T he last thing I expected to pick up on a 1,000-mile canoe trip was a kitten.
But that’s exactly what happened.
Halfway through the 75-day adventure, my friend and I heard a moan from the jagged riverbanks right before a tiny, orange kitten leapt from a cliff into the river and swam toward our boat.
At the time, I had two cats at home, and one thing is certain – they both hate water. This cat was peculiar.
We scooped the mangy scoundrel on board and paddled him to shore. Before releasing him, I picked what seemed like 200 ticks from his tiny body. He pranced around the shore without fear of the river or my friend and me. And as we started to push off the dock, the little bobtail kitten sprinted toward us and jumped back into the canoe.
At this point during the trip, we were just getting the hang of living on the river. We paddled every day – sunrise to sunset – through the Alabama summer heat, heading for the Gulf of Mexico. Sunburns, chigger bites and knotted hair was part of the daily grind. We were becoming accustomed to paddling through nature’s gauntlet. There’s a saying that the universe doesn’t give us more than we can handle. Well, apparently, the universe thinks I can handle a lot! Not only were we battling cottonmouth snakes and building lean-tos during sideways rainstorms, we had to begin nursing a baby kitten.
At night, I would toss the kitten above my head in the hammock. He slept like a baby. And he woke up like a baby ¬– every morning before sun-up. He’d prance around like a deer while we cooked up breakfast over the stove. We constructed a house for him out of an old shoebox. Written across the top was “Tom’s House.” His name became Tombigbee, named after the river we found him on.
If two longhaired, bearded men carrying 100 pounds of gear around in a canoe weren't eccentric enough, adding a kitten to the mix made us look like a circus act. Passing boaters and townsfolk were always somewhat interested in us, but soon we became as famous as the viral cat videos you see on Instagram.
It took another 35 days to get to the gulf and Tombigbee sat starboard watching the shoreline for the rest of the trip. I’ve never been the parent of anything in my life, but taking care of this kitten is the closest I’ve ever come to parenting. Every time he ran into the bushes, my heart dropped as I thought about snakes swallowing him whole. We sought shelter in lightning storms and pouring rain while I cradled him inside my raincoat. I even had to hitchhike into a town with him tucked under my arm to find a vet.
When we crossed the brackish water into the gulf, we were safe alas. Five hundred miles with a kitten, and we made it – all three of us together.
As soon as we reached our final destination, Tom jumped out of the boat and ran into the bayou. This time, he never came back out when it was time to load up the boat and shuttle back home. The rangers said that the kitten had wandered into an alligator den and was probably long gone. To go after him would have risked our own lives.
That evening, I wept. I wondered about the purpose behind this great adventure and why it ended in such tragedy.
Hours later, my friend and I went back to the same spot we’d lost Tom, and hopped the gates to search for him again. Approaching the tall grasses in the bayou, I whistled and called his name. There was no sight of the kitten … but then I heard the sound of the bell on his tiny collar jingling. He hopped out of the waist-high weeds with squinted, sleepy eyes. We had found him.
When I was typing this article on my keyboard, I looked over at Tombigbee sitting next to me. He is a constant reminder that life is a great mystery. Whatever it is that I thought I was searching for on that trip, something greater ended up coming along. Even if was a curious bobtail cat that floated 500 miles down a river in a canoe with me.
► Peter Stadalsky is an Aurora resident and adventurer. He shares his travel experiences with a “glass-half-full” view of the world.