The Last Sleep-out

by Linda W. Curtis

It was a splendid idea: a sleep-out on the floating platform of the bog pond.

The Friends of the Bog, FOB, had already planned a full day of tours and demonstration tables to educate the public about the treasures and dangers of the bog on Earth Day.

Then, to treat themselves after the cleanup and pot-luck dinner, they would take sleeping bags out to the floating boardwalk that led to the pond, then have a restful night sleeping with nature. It was a dark and starry night, cool but not cold. It seemed perfect.

The herbarium coordinator was unable to attend, excusing herself by admitting she snored and wouldn’t want to keep anyone awake. Poor soul. She did however, bring a large bowl of steaming baked beans and  jugs of iced tea. While a few pondered their choice of foods, most heaped their plates with everything while the coordinator drove away smiling from the nature center in the last rays of daylight.

The clean up was full of good humor and jesting. Then it was time for the fearless leader, the president of the friends group, to lay out the plan of order. “Everyone,” he shouted, waving his hand to get their attention. “Be sure to use the restrooms before we go on the trail. It’s too long and dangerous to have anyone try to get back on that swaying plank walk in the middle of the night.”

“Also, we have a knotted rope for all to hang on to as we walk the first part of the plank walk. There’s no handrails until we get to the shrub zone. And no grabbing on the shrubs, you know there’s poison sumac out there.” There were grunts of “Yeah, we know”, and “No problem.” After all, they were all adults.

The president, of course, led the way. It was now already dark, but he and the others had flashlights to light the way until they reached the shrub zone with handrails. The floating boardwalk began to shift in sections sideways right and left as the walkers somehow all strode on their right foot. When they were nearly pitched off, the leader shouted “Halt!”  Bump, bump, bump as they fell on the person ahead of them. “People, people,” he shouted, “We all can’t be stepping on the same foot. Whatever the person in front of you steps, you use the opposite foot.“ So, they shone their light on the person’s feet ahead of them and hoped they were on the opposite foot as there was a continuous change of step to align themselves. Those that erred could feel the boardwalk pitch and switched to the other foot, and so a dance of sorts of foot adjustments caused yanks on the knotted rope this way and that until someone stumbled and the leader was almost pulled off.

If an animal was watching this human chain, they would have marveled at the ineptness of humans. Indeed, one animal, a raccoon was watching, a smart fellow with opposable thumbs, and the ability to see color, even at night. The noise of screams, screeches, and shouts make him uneasy. “Ow! Slow down! Did you grope me? Stop, I lost my shoe!”

And so it went. What was normally a half-hour walk, became a hour of bumping into each other and being yanked ahead in the dark. Finally, the shrub zone was reached where the plank walk didn’t shift side-to-side and the handrails were firmly gripped.

“Shhh“ Pass it back” the leader said, “Don’t touch the shrubs.” And what the old parlor game of “Telephone” taught us, what is passed on repeatedly changes until it means something else. The last person heard the most incredible statement. After a moment he said to the person ahead of him, “Pass it on,“ and replied with a completely contorted response. By the time the leader received the news, he believed someone along the knotted rope was having serious problems and needed to be rescued. They were now in the tamarack zone and dark tree limbs hung over the plank walk, brushing faces with soft needles. Bats flew and darted along the channel of air above the plank walk.

“What was that!“ someone cried, causing all to cringe and crouch down. “Bats,” the leader said, “They won’t hurt you. Learn to duck.”

Too late, a splat sounded as someone stood up. “Oh no,” the splatted party said,

“What if it’s rabid.?” “ Did you bite it? his person in front responded.“No, of course not.” “Well then,” was the response, “Then you’re all right.”

The leader heard this, but was so concerned about the distress signal from the rear of the knotted rope, he let it go. “Pass it on,” he said in a loud whisper,” Explain the problem.” It wasn’t just the end person who determined the meaning in a different way. The knotted rope line moved slowly forward, yanking each time the unimaginable was told to the person behind. “You’re kidding!” was heard several times.

At last, the floating platform was reached.

Since all had tied on their sleeping bags as a backpack, there was a few minutes of tousle as they bumped each other with elbows, freeing their sleeping bags. Flashlights were set down on the floating platform railing, and many rolled off into the water, not to be retrieved.

Ow! You knocked my glasses off.”  Crunch. “I found them.” “My zipper’s stuck”.

“I can’t find my zipper.” And so it went until all were enveloped in their polyester cocoons lying on platform, looking up at the dark, now starless and moonless sky.

They talked softly among themselves while listening to the different frog calls in the pond and far away bog shore. A whining noise sounded, and all stopped and wondered.

“What was that? “ The person who made the whining sound through his nose said, “That’s the whining frog, only calls late at night, that’s why no one recognizes it.”

After several intermittent whines, the president hisses a shout. ”Quiet, I want to sleep.” A hush fell over the pond, the croakers stopped croaking, the crickets stopped cricking. And all would have been well, until the iced tea hit home.

Some of this troop were husband and wife, and the first punch in the arm, or where an arm should be in a sleeping bag, came from a wife. “Jim, wake up, I gotta go!

I gotta go BAD.” “Go over the side,” he said in a tired haze. “Of course not, that would add nutrients to the pond, and create an algae bloom.” A slight pause, then, “I’ve got to go back. Are you coming with me?”

As it turned out, they almost all had to go, and one by one they peeled back their sleeping bags and grabbed the back of each others shirt, and made the step by step procession. All was well from the floating platform, the quaking mat zone, the tamarack zone, but when they cringed along the shrub zone and came to it’s end, they realized, that was the end of the side rails. From here on in, they had to traverse that shaky floating plank walk without any aid but the sure-footed step of the person ahead of them. “Who’s got the knotted rope?”  The answer came “ It’s still on the platform with our president.” A pause of realization struck. “Who is not with us?” someone asked. Another response in the dark. “I don’t even know who is with us.” “Hurry up, I’m getting desperate.”

Fortunately, in the distance, the night light of the nature center shown like a beacon, and they went forward, remembering the plank walk made a left, then a right, then another left before heading straight up the slope to the ultimate relief. The raccoon was still there, his beady black eyes wondering what the humans were doing now.

The guys of course, were in and out of their single stall in minutes. The ladies, however, took much longer. “Where’s the paper?” “What’s taking so long?” And while the ladies hung around their little out-building, the men went into the back door of the nature center into the bag-lunch area for volunteers where the left over food from the pot luck dinner was stored in fridge and left-over ice cream was still in the freezer. It was a long time before they returned in a jovial mood. but not the women. Mosquitoes were out in droves in spite of the atmospheric cloud of mosquito spray surrounding them.

“Ok,” one said, “Let’s get organized. We don’t want to leave anyone behind. How many are here?” There were several counts as a few said “here” twice because no one could see raised hands. “Wait a minute, let’s find out who is not here and is still back at the platform.” A long conversation occurred that midnight as failing memories complicated the count. After coming to no conclusion at all, the troops headed back down the slope to the plank walk. It was nearly one in the morning when then returned, walking the last stretch by sound as loud snoring was coming from the floating platform. “Oh, no,”  one woman said, “that must be my husband John. I’d know his snore anywhere.” She added, “Don’t’ worry, I’ll give him the elbow and he’ll stop.” The single women in the group were mentally congratulating themselves on their refusal of their last proposal.

And so it was, poor John got the elbow and stopped snoring. But the wife, well, the wife had developed her own intestinal sounds that kept many awake until they slept from exhaustion. At dawn, aching bones and muscles pulled together, the troop carried their unrolled sleeping bags over their shoulders and returned the long trudge back to drive home. There never was another sleep-out.

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copyright © 2014 Linda Curtis, botanist

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