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  • Writer's pictureJenny Dunaway

Hershey Bars and Hale Bopp

Updated: Jul 1, 2020

(This is another excerpt from Cattail Express, a children's book I am writing from our canoe's point of view. Please feel free to make comments or offer suggestions.)

It was almost dusk when I felt the warm sand of Burke's Beach beneath me. I'm not sure what my weight limit is but I may have exceeded it navigating Oyster Creek. I was sitting a little low but I was stable, as long as no one made (I mean you, Charlie Brown) any sudden, shifting moves. My boys were setting up the tent and the fly. All the sleeping bags were thrown in and the tent was zipped to keep the bugs out.

"We need wood for the fire, " Mom directed and off they went. There was no shortage of wood on the beach. The boys instinctively knew what to do to make a campfire. Apparently, after many disastrous attempts at making a fire while camping in the mountains, this was not a task at which Mom excelled.

"Remember the time Mom caught her shoes on fire?" the youngest, Jake, joked. Seth and Zach laughed. "Yeah, it melted the soles of her shoes!"

" And let that be a lesson to you all--don't use lighter fluid to start a fire." Mom quipped back as she watched them skillfully build quite a conflagration. Some large logs had been found to use as seats. One of the boys had even discovered a "bed" made with logs and boards. "I'm going to sleep on that tonight, " Zach announced.

"We'll see..." Mom mused. "When the no-see-ums start feasting on you, the tent may look a lot better."

"It won't be that bad," he answered. It didn't take long to eat the hot dog and chips. The brownies Mom made were pulled from the cooler and consumed. Charlie Brown even got a hot dog which he devoured in one bite even though it was a little burnt and encrusted with sand. The steady breeze coming off the Chesapeake Bay kept the bugs down to a minimum. Everyone was very thankful because it could have been miserable.

Canoeing at night in the late spring is almost magical. According to Mrs. Burke, the beach was out where the sandbar is now just forty years ago. Everyone knows boats that draw more than a foot or two have to skirt the edge of the Windmill Pt. sandbar, even at high tide, if they want to get into the Rappahannock to the east. Sail boaters unfamiliar to the area have been stuck on the bar for hours. Locals scoff at their foolishness. However, it is the perfect place to canoe on a calm evening. The boys and Mom pulled me out of the Oyster Creek side of the beach, over the dune, and into the bay. The temperature of the water was noticeably different. The mostly-contained Oyster Creek had been warmed by the sun but they bay was open and vast. It looked almost endless except for the occasional super tanker headed for Baltimore, its lights shining in the northern sky. They looked so small from Burke's Beach. I wondered how those floating giants would look and sound if I were near them. No, the open Chesapeake Bay was not the place for a canoe like me.

"My paddle is glowing!" Seth Miles exclaimed. They all looked over the starboard side to behold the twinkling that surrounded the paddle. Zach, who was steering in the back, noticed the same phenomenon where the paddle broke the surface tension of the water.

"It's phosphorescent plankton," Mom explained. Mom treated us like her students, sometimes, but we didn't mind too much. She had been a Life Science teacher forever and knew a lot about the bay's ecosystem. "They are tiny, one-cell critters called dinoflagellates and they are bioluminescent, basically living things that produce light. Look behind us--you can see our trail through the water. You don't usually see this in May. Pretty cool. " There was even a glow at my bow. They couldn't see but I could. It was as if the water had lightning bugs that reacted to touch. "The light can be used to distract a predator. It could give the plankton time to escape if in danger, kinda a glow-in-the-dark smoke screen."

Suddenly, we were hyper-aware of the beauty surrounding us. There is very little light pollution in the Northern Neck because it is so rural. I could see Ursa Major to the west and Cassiopeia to the east. The crescent moon allowed us to view much of the Milky Way. At that moment I heard everyone gasp, "Hale Bopp!" There it was with its twin tails, one white and one blue. It wouldn't be visible much longer in our area but it was putting on a show tonight.

With the promise of s'mores, we returned to camp. Jake threw a couple of logs on the fire and it was alive again. Mom grabbed the Hershey bars out of the cooler and the graham cracker and marsh mellows from the dry bag. They roasted marsh mellows and ate s'mores while watching Hale Bopp above. A dog eating a roasted marsh mellow is truly a sight to behold. Seeing them eat peanut butter is pretty much the same thing. Charlie Brown seemed to enjoy every bite and we all laughed at him trying to get the sticky marsh mellows down. Without a sound, Mrs. Burke appeared holding a pair of binoculars.

"I thought you could use these." and she handed them to the boys who joyfully accepted them with thanks. Mom thanked her, too. She had forgotten to pack hers in the rush of getting everything ready for the camping trip. Then Mrs. Burke disappeared as silently as she had arrived. The boys all laid on the wooden "bed" someone had created on the beach and gazed at the sky. Moments like this are rare gifts and we all knew it. I would think of this night many times when my life was not quite so peaceful.

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