I stood there, knee-deep in the middle of the river, as I watched our canoe float around the bend and into the distance, my buddy swimming after it. Not able to do much else, I untwisted the cap and finished the rest of my beer.
We had met at my parents’ house earlier that morning—my Mom, Dad, buddy, fiancee, and I. It was my Mom’s birthday. She wanted to go floating. So we packed up the cars and drove a couple of hours south to the Buffalo River. A river I had floated plenty growing up, but one I hadn’t been to in a few years.
We spent the first half of our float playing canoe/kayak-hot-potato. When we shoved off it was my fiancee, myself, and our dog in one canoe, my parents and their dog in another, and my buddy in the lone kayak. At the time of our incident, though, my Mom was in the kayak, my fiancee was in the other canoe with my Dad and parents’ dog, and my buddy, my dog, and I were in the canoe I began in. It was all rather intricate, and could probably be outlined nicely in a science-y way by somebody at MIT. But, unfortunately, you’re left with me.
It looked harmless. Just another set of small rapids. Maybe a little quicker than the last, but nothing serious. Nothing to think too much about. We’d just do what we always did and we’d be fine: aim for the V, paddle as though we were well informed, and let Mother Nature do the rest. Except, on this particular occasion, Mother Nature had decided to place a medium sized tree in the middle of the river.
By the time we realized what was happening it was too late. With about fifteen to twenty feet between us and the tree, at the complete and utter mercy of the current, my buddy laughed and said, “Oh shit.” Some fifteen to twenty feet later we toppled over.
Under water, I flailed my arms, trying desperately to figure out which way was up. As the current pulled me along, a rock on the bottom of the river raked my hamstring, tearing my swimsuit in the process. I didn’t care, though. All I wanted at that moment was to break the surface of the water. The image of the fallen tree—a strainer, one of the most dangerous things on a river—consumed my thoughts. Sure, it wasn’t very deep and the water wasn’t super strong, but it was enough to be dangerous.
Moments later I felt a strong resistance. I couldn’t quite place it. Was it the tree? A limb, perhaps? Or something else? As I rose to break the surface of the water, I saw my buddy, holding on to the fallen tree with one hand, pulling me in with the other.
I grabbed hold of the tree, steadying myself, and looked to my other side to see my dog, Denver, standing on the same tree, just feet away. She looked calm. As if she had been there for a while. Almost as if she had been there before, on a previous holiday, perhaps, where she ate too much caviar and read the latest issue of Time. I felt my heart warm with pride.
That feeling soon passed, though, as I looked down the river to see our canoe, and everything we had in it, floating joyously down the river. With time against us, we quickly came up with a plan: my buddy would take off down the river in pursuit of the canoe, and I would stay behind with Denver and escort her to safety. It made the most sense. I was the stronger stay-behind-on-the-tree guy.
From our perch on the fallen tree, Denver and I watched as my buddy ran across a shallow part of the river, only to dive back in headfirst at the next convenient location. Returning my attention to Denver, I grabbed her by the life jacket (fearful of her first river experience, my fiancee and I had purchased it the night before) and let the current take the two of us down stream. We floated harmlessly to an area of the river where I could stand without much effort. From there, Denver swam to shore with ease, and I stood up to realize my footwear had been lost in the crash.
With my mobility greatly hampered, I watched my buddy continue around the bend as a distant spectator. It was only a matter of moments now before he caught up with the canoe. Who knew what would be lost in the crash, but at least we’d have our river transportation.
As he disappeared out of sight, my attention was drawn to a rather surprising image. My beer. Still in the koozie hanging around my neck. I couldn’t help but chuckle—my swimsuit had been ripped, my sandals taken by the river, my hat, too, and yet, the beer remained. Untouched. Feeling as though it was the right thing to do—perhaps the only thing to do—I untwisted the cap and drank the rest of it.
This story would go on to have a happy ending. Thanks to my buddy’s efforts, but mostly thanks to a nice gentleman around the bend who had grabbed almost all of our stuff, not to mention a heroic effort from my Mom, we didn’t lose a single item in the crash. Before we could thank him, however, he took off and disappeared in to the wilderness, where he would almost surely help a family of squirrels build a 2,000 ft home, free of charge.
While the fall might have been the most noteworthy, or story worthy, thing to happen on our float, the trip was much more than just that. I’d like to talk about that stuff now. The stuff that really made our trip.
-June Bug antics. June Bug is my parents’ dog. While they drove a car to our end point, establishing our own shuttle system, June spent the majority of her time trying to sneak in to a strangers running car. Something she succeeded at more than once.
-Skipping rocks. No matter how old I get, skipping rocks is one of the first things I do after arriving at the river. I love everything about it. The search for the best rock. The sight of the rock dancing on the surface of the water. The unloading of the car I’m missing out on because I’m skipping rocks and not hauling a heavy cooler across the river bank.
-Pretty scenery. I love the mountains, but the river isn’t too far behind. The sand bars, the trees, the cliffs (The Buffalo River is fantastic for this), the stillness of the undisturbed water—it’s both peaceful and beautiful. And here’s the best part: on the river, you get to experience that over and over again. With each curvature of the river, and bend that you go around, you enjoy a new stretch of river. Sure, it’s most likely similar to what you were just on, but it’s unknown, unexperienced as of yet. Like unwrapping a present.
-Swinging/jumping off things. Because it’s not a proper float trip without at least one rope swing or rock jump. On this particular occasion, we were lucky enough to have one of each.
-Dad using an excessive amount of sunscreen. My Dad is an always prepared, well organized, do it by the book kind of guy. Need a stamp? He’s got it. On a road trip? He’s locked in at two over. Stranded in a remote part of the world and have no cell phone reception? He’s got a map of the place, and an inflatable house with water and food and a nice little back yard pool. And, if you’re on the river, he’ll have plenty of sunscreen for you, and also on his body.
-Bald eagle. We saw the same bald eagle at two different times on the river. Up close, you realize how impressive the creature is. Seeing it soar down the river, the Ozark hills and mountains as the backdrop, was a sight to see.
-Seeing my dog play in the river for the first time. This was Denver’s first river experience. Having never been on a river before, let alone swam in water, I—we (my fiancee and I)—were a bit nervous as to how she would respond. Concerns, however, that were quickly put at ease. From the moment we arrived, she was in the water, splashing, swimming, playing fetch, generally having the time of her life.
-My fiancee forgetting a change of clothing, AND her swimsuit. As a result, she spent the majority of the float in her underwear, and I spent the trip home without a shirt.
-Seeing my Mom in a kayak and canoe, in her element, happy, being active and physically fit. My Mom is the ultimate adventurer—constantly running, doing yoga, hiking, traveling, taking part in mud runs and adventure races. She’s an inspiration to anybody who wants to live an active, adventurous, healthy lifestyle. Seeing her out on the river again reminded me of this, and how cool it is.