My mom was a prolific writer and tried mightily to get her short story published about the vacations she used to take with her 4 siblings and her mom and dad all crammed into a 1955 station wagon. The title of her story was, And the First Day It Rained…
I thought of Mom as we loaded the canoes near Ponca, Arkansas in the drizzle and prepared to launch into the icy water of the Buffalo River. It was April, and a late spring rain had drenched the Ozarks around us over the past two days, making our drive through the narrow mountain roads, ahem, “sporty.” Nonetheless, we managed to make it from South Texas to the Buffalo National River with all our gear and with most of our wits. After a bit of really outstanding barbeque and homemade fried pies at T’s BBQ in Harrison (thank you Yelpers) and last minute provisioning at the Harrison Walmart, we were finally here. Weeks of planning and thinking about the trip were about to be consummated. After a brief checkout at Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca, we caravan-ed down to the launch point to meet up with our canoes.
You Had One Job
I spent a lot of time in the water growing up in the lakes of North Texas, and more recently eight years in the ocean daily off the Windward shores of O’ahu, but this was to be my first multi-day canoe trip. I was concerned that my ocean and lake experience wouldn’t translate to the swift water, but I wasn’t a novice in the water.
My one goal for the day was to stay in the canoe. I’d rafted Class IV rapids in Idaho, surfed double overhead waves on Oahu, paddled outriggers, and regularly paddle boarded and kayaked in strong trades and chest high surf. Surely, I thought, someone with my experience in the water could manage to stay upright in a river.
We finished loading in the 55-degree drizzle, stopped for a couple of photos, and launched into the grey, fast moving Buffalo, determined not to be “that guy” who ends up in the water with wet gear and an embarrassed smile.
Water is Water, Right?
I figured that despite my lack of recent swift water experience, I was likely the one with the most time in the water and the most time with a paddle. I tried to gently maneuver myself to the back of my canoe so I could steer, but didn’t want to strong arm my buddy and ended up in the front. We tried to switch ends just after launching—which didn’t work—and so after a little bit of wrangling the canoe we managed to get ourselves into a good rhythm for the rest of the morning. Our plan was to stop at Horseshoe Bend, about 4.5 miles downriver, and hike up to a place called Hidden Falls.
We almost made it.
Surfing the Buffalo
My canoe partner, Stan, and I were learning each other, and I was learning what it was like to be along for the ride. Like me, Stan was no stranger to the water either, spending time sailing the ocean and motoring around the lake near Corsicana, Texas. Canoes are a different matter altogether, however, and two-man canoes require the crew to be in sync. In a two-man crew, the guy in front is just the motor—the guy in back is the one who steers—and the crew works together to move the canoe through swift water and around obstacles. Stan and I were not yet a crew and that was about to become painfully apparent.
I was navigating with the National Park map so I knew Horseshoe Bend was around the next corner, but since neither Stan nor I had paddled that stretch of the river before, we really had no idea what to expect or which line to take. Our lack of synchronicity as a crew, a slightly off-center load in the canoe, and a bad read of the river had us going wide on the turn once we entered Horseshoe Bend. At the top of the bend a large tree overhung the river. We’d successfully ducked tree limbs all morning, but this one was to be our undoing.
Even as I write this, it’s hard to remember exactly what happened.
Cold Dunking Achievement Unlocked
What I think happened, was, as we got wide on the turn the big limb came right at me at nose height. I put up my paddle to shield my face and probably got knocked to the right gunwale. Stan, I think, must’ve leaned right or dug in his paddle to try to turn, and suddenly we were overloaded on the right side—tumbling into the 60-degree water. All that happened in about 1 second, because all I really remember is a loud crash from the plastic paddle hitting the tree, followed by the crash of leaves, followed by bone chilling cold.
I’d like pause my story for a moment here to thank three persons: God, the BOC guy at the put in, and Eddie Bauer.
Clearly, God sent an extra angel or two to watch over us because despite being canoe-rookies and Stan getting tangled in some gear, we both ended up in coming out of the water alive and with all of our gear except one water bottle. If He hadn’t been watching over us a potentially deadly situation could’ve been tragic. Instead, we just came out wet and cold.
Second, I usually paddle on the very mild Guadalupe River in the Texas Hill Country. The shallow river is popular for “toobers” and rarely approaches swift water with any rating at all. Because of the mild current and shallow conditions, I usually stow my PFD and paddle without it. The BOC guide suggested rather strongly we wear our PFDs if for no other reason than it would keep us warm. I’m not certain we’d have had quite such a happy ending without a PFD.
Third, I could’ve been doing a commercial for Eddie Bauer—pants, socks, web belt, fleece, and shell were all right out of Eddie’s closet. Because I had on good clothes, I dried out quickly and stayed warm even when soaked through in 55 degree air. If I hadn’t been a fan before, then I’d have become an Eddie Bauer fan for life after I dried out in minutes after my dunking!
Back to the action.
The water was so cold I couldn’t get enough air in my lungs to make myself heard above the roar of the water. I mouthed and pointed, “get to the beach over there” and we managed to steer our now overturned canoe dragging gear to the outside rocky beach at the apex of the Bend. After disentangling Stan from our tie down rope, began to gather up our gear. I had to go back into the water after a paddle and a couple of items that had come untied in the mayhem, but we managed to recover our gear and get dried out while eating our lunch. Amazingly, the sandwiches in paper bags in my Eddie Bauer daypack stayed dry. The first aid kit was soaked—but the food stayed dry. Small miracles.
It’s All Down River from Here
Hiking up to the falls was now off the agenda, we needed time to gather up our gear, dry out a little, and repack the canoe. After a breather and some food, I managed to shake my frustration at falling short of my only goal (stay dry) and get back in the canoe. Stan and I had planned to swap positions in the canoe at lunch each day, and now in the steering position and feeling in control of my own fate a little more, we launched back into the river.
Better loaded than our first try, and with the sun peeking out from behind the clouds, we made our way the last 6 miles through gorgeous canyons and a few more areas of swift water. Providence smiled on us again, and about 3pm that afternoon we pulled into a sweet camp on the edge of another horseshoe bend with a sandy beach and firewood already stacked up from the previous occupants. Dry clothes, a good fire, some hot food, and my spirits began to improve. By the firelight we relived college memories and shared things that’d happened since our last time together. A good night’s sleep would complete my rehabilitation after my involuntary swim in the frigid river.
Floating Down the Buffalo, Driving Southbound on I-35
The second and third days were much warmer than the first, and it didn’t take long for us to shed all our cold weather clothes and slather on the sunscreen to prevent bad burns. As we traveled further down the river, we started running into floaters who were on day trips. The silence of the first two days was broken by loud music and beer-fueled conversations with others on the river on the third. Our 34 miles ended sooner than we expected as we reached our take out at Carver Landing early afternoon on the third day. Tired, happy, and a little sunburned, we packed our gear, put on the dry clothes we’d left in the car, and headed south. It would be a long eight-hour drive back to Corsicana for an overnighter, then home to New Braunfels the next day.
It had been a great adventure with my old friends, and we parted with plans to return to the river again.