Snake Island Gunshots from The Adventures of Matthew and Eric
As they were loading the pickup and the boat Friday afternoon at Matthew’s parents’ house, she asked with a raised eyebrow, “You’re going to use the mind of a 58 year-old while you’re out there with my baby boy, right?”
Eric asked, “What do you mean?”
She responded with two raised eyebrows, “What if they decide to open the dam up as you two are sleeping on the island in a tent and it washes you away in the middle of the night?”.
Matthew and Eric slowly looked at each other, grew huge smiles, slowly turned back to Mom, and Eric responded, “Wow, that would make the best story ever!” So that pretty much answered her question.
It gets dark by 6:30 p.m. this time of year in Austin in the early Spring. Being in a bit of a rush to set up camp before dark, they left around 4:45 p.m. in Matthew’s red Chevy Silverado pickup. After a quick 30-minute drive, they were at Mansfield Dam Park and had Kevin fully loaded and in the water. Kevin is Matthew’s motorboat, of course. If you want to know why Matthew’s boat is named Kevin, that’s a whole other story for another day. But let’s just say that Kevin was born in the 70s and has lots of scars from many generations of use. But it also had some recent repairs - like adding an electric bilge pump and a new battery, and upgrading the motor with one that runs - at least most of the time.
“Where did all of the water go? I don’t even know if we’ll be able to reach the island,” beginning to navigate his path ahead as the true engineer that Matthew is.
“It’s probably a combination of drought and the need for the Lower Colorado River Authority to supply water to farmers downstream”, Eric said, not at all knowing what he was talking about. “But we should just pitch the tent wherever Kevin stops.”
Neither of them had been to Lake Travis in years. Back in the early 60s, it would receive over 40 billion gallons a year, according to the Central Texas Water Coalition. But it has steadily decreased to less than 15 billion last year, in 2022, because of continued drought conditions. Loading in Kevin was easy though, as the park’s ramp was built to handle the increasingly low levels. The wind wasn’t too strong either, making the waves pretty small. Kevin sliced through them without hesitation as Matthew gave it the full throttle. Kevin was alive again and free to explore and had almost the entire lake to himself.
Matthew is a devoted boat captain. He navigated the shallow waters like a pro in search of their island using the GPS maps on his phone as the wind ripped through their hair. It’s called Starnes Island most of the time these days. Before Mansfield Dam was built in the 1940s, it was just a hill near Sandy Creek. It’s had other names such as Monkey Island, Rattlesnake Island, and Snake Island. Fortunately, Matthew didn’t tell Eric any of that before they set up camp. “Snakes and I don’t get along,” Eric declared under his breath since they could barely hear each other.
“There it is!” pointed Matthew, yelling over the roar of the motor and the wind, while Eric’s hands were gripping the windshield tighter than a baseball bat to keep from flying out or flipping over into the backseat. The island was up ahead and they realized it had become much larger now that the water was so low. The tree-covered top was all you could see a few years ago. Now it’s surrounded by giant rocks and cliffs over 30 feet tall. This was no longer the image they had in mind of a tiny little island in the middle of a lake. This was an uninhabited mountain in the center of a vast expanse of water perfectly designed for adventure.
“Uh oh. This could get crazy,” said Eric. Slowing down as they arrived from the south, at around 6:15 p.m., they circled the island and found two large barges full of 20 to 30 people having a good time on the northern shore, but they appeared to be staying on their barges - at least for now.
Still eager to set up camp before dark and seize dominion over their island, they continued in the boat around to the southeastern tip where there were no inhabitants and searched for a docking location - aka Kevin’s bunk for the evening. With jaws dropped, they both excitedly shouted, “It’s perfect!”
It almost seemed like it had been carved out of stone, at least 20 feet long and 10 feet wide, just for them (or perhaps for the opening scene of Spy Kids which Robert Rodriguez filmed there.)
Matthew quickly taught Eric how to drive Kevin, “Move the throttle quickly or else it will screw up the transmission. Up here is forward. Here in the center, the propeller is still spinning and moving us forward. But back here, is neutral. As you approach slowly, just pull the throttle back further to put it in reverse. Then go back to neutral and just glide in and I’ll catch it before it hits the rocks.” Eric nodded as if he understood but was terrified since he didn’t remember a word Matthew said.
Matthew quickly stripped down to his shorts and jumped into the cold water to make sure it would be safe for Kevin to approach. They couldn’t afford to gash a new hole in his hull right from the start and be forced to swim home. Amazingly, it worked out as if the three of them had been doing this for years.
All they had to do now was unload their gear and haul it up the large, sharp, steep rocks over three stories tall where they would find the perfect flat campsite. It took several trips. Eric was in much better shape than either of them expected. They began to set up the tent while there was still a hint of sunlight - facing the door of the tent East so they could wake up with the sunrise. It’s a huge tent - supposedly for 9 people. With just the two of them, it was as if they were in a huge bedroom with twin beds on either end. “Sweet! I’ll get the fire started!” cried the soon to be chief steak chef, Matthew.
Matthew was pretty big on redundancy and brought two of almost everything. Attempting to ensure nothing could get in the way of the steaks, they even brought their own firewood. And there were plenty of dry weeds all around to use as fire starter (since the fire starter log wouldn’t light nor would its redundant twin). Within minutes, it was blazing. “I also brought these charcoals so that the simmering heat of the coals will cook the steaks to a perfect medium-rare.” said Matthew. There was just one small problem.
“Where’s the camo bag?!?” Matthew asked nervously while looking behind and under everything in sight.
Eric hesitated, then quietly said, “I haven’t seen a camo bag today.” Nowhere to be found were the cooking utensils that had been packed in a camo bag.. No skillet! No redundancy! The bag was likely still in the driveway and had been left behind. They had nothing to cook the steaks with, but still had the food - an amazing ribeye and filet from Costco, both marinated perfectly with some secret rub of Matthew’s mom. They also had some hand cut potatoes and a carton of eggs. Already failing the Boy Scout motto of being prepared, It was time for them to improvise.
“At least I have the knife and this thing.” Matthew had a hunting knife and a Leatherman multi-tool. They quickly realized tent stakes made perfect skewers that could stab pieces of meat and be held over the fire. “Ouch!” However, they also quickly learned how that will burn your hands with the coals that hot.
“I got it! Let’s place the tent stakes like they were a grill,” said Eric, as Matthew quickly grinned and began to arrange them in rows in between two logs over the fire so that it became a make-shift grill. After putting the remaining meat on, and after flipping the steaks a few times, with a few falls into the dirt that a little water took care of, they removed them just as the red sweat started to appear indicating a perfect medium rare.
Piece by piece, with nothing but the knife, the fire, the tent stakes, and their hands, they ate the steaks and were certain they were the best steaks they had ever had in their entire lives. But that was only the first course. “How are we going to cook the potatoes?”, wondered Matthew.
By this point, they were searching every inch of their brains, determined not to give up. Eric had a sudden thought, “Hey wait. The meat was wrapped in foil, right? Let’s build a dutch oven out of it!” So they put the chopped potatoes into the foil. Then they got creative and decided to crack two eggs into the mix to make their own new concoction, or recipe, they called Snake Island Hash. They sealed it all up in the foil and buried it within the coals.
“Hmmm. I wonder how long it needs to sit in these coals?” pondered Matthew. They didn’t know how long to wait, so they threw caution to the wind and just waited until it seemed like it was long enough. Then, “Behold the hash!”, they cried. It was better than anything you might see on Bravo. The potatoes were buttery soft and brown, with eggs mixed in as if it was done by a five-star Micheline chef - although it did smell like old fish. Matthew lamented, “The salt and pepper were in the camo bag.” Still without any spoons or forks, they just dove in with their fingers and ate it.
After such hard work and a great meal, it was time for them to sit back and enjoy the fire with the vast expanses of water in all directions, and the abundance of geese honking overhead. As you might expect, they talked about one of the more important topics of life - cars. Matthew asked, “Eric, if you could have any car, what would it be?”
Eric mostly carried on about his favorite car from high school, which was a yellow and black 1953 Willys Korean War army jeep and how he used to get it stuck in the Trinity River. Assuming he already knew the answer, Eric asked, “What about you?”, expecting to hear some type of new pickup truck or maybe Matthew’s Ford Thunderbird convertible he’d been rebuilding to use as the getaway car after his upcoming wedding.
“No question. A 1960 Ford Fastback Mustang!” Matthew also went on to tell the story of how the purchase of Kevin was what inspired him to purchase and start rebuilding his Ford Thunderbird convertible. The conversation came to a sudden halt.
Behind Matthew and Eric, at the top of the island, came a long, shrill, and frightening scream from above the campsite behind a large clump of trees. Other than some star-light and some reflecting lights across the lake, it was pitch dark within the trees, even though it was only around 8:30 p.m. The sound knocked them out of their seats and their car fantasies. They couldn’t make out the words being yelled and they instantly knew they weren’t alone and that there were two or more people on the ledge above them. Eric wondered in his head, “Are they on drugs? Are they about to hurt us? I guess it doesn’t really matter since Matthew could easily wipe them all out if they come at us.” After continuing to scream while looking down at both Eric and Matthew, who were both twice the size of any of them, they soon left the island on a boat back to the mainland near Volente Beach. “Maybe now we’re the sole inhabitants of the island,” at least that’s what Eric hoped.
It had been a while since they left Kevin down at the rock dock so Matthew went to check on him before they went to bed. Good thing too. Kevin had taken on quite a bit of water - about an inch above the floor board. But Matthew turned on the bilge pump and it did its job well emptying all the water. Just one problem though. The pump can’t run all night without draining the battery - even though Matthew had just replaced the battery with a brand new one. Matthew suggested, “I think we need to set an alarm for every three hours to make sure Kevin doesn’t sink.” After they went through all of the alarm choices on Eric’s iPhone, they settled on “Cosmic.”
They went to bed around 9:00 in the 9-person gigantic hunter-vest-orange tent without the rain-fly. There was no forecast of rain and they wanted to be able to see up through the roof into the stars. Since the campsite was almost all limestone, and the tent stakes were still red-coal hot and greasy in the fire, the tent was only secured by their weight in their sleeping bags on the tent floor - allowing the windows and walls to flap pretty noisily in the wind. Both wide awake and staring into the heavens through the roof netting, Matthew said, “Let’s pray!”
They took turns back and forth praying until they covered everyone and everything they could think of - their friends, their church, their families, Matthew’s fiance Emily, their futures, their gratefulness for all that God has given them, their adoration and awe of Him, and Eric even spent about 10 minutes just slowly going through the Lord’s prayer, almost word by word, to be sure they had everything covered. After being sure Eric set the alarm for midnight, Matthew signed off, “Goodnight, Eric.” But there was not a lot of sleep due to the flapping tent walls and the seemingly non-stop geese honking - not to mention the fear of a snake crawling in bed with them.
Both of them were already wide awake at 11:30, so there wasn’t a need for the alarm. Matthew got up, put his shoes on, put his headlamp on, and made the long trek down to the water. Most of the rocks were the size of coffins cut into perfect rectangles, but they were broken up and there were other loose pieces of rock everywhere - and maybe some snakes. Matthew’s long legs and the light strapped around his head made it easy, but it was still pretty dangerous. Kevin had filled up again. This time it was much more than before, but the mighty bilge pump was as reliable as ever and it emptied the water.
Matthew saw that maybe the additional water intake was due to the weight of the gas cans in the stern near the motor that could be pushing a leaky crack down below the water level. He moved them to the bow, hoping that would prevent any additional leaking since it would level things out.
While Matthew was taking care of Kevin, Eric was still curled up in his 40 year-old Coleman plaid flannel sleeping bag that he had since middle-school. But now realizing that he was somewhat alone, he began to wonder, “It’s only midnight. A lot of things could still go wrong. What would I do if Matthew doesn’t make it back? Maybe I should get dressed and make my way down the rocks to help. Oh sweet! There’s his headlamp!”
After taking off his shoes and headlamp and crawling back in his brand new 7-foot long sleeping bag, Matthew reminded Eric to set the alarm for 3:00 a.m. Matthew also noticed that Eric was holding up his phone over his head playing Wordle so Matthew opened it up on his phone too to compete. Competition was natural for Matthew. Eric had the “A” in the correct position without any other matches and was struggling. Matthew had the “E” and the “L”. Then Matthew solved it first and let one clue slip under his breath, “There’s a hyphen in it.” Eric immediately got it too - “EMAIL” Remembering they were on an island, becoming one with nature, not to mention with no battery chargers, they put away their phones and just talked. But as they were getting more and more used to the wind and the geese, they drifted off to sleep.
At around 2:50 a.m. Matthew whispered, “Hey Eric, are you awake?”
Eric woke up from a not-so-deep sleep and managed to grumble, “Yep”
“Me too!” replied a wide-awake Matthew. Eric turned the alarm off since it was no longer needed. They both lay there awake with the same exact thoughts - wondering if Kevin had seen his last sunrise and had sunken to the bottom of the lake. Once again, Matthew was the one to get suited up, strapping on his headlamp, and making the journey to check on their lifeline back to civilization. “Ok, see you later, Eric.”, he whispered. Under the bright waning gibbous moon almost overhead, he began stepping down rock by rock, nervous as to Kevin’s condition, when two loud gun shots fired.
Eric sat straight up and peered through the tent door in the direction of Kevin and Matthew as he thought, “I’ve hunted enough and been around enough fireworks to know those were long-rifle shots - most likely a 30-30 Winchester or maybe a .257 Roberts.” Being out on a lake where you could hear conversations miles away across the water, there was no way to really know where the shots came from. But they were loud enough that it sounded too close for comfort.
Eric began to wonder feverously, “Can I hear Matthew scream from being hit - or maybe hear him fall with a loud thud as he hits the rocks with his head? How long until I need to walk down the rocks to check on him?”
Matthew heard the shots too, but wasn’t hit. And fortunately, his moving of the gas tanks earlier paid off. Kevin didn’t take on anywhere near as much water as the last time. He sat on the edge of the large flat rock where Kevin was anchored, looked out South across the smooth water and prayed, “Father, would you please keep us safe? Would you please care for and draw close anyone who might have just been involved in those gunshots? Would you please prevent me from getting shot, Lord? Lord, I pray that Kevin doesn’t take on any more water and that you give your grace to Eric and I to sleep well the rest of the night.”
Eric was going to give it another minute or two, then he saw Matthew’s headlamp making its way back up the rocks.“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, but those were gunshots!”
“I know! I assumed maybe you walked up as someone was trying to steal Kevin and they shot you. But I didn’t hear any commotion so I hoped it was from across the lake.”
“Well, aside from the gunshots, I have good news. Kevin didn’t take on hardly any water this time. Maybe we can sleep better this last round.”
As they crawled back into their sleeping bags, they were way too wide awake to sleep. With the moon now shining through the tent door, it seemed to be prompting important questions about their lives - like whether Matthew should dive straight into a petroleum engineering job since he graduates in May - or go to graduate school - or whether there is a gunman loose on the island - and why it’s so hard for Eric to go further than “Hi, my name is Eric” when trying to start a conversation with someone. After reaching no answers, they finally drifted off to sleep - this time with no alarm set.
“Dang, the stars are gone. Oh wait, it’s just cloudy,” noticed Eric.
“Yeah. How’d you sleep?”
“Awesome. You think Kevin made it through the night?”
“I sure hope so. I’ll head back down and check.” At 7:00 a.m. now, it was pretty bright outside. One more trip down to the water by Matthew.
As Matthew began the downhill climb, Eric laid awake in his sleeping bag as usual. But this time, he wondered, “Gosh, I could have easily learned how to turn on the bilge pump and taken turns emptying Kevin myself. But somehow it never crossed my mind. It was likely providence as the gunshots would have surely scared me and made me fall down all of the jagged rocks. Oh well, I’ll be sure to offer help on the next trip.”
Matthew came back with the best news yet. Kevin had not taken on any water at all. They made it a full night without Kevin sinking and didn’t have to swim home.
“Ready to swim?” asked Matthew, but with the eagerness gone from his voice.
They had planned to jump straight into the water for a swim when they woke up. But they didn’t plan for it to be 50 degrees with a cold wind. “Ummm. No. I’m thinking swimming this morning isn’t as good an idea now as it was when we were talking about it last week. It’s cold and cloudy and there are so many rocks between here and the water.” said Eric, but with a hopefulness that Matthew would agree.
“Yeah, I agree.” So they skipped the swim and Matthew re-started the fire for breakfast. He wrapped some pre-cooked sausages in the remaining foil and put them in the fire and then held tortillas over the flame in between his fingers to warm them. He used half of a tortilla per sausage and handed the first one to Eric.
“Wow, these are awesome! What should we call them?”, asked Eric.
“Pigs-in-a-Blanket!”, declared Matthew.
Eric was hoping for a more creative name, like Snake Island Toe Poppers.
After getting full from eating the entire package of sausages and bag of tortillas, they cleaned up the campsite. Then Matthew asked, “Want to start on Deuteronomy?”
The two of them have been going through a chronological Bible reading plan together since New Year’s Day. They had just wrapped up Numbers yesterday and spent the next hour reading and discussing the first two chapters of Deuteronomy.
“What stood out to you?” Matthew asked.
“I struggled a lot just to understand what was going on - like who was talking - was it God or Moses?, and hadn’t all of this happened earlier in Exodus? How about you?”
“I really loved how God gave land to Esau’s clan even though we learned earlier that God favored Jacob over his twin brother Esau. It showed that God decides whether to bless someone however he chooses and not based on things we might choose.”
The two of them also have developed a practice of always looking for ways that the Old Testament points to Jesus. Matthew nailed it by pointing out the similarities between all of the tribes of Israel’s inheritances and how the two of them, and all believers, have now inherited everything through Christ’s death on the cross.
Another practice they’re both trying to make into a habit is finding an application of the Scriptures they just read, especially in light of the good news of the Gospel, both for themselves and for others.
Eric asked, “So, how do we use today’s reading to give Jesus to someone or even to ourselves?”. Matthew said it could be that whenever we are afraid of something, to just remember where Moses reminds the Israelites who are afraid to enter their promised land about God’s faithfulness to carry us, “The Lord your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes, and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son…” (Deut. 1:30-33 ESV) “I’m blown away to think God literally just went before us last night and prepared this place for us to pitch our tents. Yet we were still in fear of the gunshots and so quickly forgot how in control He is and how much He loves us.”
They were finally coming to the end - the sad part of every camping trip when it is time to pack up the gear and go back into the world. “Have you ever smelled old canvas tarps like these before?” asked Eric. He had two, one mustard-yellow and one an old army-green, that aren’t made anymore that he’s had in his family for over 50 years.
“No, I don’t think so.” Then Matthew said, after taking a huge wiff, “Hmm. Smells like some type of oil and maybe lots of fire smoke and musty old canvas.”
“Exactly! I somehow always associate smells with experiences. This smell is what I associate with every great camping experience I’ve ever had. It helps me not forget it. When I smell diesel, I think of all the Greyhound bus trips I took as a kid to go skiing with my family in Colorado in the 60s. But musty old tarps will now always bring back Big Bend, my Mom’s chicken spaghetti, that she called Sandslide Slop, and now Kevin, Snake Island Hash and you!”
It didn’t take them long to load everything back into Kevin and shove off, leaving no trace. But there was one major issue.
As they sat there with Kevin fully loaded, trying not to let go of all the great memories of the adventure, about to zip back to the truck and the world, Kevin wouldn’t start.
“After all this, we still might have to swim home. Awesome!” thought Eric.
But Matthew had become quite the mechanic over the last few years and knew a lot about carburetors and flooded engines - from trucks to Thunderbirds and even go-karts, and now boat engines. The new battery also helped as it stayed strong enough to continue cranking the engine until it was no longer flooded. He got it started in no time and off they went.
Matthew drove back south down the lake at full throttle. He docked Kevin with great precision back at the dam, grabbed the truck, backed in the trailer, secured all of the straps and hooks, moved all of the gear into the truck, and they were off. That’s when they saw all of the police and sheriff’s SUVs near the park’s gates.
“Uh oh. Check it out. I bet they’re looking for the gunman!” said Eric. But since they were both still alive and didn’t have any direct evidence of anyone’s wrong-doing, they decided to just smile and pass on by.
Up ahead at the park ranger hut on their way out, they stopped to see if they owed any money since the sign on the gate the day before said “Park Ranger Out On Patrol. Pay as you Leave”. But as Matthew walked over and asked, “Hi, do we owe you anything?,” the park ranger stuck her neck out of her little window and glanced at Kevin, giving him the once over, and looked back at Matthew and said, “Nah Honey, you’re good.”
There is no way to know if it was because Kevin was smaller than the minimum size required for a fee, or if she just felt sorry for them due to Kevin’s deteriorating condition. But little did she know, Matthew and Eric’s great adventure was absolutely priceless.