Where I grew up, Tom Sawyer did not read like fiction. It mirrored the life of my childhood on the South Slough. I was raised in a small house on three acres surrounded by endless wilderness and water. It cultivated in me an appreciation for the outdoors. It birthed in me the pursuit of adventure and exploration. It has always appeared to me that God unceasingly beckons us to adventure, exploration, and the enjoyment of the beauty of our surroundings. I have often wondered if we are guilty of sin by ignoring this majesty and the peace of God that He offers us. If only we would stop, look, and listen.
The South Slough is the largest national estuary reserve in the United States. Aside from the oyster farmers, my two brothers and I had it to ourselves. The banks of the slough included old railroads, docks, and the rubble of the logging era 100 years earlier. The forests are all now second or third growth, making it difficult to know what they looked like when lumberjacks first started logging the massive Douglas Firs. The slough offered a natural delivery system to float the logs to the mills on the strong outgoing tides.
From the time I could walk, my dad had me wading in the mudflats, clam digging, shrimp digging, perch fishing, and duck hunting. When I wasn’t on the water, my two brothers and I were fort building, berry picking, playing war, and exploring the woods. We had everything boys needed: BB guns, BMX bikes, fishing poles, and a rowboat on the bank of the slough. We also had nonessentials such as scrap lumber, hatchets, compasses, matches, garden tools, and binoculars. We snacked on blackberries, huckleberries, salmonberries, thimbleberries, wild rhubarb and we even sampled varieties of seaweed.
Just offshore, in the middle of the slough by our house was Valino Island. We didn’t know the name of it. We just called it “the island”.
It is a five-acre island covered with pine trees and thick brush. Deer live on the island and no one else. In the middle of it, we found a giant pile of lumber in a small clearing. According to our local history book, there had once been a bridge to get to the island and a saloon. We had found the ruins of the saloon and there we established a campsite. We also found an apple orchard on the island which produced the sweetest apples, every fall. Our camping trips there were called “Island Adventures” and it gave us a place where we knew it was impossible to get into trouble with any adults.
My parents were not the fearful, overbearing kind of people that smother their children. Quite the opposite. They gave us the rowboat that we kept tied to a tree down on the bank of the slough. They supplied us with fishing poles, shrimp guns (for getting bait), boots, pocketknives, buckets, sack lunches, and life jackets. We spent the summer after my sixth-grade year catching an average of 30 saltwater perch each day. My parents had a rule that if you caught a fish, you had to clean it. It seemed like the cleaning took much longer than the catching. We filled our freezer, our grandparent’s freezer, and our neighbor’s freezer, all with perch fillets.
One summer day I took my little brother fishing. He was eight and I was 13. I failed to check the tides that day. Normally, failing to check the tides doomed a person to get stuck on a mudflat. If unable to “row” the boat off the mud, your only option would be to get out of the boat and push it back into the deeper water. The trick was to keep the water from going over the tops of your boots, but this was a hopeless goal that I never really achieved. Climbing back into the boat, I would dump the water out of my boots and ring out my socks before putting them back on.
But this day the problem was not with shallow mudflats. It was a “king tide” with strong outgoing currents. I did not understand what a “king tide” was. To me, there was high tide and low tide, but nothing else. A king tide is an especially high tide. It occurs two or three times each year and causes some flooding. When a big high tide starts going out, the current grows especially strong.
We anchored in the middle of the channel at slack high tide and began to fish. Even though my brother Mike was only eight years old, he knew how to grab a live shrimp and bait his hook. We dropped our lines down and before his line hit the bottom of the slough, the tip of his pole bent abruptly down and started to shake. He set the hook with a quick jerk and moments later was hoisting the biggest pink-tail perch I had ever seen. We threw the fish into the bucket, re-baited, and dropped our lines back down. Before I had a chance to catch my first fish, he was fighting his second. This time it was a fat piling perch. Within thirty minutes we had ten fish in the bucket.
It was then that I noticed we were dragging our anchor as the tide was now rushing out. I knew that it was time to row home, so Mike pulled up the anchor from the bow and I grabbed the oars, sitting in the middle of the boat, facing the stern. By the time I spun us around we had already moved 75 yards from where we had been anchored.
I knew the slough. I knew how to row. I knew the tides. I dug my heels into the bottom of the boat, leaning forward reaching ahead with both hands firmly gripping the oar handles. I dug the blades into the water and pulled hard. We stopped drifting, for a second, but before I could row again, we had moved a few more feet in the opposite direction. I pulled again, harder this time. And again, faster. And again, and again. I was at a standstill in the current. I aimed towards the shore, hoping to get out of the fast current, but the shoreline was deep and blocked by tree branches and brush extending over the water along the steep edge.
I rowed frantically. My brother watched helplessly. I aimed for the opposite shore, looking for a place where we could land the boat and physically drag it against the flow in shallow water. The king tide swept us along at a pace I could not match. I was not ready to give up. I kept rowing and rowing. Soon my hands began to hurt as blisters developed. I began to tire. I had never been overcome by a current before. Facing the stern of the boat as I rowed, it was not long before I saw the drawbridge in Charleston off in the distance. No matter how hard I rowed, I was going backward.
My brother asked, “What are we going to do Matt?”
I stopped rowing. As we sped along, I knew where the current would ultimately carry us. This water was destined for the Pacific Ocean. The force of the tide was more than I could fight. I also knew that there were docks in Charleston, which were between us and the bar. We would be safe if I could line up the boat and let the current carry us into one of the fishing docks in the boat basin. From there we could get help, walk home (three miles), or wait for the tide to change.
“We are going to Charlie-town!”, I told my little brother.
Surrounding the Charleston bridge were docks for fishing boats, fisheries, and a marina. As long as we were near the shore, outside the main channel, we would broadside a dock. I had done a lot of fishing and crabbing off the dock at Petersen’s Fishery, so I made that my target. I was drifting fast, rowing just enough to steer around the occasional piling. As we quickly approached the bridge, I realized I had not accounted for the grid of concrete pilings that supported the bridge all the way from the shoreline to the channel. I had to decide quickly if I should enter the main channel and risk being swept past the docks or try to squeeze between the bridge supports that were between us and the docks. I opted for the latter.
With Mike guiding me in the bow, I was now rowing with the current, carefully adjusting our trajectory. “A little towards the shore. Not that much!” Mike directed as we raced towards the bridge. I looked over my shoulder and was relieved to see the docks beyond the pilings. If we could only get under the bridge. I prayed. I hoped. I tried to steer, and I realized that I was leaving this one mostly to chance.
“Bang!” I felt the jolt of our aluminum boat hitting the concrete base of the bridge. Mike fell onto the bottom of the boat, and the boat spun a full 180 degrees. I was holding onto the oars, but the right oar suddenly was ripped from my hands as it connected with the bridge as well. The impact had not cracked the hull. We ended up spinning around before hitting another object.
“What the @#$#?!”
It was an adult voice, and it was NOT happy. I looked up to see the weather-beaten face of an angry captain staring down at me from the side of a tall trawler.
“Sorry, sir! We were just trying to stop at this dock. I don’t think we hurt your boat.”
We were now slowly drifting and scraping down the side of his boat. I cringed as I saw the line forming in the paint of his boat, inch by inch. Once past the stern of the boat, we safely landed against the dock. Mike stepped out with the bowline. We roped up the boat and both smiled happily once we were standing on the dock.
Now we had to decide. Do we find an office phone in Petersen’s to call home? Do we walk three miles to go home and get help? Or, do we wait for the incoming tide? After all, we had to get the boat back eventually.
There are times in life where fighting against a current is impossible to overcome. A global pandemic. A company layoff. An economic crash. Divorce papers. A diagnosis, or a tragedy that we cannot avert. When swept up in these currents it is a time to shift our focus towards prayer, patience, and perseverance. We know by faith that in time, the tide will change. Therefore, we do not fear.
3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
• What powerful tides are carrying your life along right now? Do you need to fight them, or just navigate?
• In what areas of life do you need to focus on prayer, patience, and perseverance?