Johnny Birdsong was 14 years old when his dad finally let him out on the river on his own. The Alumacraft with the 2.5 hp Yamaha outboard wasn’t much, but it was just enough for three generations of Birdsongs (Johnny, his dad, and Grandpa Birdsong) to enjoy quiet afternoons fishing, or to take a quick jaunt to Uncle Mike’s dock a couple miles upriver to pick up some zucchini, onions, radishes, and wild blueberries, fresh from his dad’s brother’s garden. Living Upstate in Fort Hammock was ideal for a boy who, like his dad and uncle, and their father before them, loved the outdoors. Where they lived on the Manchee River was paradise to Johnny; the river bent back and forth (east to north to west to north, and so on), coursing through the Manchee National Forest, affording calm and private coves for fishing and swimming until it widened and straightened at Thunder Plateau, five miles downstream.

But the river that Johnny loved was not the same as his father knew growing up a young boy, Upstate. Fewer people lived on the river in those days, so there was less boat traffic and fewer “Crazies” (as Grandma Birdsong liked to say). In fact, Johnny’s grandfather allowed his sons out on the river — together or alone, in the same aluminum fishing boat with oars (no outboard) — when they were 10! (Grandpa Birdsong remembered being on the river alone when he himself was only 8, eliciting only a sigh and subtle eye-roll from his wife of 43 years — how would she know, Johnny thought?) Not only had the river grown busier with small commercial vessels and weekend boaters, but the water itself had become murkier. To Johnny, this was just a matter of degree. On the days when the weather cooperated and a mass of high pressure settled over Upstate, the water seemed crystal-clear — the air fresh and sweet — to him. But his dad had seen the water quality deteriorate and the fish catches get smaller over the years living on the banks of the Manchee. And don’t get his mother, Grandma Birdsong, started on “that stink in the air.” These were changes the youngest Birdsong didn’t (couldn’t) detect; it all seemed like paradise to him.

There was one fact about the Manchee River — one piece of data that no one could deny: over the last 50 years, the river level was rising.  The natural rhythms of lower levels during periods of drought (usually in summer) and higher levels accounted for by spring snow melts, as well as the last “100 year flood” that hit Fort Hammock especially hard four years ago, seemed to give way to constant river levels that often exceeded flood stage every spring.  Further downstream, past Thunder Plateau, the river narrowed again, and the Manchee’s flow sped up.  What were once Class 3 whitewater rapids (in Grandpa’s youngest days) were no longer rapids at all; instead of turbulent waves and gentle four-foot drops among giant boulders, there were no rocks and no discernible drops at all anymore — just a deep, fast-rushing river. Grandma Birdsong was always saying she never recollected seeing so much snow falling in winters past, and so much rain the other seven months.  Johnny’s dad blamed the rapid residential, commercial, and farm development along the Manchee’s banks that contributed to increased water runoff during even modest storms.  Reasons aside, the river was now higher, the flow faster, than anybody could remember.

Beyond Thunder Plateau, beyond the Class 3 rapids, a younger Grandpa Birdsong never ventured.  He’d heard the river grew angry past that point, with Class 5 rapids that soon became impassable as the water got deeper and the flow and drops became increasingly severe.  By the time Johnny’s dad was a teenager, these small waterfalls had become big enough that stories of barrels pushed over the falls (the newly-named Camden Falls) to meet their splintering fates on the rocks below became legend. (Recently, Johnny heard that a “Crazie” actually barreled over the falls himself!  The man and his barrel did not survive.)

Things that changed slowly were imperceptible to a young boy like Johnny.  But time allows perspective, and after he graduated from Fort Hammock High School four years later, and then Upstate Regional College four years after that, the young man (now a small craft salesman in the sleepy coastal town of Woodford, three states away) would return home on holidays and see for himself how much his world was changing.  On one particularly gorgeous late September day, Johnny set out in the Alumacraft (now fitted with a more powerful 6 hp motor — “the currents have gotten too strong,” his dad said) downstream, fishing rod and camera (the leaves were beginning to change) onboard.  On his way, he focused his camera on hawks overhead, on the trees of Manchee Forest, and on the east side river bank washed out from last April’s flood. As the river straightened at Thunder Plateau, Johnny stopped his engine.  In the middle of the Manchee River, the young man sat and watched the array of sailboaters, fisherman and water-skiers competing for space with two barges carrying topsoil away, upstream, from a massive commercial construction site on the river’s west bank.  There was a smell in the air Johnny had never sensed on the river before.  What it was, he wasn’t sure.  Grandma was right, he thought.

Johnny was drifting.  Disoriented and a bit nauseated, he floated further downstream swiftly, as if he was being pushed — pushed past Thunder Plateau, pushed past the now-ancient rapids, pushed towards Camden Falls…

Only a few years ago, a younger Johnny might have sensed the flow picking up.  He would have had plenty of time to reel in his line, secure his bait and tackle, even take a little swim before climbing back on the Alumacraft, firing up his tiny outboard engine, and heading back upstream against the measly current. Sure, if he was just left there to float, inevitably Camden Falls was waiting.  But there was time, and escape was easy.  But now, today, on this sunny September afternoon, the current was much stronger, the river level higher, the punishing Falls more menacing.  There was no time to swim; no time to capture the colors of Autumn with the new Nikon he got from his girlfriend last Christmas.  Today, the larger, more powerful Yamaha outboard would rescue Johnny.

As he moved upstream and the pushing force receded, so did the threat.  For now.  What about tomorrow? Johnny thought.  What happens if the push becomes too much, or my escape engine is too weak?  I’d be over the Falls in a barrel, splintered in sunlight…



(Story and photos — Ned Ketyer, M.D.)