Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Buffalo River Canoe Journals - 2: Setting Off Down the River

It was sunny and nice most of the day but started cooling off in the evening. Everyone got an early start and met down at the waters edge by the low water bridge just outside of Ponca. The water was a brilliant emerald green and actually felt warm to the touch in the chilly early morning hours. My day soon got colder in a hurry when my younger brother in a bought of carelessness, dropped his rolled up sleeping bag beside his canoe without checking to make sure it was going to stay put. It didn't and rolled down the bank into the river and set off merrily downstream. It had been waterproofed and floating but my worry was that it might get pulled under a tree strainer or rock never to be seen again. Everyone else was oblivious to the fact of what just happened and I frantically ran downstream along the shore leaping over boulders and around trees until I got ahead of the swiftly moving sleeping back and jumped into the stream. I was up to my waist in icy waters but I was able to grab the sleeping bag, still dry and carry it to shore and back to the canoes where everyone was pondering over where I had disappeared too.

My parents were in one canoe, my brother and I are in another and some family friends, Dick and Marie were in a third boat. My family having grown up doing this sort of thing had packed appropriately but Dick and Marie were loaded to the hilt with everything but the kitchen sink. The first leg of the trip contains whitewater when water levels are high but the river in its low level now would have only small wave trains below small riffles. Still, with their overloaded canoe, I was worried that they might tip over. My thoughts proved right when less than a mile downstream they tipped over in a small riffle. While my brother and I were rescuing things that were able to float on downstream, my parents rescuing the boat, Dick and Marie waded around in stomach deep ice-cold water feeling for their cast iron cookware and other heavy objects.

Finally almost everything was rescued and we repacked the boats, this time taking some of their items such as radios and pillows (both now full of water) and putting them in our canoes to even out the weight, not because we were such nice people but because we couldn't afford the long delays of them tipping over all the time. On expeditions, you are only as strong as the weakest and slowest of your group.

The rest of the day went smoothly and we made it out of the whitewater section. Seeing the huge rock bluffs lining the river at every turn was magnificent and being in a boat on the river felt like being carried through an artery supplying the mountains with life giving energy. The language of the river was an ancient one, one that had been speaking for thousands of years and for the most part we paddled along in silence listening to it. Giant icicles hanging from the surrounding bluffs, punctuated the sentences with crystal exclamation points. Bald eagles were soaring around overhead all day evidently listening to the river's story as well.

We for the evening and made camp in a small grassy clearing beyond a steep muddy bank where we eddied out. Not an ideal place to make camp but due to the lost time, we couldn't make it to our scheduled spot. We heaved bags up and over the lip of the bank and pulled ourselves and the canoes up using tree roots for handholds but finally made it. Dick and Marie cooked supper but with their heavy cast iron cookware, it took forever to get things cooked compared to my lightweight aluminum ones and night had long since fallen before we had finished the dishes. It was numbingly cold and all I could do is think of my nice dry sleeping bag while waiting for them to get supper ready. Because their sleeping bags were wet, they evidently weren't in any hurry.

Finally, camp was in order and we all raced to our tents. I huddled in my sleeping bag along with my water bottle and river clothes to prevent them from freezing in the night and lay there shivering until I slowly warmed up. Cold always seems to magnify every little sound but the river valley was silent except for the trickling waters of the river over the rocks. Soon even that too faded from my consciousness as I sank into a deep and dreamless sleep.

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