January 23, 2008—All fall I had been working on an article for Hallmark magazine about my 50 Years/50 Rivers project. I had been through several edits, the manuscript was ready for print and by January it was time to meet the magazine photo team at a river.
King’s Landing sign
Ian paddles canoe
Palms across water
Photographer checks camera
Wet cameras dry off
Cameras on towel
Debra paddles canoe
Checking photo card
There is, of course, no free flowing canoeing water in Minnesota in January so I planned a trip to a small stream just north of Orlando, Florida: Rock Springs Creek. King’s Landing, a small outfitter on the creek, helped arrange two canoes for a day’s paddle. Rock Springs Creek meets up with the Wakiva River in a simple 8-mile stretch with an easy take out, the online photos looked amazing, we would be close to a major airport, and there were accommodations and restaurants in the nearby town of Mt. Dora. Perfect.
Ian and I met our team of photographers over dinner in Mt. Dora. They were delightful, funny, and up for the trip. One of the crew had some paddling experience. One did not. We went over maps and agreed to meet at King’s Landing at 7am to catch the early morning light on the river.
The next morning the warmer creek was spectacular in the surprisingly cold air. Steam rose off the water and lifted into the bright blue, clear-as-a-bell morning sky in great bands. It was incredible. I was thrilled and relieved—It would be a spectacular river for the photo shoot.
But after a quick meeting we decided to postpone the trip, as temperatures were to be warmer the next day. We all split up and had an unexpected day off, some walking the sandy trails of the nearby springs, others poking in the famous antique shops of Mt. Dora, meeting for dinner together later. More laughter. Another plan to join up in the morning, creekside.
The temps had reached 39 degrees by 7am with a promise of blue skies so we packed up the canoe with dry bags filled with a photogenic lunch and shoved off into the primal tropical water. With the cold the alligators had retreated inland, the birds were quiet, and even the turtles were buried in the brush. It was silent and gorgeous as we paddled, the only sound coming from the following photographer as he fired the auto shutter, continuously switching from camera to camera from the silver case in the bottom of their canoe.
Palms across water
The river was wondrous, a small trail snaking through lily pads, in one moment spacious and wide-open overhead, and then twisting into narrow passages arched with palms and lined with thick underbrush. The water was calm and easy, and paddling was only occasionally challenging as submerged stumps required quick draw and pull strokes. A couple of low branches had us leaning and twisting into the canoes. Ian and I called the river’s surprises to the canoe following us.
About half way into the trip we spotted our first animal of the day: a turtle sunning on a fat log, right where the creek narrowed to a mere three feet. A turtle! Ian and I bobbled by the stumps, pointing silently, thumbs up!
There are moments that rise up, later, to be signifiers, moments that become the place to point to when all things changed, hereafter. Now, two years later, it seems that this is moment when my corner of the world reached its tipping point and everything tumbled about.
Our trailing canoe hit the submerged logs and within an instant, I glimpsed over my shoulder, their canoe tipping. Both men tumbled into the creek along with ten thousand dollars worth of camera equipment. Things happen fast in a cold river. They caught the canoe, we caught the floating paddles, and they were diving for all the bits and pieces that had been packed in foam in the sleek silver camera case. Several lenses, two camera bodies, and an array of filters were sinking into the white sand at the bottom of the clear creek—there was no danger to anyone as the stream was not deep here, but it was cold, and the financial implicaions of what had happened was instantaneous.
Cameras on towel
They recovered every piece that had a place in the silver foam lined box. The banks of the creek were so dense with underbrush that we had to paddle upstream, back to the camping spot 100 yards up river. We dragged the wet equipment and the once anticipated lunch back to the picnic table. Dry clothes were found. The camera pieces were laid out on the towels, like bones. A light flickered on one camera, then died. Everything was ruined. We ate in silence. We got warm. We packed up. We still had four miles ahead of us. At a small clearing ahead the protected iPhone (in its own dry box) was used to call Kansas City and deliver the news to the office. A plan was struck to rent another camera in Orlando and try to finish the shoot the next day so at least all would not be lost.
The paddle back was weak-spirited. The river, just as gorgeous as it was before the spill, was not cheering our crew. I felt terrible, somehow responsible. At the take out we had one miracle: the water did not affect the camera’s storage card and the pictures, up to the lone turtle, were all available. Dinner that night was a sober affair. We agreed to meet the next day with the rented camera to shoot pictures of us paddling into the landing—with the photographer’s feet on land.
And so ended the Great Photo Shoot, but the story had a few more chapters. Six weeks later Hallmark magazine folded and I was paid a “kill fee,” what they call a story that ends due to extenuating circumstances. The photo crew kept their places but all the other people I had worked with lost their jobs. I never saw a single picture. Eight weeks after this spill my publisher of 20 years, Harcourt, based in San Diego, CA, was sold to HMH and my editor, Allyn Johnston, was fired along with most of the people I had worked with those two decades.
You can see how THAT moment of the great spill on Rock Springs Creek came to stand for the upturning of the world as we knew it…The Great Recession had begun and everything had tumbled into the water.
Rock Springs Creek, May 3, 2010, written January, 2011
The 50 Years/50 Rivers project had to be shelved as I scrambled to put my book creating career back together. My editor moved to Simon and Schuster with many of her authors and illustrators joining her. Within weeks Allyn created Beach Lane Books, with another splendid, abet fired, Harcourt editor, Andrea Welsh. In a small upstairs office, in La Jolla, California, with a couple of tables and a phone, Allyn and Andrea started over. They were amazing! Every day was a challenge where even the once most simple task now required learning a new process. Contracts were shifted. New staffs in New York City were met. Slowly, ever so slowly, a new publishing effort was built.
In the bright sun
Take out with tents
In 2010 Beach Lane Books’ author and illustrators, Liz Garton and Marla Frazee won a Caldecott Honor medal for All the World. I published A Fabulous Fair Alphabet and introduced the astonishingly well-received Alphabet Forest (vocabulary game for families) at the Minnesota State Fair as the fairs first children’s Author-in-Residence.
As we righted ourselves through two years of intense hard work, I thought:
Time to go back to Rock Springs Creek. Work took me back to Florida. Afterwards I met my cousin, John, and his wife, Patricia, at the edge of Rock Springs Creek, at the same Kings Landing.
It was warm. It was blue-sky-beautiful. We set off on the now familiar creek, me having learned to manage a solo canoe since the earlier paddle. We saw herds of turtl es basking in the sun, splashing into water as we paddled by. We saw young alligators warming on logs. We ate a simple lunch at the same campground table where I told them the entire tale of the Great Spill. It is a good story now. I stopped my canoe at the narrow place of the spill, got out, and photographed thearrangement of log and hidden stumps. I was astonished to find that the stumps were orderly, not stumps at all, but the remains of bridge pilings. This trip they were farther under water and caused not a ripple.
What surprised me was this: The stumps were man-made. Somehow this changed things just a bit: True, we had not watched carefully, true, we had been distracted by the lone animal spotting, and true, people had built the shoals we tipped on. The Wall Street parallels made me wince.
We finished the paddle without event. Since the Hallmark trip the restaurant at the take out for the canoes had built a new bar, and a set of bathrooms with lovely tile decorations. I couldn’t resist apicture! We all hugged goodbye and I drove toward the airport…and suddenly realized I had left my camera in the new tiled bathroom—I nearly cried…Not another camera disaster! A swift return found the camera tucked safely behind the bar. So thanks to the kindness of strangers the return to Rock Springs Creek was a perfect (camera) day.
It has taken these two years to finally feel like I could write up this river disaster and all that happened since the spill. Many people have taken this metaphoric spill in the same span of time. Nothing is the same, and I am working harder than ever to keep the boat afloat and paddle the river, watching for hidden stumps. I wish you all the same: a sturdy boat, good traveling partners, a dry lunch, and a story worth telling, however rueful.