Boat Ramp Baptism
by David Lambert
Over the years my small family has always seemed on the verge financial reinvention, mostly because of the paths I’d chosen and the work I took. We always seemed child poor or college poor, or house poor, or hospital poor, and because of that we were rarely able donate money to those good causes, groups and organizations to which we’d like to have given.
So, about 10 years ago I began to donate ‘in-kind’ to those causes and organizations which we believed were doing public good. I contributed for auction or sale fly fishing or fly casting lessons, and then later added guided paddling trips down a small, pristine stretch of river next to which my wife and I conveniently split our living time.
We offered these to schools, breast cancer clinics, enviro-groups, watchdog organizations and the odd non-profit. Because the river is unlike any other in the state, because it is fed by uber-clear springs and it comprises an odd geology of limestone, chert, and freshwater coral, the trip has become quite popular and has raised good money for those causes—a fact of which I am proud and happy.
A couple of years ago I escorted down our river the purchasers of this trip, the director of Florida Wildlife Association and an armada of friends and associates. The paddle includes a stretch of class 2 rapids, which can border on class 3, relative to rainfall and runoff. My paddlers this day came from varied occupations, in assorted weight classes, and with unpredictable paddling skills. The boats they brought ranged widely as well, from efficient and sleek kayaks to the clunky peddle-yaks that are suited mostly for deep, flat waters, which this river is not.
The trips nears its end as the lovely little river approaches its confluence with the Suwannee. There a physical change occurs; the smaller river warms and takes on some of the Suwannee’s characteristic claret and tea colors. An emotional change seems to occur as well, as though a fight breaks out when these two waters bump into each other. The merger builds a subtle cross current that makes navigating the larger a bit more tricky.
Near the confluence I lagged behind the group to advise them to paddle diagonally across the bigger river, to surf above the faster currents to Suwannee River shallows. There, broken currents provide an easier trip upstream to the takeout—200 yards upstream.
The takeout point on this trip is a long concrete boat ramp that cleaves the banks of the river at Suwannee River State Park. The ramp, and the river it disappeared into, were gauzily cloaked in a blue-white smoke that drifted downriver from hundreds of acres of forest fires north and east of the river.
As we made our scattered approach to the ramp I heard a shouting before I could see it. Smoke and river noise hampered both sight and sound, but on closer inspection I saw a local Pentecostal preacher at the foot of the boat ramp, standing chest deep in the Suwannee. He was dunking people, about 30 of them of assorted ages, body types and attractiveness.
The preacher stood immersed nearly to the tops of his blue bib overalls and the water turned his heavily starched white broadcloth to a translucent clingy mess, exposing beneath a pinkish skin that likely had felt no direct sun for months.
Most of my group paddled past the singing congregation and beached a quarter block north, but I hung back, mid-stream, and watched, fascinated by the lyrical bleet of the preacher and the approximation of song coming from future dunkees and other congregators.
The preacher beseeched his flock to come down and let the lu-huve of Je-he-he-sus wa-hash your si-hi-ins awa-hay, pra-ha-ha-haise Ga-ha-ad. His delivery was Deep-South, a breathy stuttering of verse, mumble and tongue that made four syllables for every one and prompted many in the group to raise their faces and hands to the sky. All of this against a fast disappearing backdrop of smoky blue, a gauzy filtered light.
I will tell you this: I found myself singing along at their final hymn: Shall We Gather At The River?
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river. . .
Who could not sing on such an occasion? And my singing accompanied the throb and gun of motors as anglers who’d been on the river all day circled in increasingly narrow patterns just off the ramp awaiting the close of ceremonies so they could haul their boats, catch, and their crud up the ramp.
The scene, the singing, the worship, the preaching, the hum of circling boats—all were contained by and amplified by river and the smoke, all emanating from the watery stage framed in a disappearing darkening of the reaching flora and vertical banks of the Suwannee River.
This good preacher accommodated every good soul who wished it with a biblical dunking. The recently baptized looked on smiling and singing through chattering teeth. I wondered then and wonder today if the cause of their shivers came from the wetness, the excitement of spiritual cleansing, or from the encroached dark.
© 2010 David Lambert