazz to give the final push, my weight included, off the bank and then jump in while still in the quickly disappearing shallows. Luckily, she made it and we only tipped back and forth a little before continuing our glorious journey. We floated for some time, laughing back and forth as only besties could, young teenagers with our whole lives ahead of us, still blissfully unaware at how often and soon that life would take us away from each other. We were traveling through a narrower section with lots of trees on either side, no banking options to be seen when we heard the tell-tale sound of rushing rapids up ahead. This did not shake our confidence, we knew we had it, that was until we rounded the bend and saw a canoe of three adults capsized as they all tumbled over the rapids. Thankfully, no one was hurt and we watched them right the boat and one by one haul their dripping bodies back inside as we approached. I turned back to look at Jazz and offered an encouraging smile. “We got this!” I exclaimed and she nodded, noticeably doubting my optimism. We did our best to keep the canoe perfectly straight as we came closer and closer to the rushing dip and I sent a silent prayer up that we might stay righted…and off we went! Surging through the rush we were first pushed hard to the left careening toward the bluff side, causing us to hastily paddle the left side of the boat together, desperately pushing back to the right, although a little too well with our combined strength as we were now flying toward the right bluff and a tree line. We are both yelling to the other as we switched our paddles to the right and tried to correct our turn again but it was too late as the head of the canoe was speeding under low hanging limbs toward the hard impact I knew was coming. Just before it did I saw a fishing line running from the water up into a tree limb and fearing the hook would catch my face I quickly stood up as we hit the “shore.” Miraculously I balanced, with effort, and didn’t fall over. I’m now standing amongst the branches and begin to turn to my right to see Jasmine behind me but before I make the full 180 I came face to face with a large brown snake wrapped around the tree limb just inches from my nose. I managed to scream one word “SNAKE!” before diving over the left side of the canoe into the river.

At this point I’m in the deepest water yet, kicking and doggy paddling to stay afloat as I look at a shocked Jasmine still in the canoe trying desperately to push herself away from the bank. And then I see it drop, the snake, into the canoe. She lets out a scream and I unconsciously swim further away from her, all panic, no thought. And then I’m witnessing this amazing fearless friend of mine scoop up the monster with her paddle like a burger on a spatula and throw him into the water saving herself. Wow. There is no way I could do that I think for one second, then panic takes back over, flooding every cell as I now realize I’m in the water with the snake. It’s at this point I start screaming again while Jasmine resumes trying to push the canoe out of the trees with her oar and I’m flailing about yelling “come get me! Come get me!” not knowing where to swim. It’s a fear I had never come close to before and I just knew I was doomed to death by this little predator. After seemingly a lifetime Jaz is free and propelling the canoe my way as best she can solo. I begin swimming toward it and relief like no other floods when I grip the sides…but then a new problem arises. No matter how hard I kick and push on the side I cannot for the life of me lift myself up and over so now I’m screaming again, looking around for the snake I know must be circling in for the kill and Jasmine is panicking unable to help while holding on herself as my desperate attempts to join her inside vigorously rock the boat. I’m sure we were quite the sight for the older couple who now, praise the Lord came down the rapids and sailed in our direction. They were able to hold onto one side of our canoe while I dangled from the other and paddle us away to a safe shore spot where I could not scramble onto dry land quick enough. Likewise, Jasmine jumps out of the canoe and we both stand shaking, fear spiked adrenaline still quaking through our nerves. It took a few moments to calm enough and kind of let our saviors in on the trauma they had just rescued us from. It wasn’t hard to see how they fought to hold back laughter but we couldn’t care. I only felt relief to be alive and not stuck in BFE with snake poison pulsing through me. Eventually we gathered ourselves enough to take off again and complete our Buffalo river float albeit with more determination not to near any trees than casual floating. True relaxation evaded until at long last we reached the campgrounds and were pulled in by familiar faces from home. We had made it! We were survivors! We were definitely viewed as dramatic but you couldn’t understand if you weren’t there to experience such a horrific shock. It’s now 10 years later, Jaz and I remain besties though we have lived far apart more often than not in the last decade. We both carry a phobia of snakes to this day thanks to our combined traumatic experience, and yes, she still gives me hell for immediately bailing out of the canoe, but face to fang, what would you do?

I am an unpublished aspiring writer who seems to always have 20 stories ongoing while rarely wrapping any up before the next idea takes hold. When I'm not scribbling in a notebook I'm usually traipsing through wooded trails with my beloved terrier, Reggie or pretending I'm flying on the back of my husband's motorcycle. Whether I'm tending my garden in the Ozark mountains or visiting family at Pensacola beach my soul is most happy spent in mother nature where my imagination is encouraged to run wild. 

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