Their new weekend cabin was surrounded by flood waters, and they were in dire straits.
by Susan Harsin — Posted on May 19, 2014
I stepped out onto the cornfield, my tennis shoes sinking into the waterlogged ground. I tried to block out the overpowering smell of fish. But I couldn’t block out the scene of destruction that greeted my husband, Darren, and me.
How could this happen? I wondered. In the distance, I saw a row of cabins, half-submerged in the receding floodwaters of the Missouri River, but I couldn’t make out our own–whatever was left of it.
Darren and I had bought the cabin just two years earlier as a weekend retreat. It was in an idyllic spot, right on the river, where we could escape with our sons to fish and swim and have cookouts.
Darren and the boys had spent weekend after weekend fixing it up, and by the time they were finished, the 30-year-old structure had doubled in size, with an added dining area, family room and kitchen.
It was completed just in time for Easter. We invited 25 family members over to celebrate. We held an Easter service by the river and cooked up a big feast. I daydreamed about the good times we would have there one day with our grandkids.
Just five weeks later, record-breaking snow melts in Montana combined with heavy spring rains were producing more water than the great Missouri River could handle.
The dams and reservoirs upriver overflowed, and the Army Corps of Engineers had no choice but to open the floodgates, unleashing a torrent of water downstream.
We appeared to be the only vacation-cabin owners to return that day. The receding river was still above flood stage and full of debris. Armed with a camera, we were planning to document the damage for our insurance company.
I held out hope that some things in the cabin could be salvaged, before mold set in and ruined everything.
The road had been washed out by the flood, so our plan was to trek across the cornfield and swim the rest of the way if necessary. We were both good swimmers. If we got a little wet, so be it.
Now, as we crossed the field, the water crept up from our ankles to our knees. I kept my eyes on the horizon, looking for the cabin. I shivered and rubbed my arms. It was colder than I’d thought. The water was deeper too. I wished I’d worn something more than a tank top and shorts.
“There it is!” I shouted. I could see the back of our cabin, about 200 yards away. The water was up to its windowsills, the siding was hanging off and it had been gouged in places by debris carried along in the flood.
Suddenly the ground beneath us began to slip away. The water was up to my hips now. I jerked the camera from around my neck and held it above my head.
“I don’t know if we should still do this,” Darren said. “Maybe we should turn back.”
“We’re almost there,” I said. I took another step. My foot flailed for solid ground. I finally touched bottom with my toes, but I couldn’t keep my footing. I was being tugged by a current. I grabbed Darren’s arm.
“Okay, let’s turn back,” I gasped.
Too late. The submerged cornfield had become a part of the Missouri itself. I dug my toes into the bottom, but the icy, murky water was too strong, dragging me away from dry land, toward the deep channel of the river. Darren too. He snatched the camera from me.
“Forget about this!” he shouted. “We have to swim for it.”
I fought, kicking and wheeling my arms, struggling to hold my head above the surface. I choked and gasped for air. Tree limbs, flowerpots and yard ornaments rushed furiously by, but there was nothing to hold on to. I kicked harder and sent a desperate plea to God. Please, Lord, rescue us. Send help.
We were swept right past our cabin. Up ahead, a tangled mess of debris was trapped in a grove of trees–splintered patio chairs, mangled barbed-wire fencing, a rusted backyard grill, shattered remains of picnic tables, aluminum siding, windows ripped from their frames. And we were rushing headlong toward it.
“No!” I screamed. I tried to swim away from the dangerous-looking pile. My heart raced. I was no match for the river. “Look out!” Darren yelled.
We both slammed up against a large box wedged in the wreckage. We hit it so hard that the lid popped open, followed by an incredible, brilliant burst of color.
Inside the box right in front of us–two foam pool noodles! One neon orange and one hot pink.
We grabbed the floating noodles and wrapped them around our waists. Immediately, their buoyancy lifted us.
We pushed away from the debris and floated down the channel. Now we could navigate to where the floodwaters had receded. Finally, we pulled ourselves out and collapsed in the mud, gulping deep, thankful breaths of air.
“How on earth...” Darren said, unwrapping the pool toy from his waist and gently squeezing the foam, as if making sure it was real.
Someone, somewhere along the Missouri, had a pool and a pool box, most likely. Swept along in the wave of that historic flood, two helpless humans had been directed toward it. Us.
We sloshed back to our car, shivering and wet. We still have the noodles, to remind us that when everything seems lost, help is within arm’s reach.
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