I’ve spent a lot of my life on the water. There’s nothing like being the first one on the beach in the morning just as the sun is slipping up over the blue horizon. Or spending the day drifting on a lake so clear and flat you feel like a marble rolling over glass. I was allowed to roam and swim and sail on my own from a young age. My parents taught me water safety; drilled it into me until I could mumble the rules in my sleep. Swim parallel against riptides. Wear a lifejacket around swift water. Never dive unless you are sure of the depth.
More than anything else, my parents warned me about bad water.
“You’ll know it when you see it,” my dad told me the first time I took a solo kayaking trip. I was thirteen. “Bad water doesn’t look the same every time but you’ll know. The danger is not noticing until you’ve been on it for a while. You might get lost, even in a familiar area. You might see things in the water that don’t make sense. Don’t panic. Just head for shore wherever you are and you’ll be fine. Don’t panic...but don’t hesitate. Bad water is usually out in wilder places, deep areas without much traffic. Sometimes, though, through a fluke in tides or channels or currents, you might find it anywhere.”
I always assumed my dad was using the term “bad water” as a catch-all for any dangerous patches of river or ocean. There are places where the water is deceptively deep and strong currents can exhaust even an experienced swimmer in minutes. Or maybe bad water was a superstitious thing for pops. He was an old-school Navy guy, a sailor who’d seen all four corners of the world and probably even that fifth corner they keep secret. You wouldn’t believe what he would consider good or bad luck.
It took me twenty years after that first solo trip to realize that bad water is real, it’s probably alive, and it’s fucking hungry.
The Pocomoke River is sixty-six miles long, connecting the southern edge of Maryland’s Eastern Shore to Delaware in the north. It slithers along up from the bay through wetlands, forest, and the Great Cypress Swamp. The word Pocomoke means “black water.” There are some places where the river is so deep that it’s said to be bottomless. The truth is, it might as well be; quick currents a few dozen feet under the surface have been known to drag swimmers vast distances once they reach a certain depth. But for all of that, I loved the river dearly.
I’ve spent countless hours kayaking or paddleboarding over the wide, dark water. The shore is lined by endless phalanxes of green. The cypresses stretch out over the river; you could cut through their reflections as you paddle if you stay close to either bank. There are elms and pine and hawks and cranes and eagles often on the wing. Birds will dive and pluck fish from the Pocomoke like candy from a Valentine heart. The wind follows the river--gently most times--but when they quarrel it causes the trees to bend and the water will chop in short, blue-black waves.
If you’re out on the Pocomoke at dusk you can watch it drink the sun until below you is stained gold and above you it’s a purple canopy where the stars are just beginning to burrow through. When the moon emerges, low and cool, it’s like having your own personal spotlight.
Yeah, I love the river. Maybe loved. Because now I know there are places where the bad water got in.
I launched my kayak from a slip not too far from town on a clear morning last week. There was a breeze coming from downriver. It was almost chilly before daybreak. Even once the sun was up, that air stayed cool. A perfect day for a paddle.
The first hour was a wonderful drift. I had the current with me so the ride was easy. The Pocomoke has a notoriously powerful undertow that gets stronger the deeper you dive. Even on the surface, the current can drag an unprepared swimmer. When you were paddling with the grain, though, it felt like gliding.
I found the cut about two hours into my trip. I’ve spent countless mornings on the Pocomoke and thought I knew every nook and cranny within ten miles of my usual launch site. But that day I noticed an estuary creeping off from the main channel. It was half-hidden by hanging willows but my eye was immediately drawn to the opening because of how out of place it was. It shouldn’t have existed. I’d traveled that stretch of river dozens of times and never seen the waterway before. It was like waking up and looking in the mirror one morning to discover an old scar had popped up on your cheek overnight. A wound on the face of the Pocomoke, albeit a small one.
I stopped paddling and floated. As I drifted closer to the channel, I began to feel a little nauseous. The cool breeze that was blowing across the water became chilly. I wanted to explore the opening but my anxiety was revving up. There had to be a good explanation for the sudden appearance of a new channel.
I began paddling towards the cut. The waterway was narrow, not much wider than the length of my kayak. Green branches wove together overhead, so thick I couldn’t see more than a few patches of clean sky. It was cool in the shade of the trees. I felt my muscles begin to relax. Maybe the channel was hidden in undergrowth before. Maybe it was always there and I’d just drifted past it. Now it was like I found a secret passage, a winding vein through the body of the Pocomoke Forest.
This was some Narnia shit and I was having a good time.
The channel opened up after a hundred yards. Branches still blocked most of the sun but larger openings appeared as I went. Sun stood on the river in hazy columns. The only sound was my paddle breaking the water.
The only sound.
It took me a few minutes to realize that all of the usual forest noise was muted. No bird calls, no rustling from wildlife skittering around the brush. I stopped paddling and found myself floating in silence. The river snaked ahead of me, the bends making it impossible to see more than fifty yards ahead. The channel might stretch on for a mile or ten times that or more. The lack of any sound was making me feel uncomfortable. Isolated. I decided to turn around and head back to the main channel.
I rotated the kayak and started retracing my route. It shouldn’t have taken me more than fifteen minutes to get back to the opening of the cut. After almost an hour of paddling in the strange quiet, I was focusing on my breathing to avoid having a panic attack. It didn’t make sense. The river looped on and on with those light-eating branches overhead. It was a straight shot and there’s no way I could have gotten lost. So why couldn’t I get back to the main channel?
After another ten minutes, I put my paddle down to rest. I was sweating heavily and half-soaked from the backsplash. The cold air made me shiver as soon as I stopped exerting myself. I looked down at the water and felt the panic attack inch closer. Pocomoke is always dark. It’s incredibly deep for its size; that plus silt and soil in the water suck up sunlight until it looks like you’re drifting over a shadow. But this was different. The river wasn’t dark. It was black, beyond ink. It was the empty black between stars.
I tried to analyze the situation calmly. Professionally. And without pissing in my cargo shorts. The most rational explanation was that I’d gotten turned around or that the side-channel had a fork I’d missed coming out but accidentally took going back. As for the water, the shadows from branches overhead plus some extra silt that day might cloud it up so that it looked almost black.
It’s not “almost black,” I thought, it’s-
I told myself to keep it together. There were always explanations for even the weirdest shit. I was lost, the water was full of soil, and the forest was silent because...I didn’t know. Maybe all of the animals were at a party or something.
Taking a quick breath, I put my paddle back into the water. The channel would have to open up eventually. Thirty minutes later it seemed like I hadn’t moved at all. The only change was that with each passing minute there was less and less light. It was too early for sundown. And I didn’t see thunder clouds in the few patches of sky visible through the branches. The sunlight was simply fading, dusk in fast motion.
“Maybe it’s a fucking eclipse,” I whispered, wincing at how loud my voice sounded in the utter silence of the river.
There was only my breathing, the splash of the paddle, and the failing light. Full night came quickly. I hadn’t brought a flashlight but I was able to use the one built into my phone--no signal, naturally--for navigation. I stopped paddling and floated along in the quiet blackness. Eventually, the branches above me became less tangled. Soon enough, I was staring up at a black sky filled with unfamiliar stars. They were close and cold and tinted a sickly yellow-green. All except for a single red star, brighter than the rest, that made my eyes water when I looked at it.
The constellations made no sense, chaotic swirls of uneven lines, crooked spirals, and overlapping rings. And the stars were moving, slow but clear, like storm clouds in the wind. A pock-marked moon rose shakily above the treeline. It cast a harsh light, enough that I no longer needed my phone to see. The river stretched on and on and I wondered if I should beach the kayak and take my chances in the forest. I’d nearly made up my mind and was searching for a level plot of shoreline when I noticed the eyes.
Thousands of eyes, all reflecting the glow of the moon, hovered in the darkness between the trees. I decided to stay on the river, and began paddling towards the middle of the channel.
The moon climbed quickly, casting shadows of trees onto the water. There was another shadow, slim and oval, about the size of a bed. At first, I thought it was from my kayak. Then the shadow jerked and darted away like a trout fighting a line. Whatever it was, the object was under the surface.
Another shadow appeared, then another. These were larger, each roughly the size of a truck. More shapes began to surround my boat. One was massive, taking up most of the width of the channel and more than twice that in length. It settled directly under my kayak and matched my speed. The world shook as something nudged me from below.
I began to paddle as fast as I could. My mouth was sticky with an alkali-adrenaline taste. My shoulders burned but I kept moving, trying not to look down at the shadows swarming below me. The river straightened out after the last bend and I spotted a new cut out. It was a narrow opening obscured by roots. I leaned into the turn, sliding into the channel, praying it was too tight a fit for most of the shadows to follow.
I guess it was because nothing seemed to follow me. The estuary widened almost immediately, opening into a small gulf. I racked my paddle, completely exhausted. There were no eyes shining from the shore here; I decided to take my chances with the forest. Before I could make my way to land, I noticed a log was floating towards me. The moon was directly overhead now, lighting the river in a perverse pseudo-noon, like daylight strained through a dirty coffee filter. I leaned forward to get a better view of the log, then recoiled.
It was a body.
I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. The corpse was naked, pale, shoulders and back exposed in a deadman’s float. It was drifting slowly towards me. I paddled away, racing for shore but found my way blocked by another body. Just like the shadows, new corpses rose to the surface, bobbing on the river, macabre landmines I desperately wanted to avoid.
They all moved with that same deadman’s float towards me. I was stuck, surrounded, maybe ten yards from shore. I had just resolved to make a break for it, even if I had to ride over one or two bodies on my way, when I felt a tug on my submerged paddle. Before I had a chance to react, the paddle was yanked down so hard that I lost my balance. The kayak tipped then rolled.
The water was so cold.
I tried opening my eyes but the river burned. Christ, it felt like being pepper-sprayed. I thrashed, kicking for what I hoped was the surface. A hand wrapped around my ankle while another ripped at my hair. I could sense forms around me in the water. There wasn’t time to take a deep breath before the boat flipped and my lungs were already shrieking, begging for oxygen. Something scratched my left calf deeply. I yelped and felt greasy water flow into my mouth.
It’s incredible what a human is capable of when facing absolute desperation. Mom’s lift cars off of their kids. Hikers fight off mountain lions. And, somehow, I managed to squirm until I broke the surface of the Pocomoke. The air that rushed in was the sweetest, cleanest thing I’d ever tasted.
Unseen hands still pawed at me from below. I swam for it, all grace and experience forgotten. I splashed and kicked and forced my way through the water until I finally felt dirt against my chest. I scrambled up the bank, collapsing into a ball. My eyes were still closed; I vomited in darkness, the liquid burning almost as much coming out as it did going in.
I opened my eyes to dazzling summer sunshine. The night was gone along with its strange moon and exotic stars. I spit out more water, pushing down a wave of nausea at the taste. The shoreline looked familiar, as did the river. I knew where I was; it was a section of the forest I’d visited a dozen times, not more than a mile from where I’d launched earlier in the day. The Pocomoke was calm and normal.
There was no sign of my kayak.
I was able to hike back to my car in less than half-an-hour. If it wasn’t for the burning sensation in my eyes and throat it would have felt like a regular day trip. I drove home and immediately went to bed, still soaking wet. After that, I got sick for a while. Even went to the hospital for a week. Doctors said it might be flu or food poisoning or any number of things. Whatever it was, it seemed to clear up on its own.
But I knew it wasn’t over. I never should have traveled the cut. I should have listened to the little warning bells. Once bad water gets in, it stays with you. Seeks you. Finds you.
I don’t go out on the river anymore. I don’t swim. I don’t even shower. Disgusting, I know but...the water, it always comes out bad.
I drink overly processed, sugar-saturated crap--boiling it just in case--and even then I can taste it.
You never think about how much of your life revolves around water until you can’t have it anymore.