It started out much like many of our previous outings on the Buffalo River in northwestern Arkansas.
This is an established tradition, going back many years to its predecessor, the Kendall Meyers Memorial River Run, which my younger brother, Dave, participated in for many years, prior to my joining him after the unseemly and abrupt sundering of their friendship about eight years ago.
We always try for a date around the first of April because this is when the river is flowing the highest and fastest, winter snow melts and spring rains being a factor: the higher the water at Ponca, the better chance of putting in there and using a four-man rubber raft instead of a canoe.
Not that there is anything wrong with a canoe, we’ve used them several times. But the chance for getting wet by dumping is far less with a raft than a canoe. Besides, with three of us, canoes mean someone paddles alone. That’s one reason we are always looking for a “fourth” brother to accompany us. Some years we cajole someone into it, others we don’t.
This year, we thought we had an old friend of mine from Minnesota on board, but he had to scratch at the last minute. So it ended up being just the three of us, I, Brother Dave and youngest Brother Ted.
Perhaps you got a slight hint from the title, “Lost Weekend”, of the general flavor and demeanor of our adventure. We drink copious amounts of beer and eat like kings. Not a care in the world. Usually, we luck out and all the conditions merge perfectly: water level, temperature and precipitation (none is preferable). This year it was a conspiracy against us.
It started with a 6:30 am departure on Saturday morning. No rush hour to contend with, just the stoplights on the South Midtown Freeway.
But about as soon as we got to the southern city limits, the winds began to buffet us. Gale force winds, or so it seemed, slanting off from a southeasterly direction. The bus is a good stable vehicle most of the time, with excellent shocks. But we load the roof rack up with all our gear and it makes the bus rather top-heavy. I had to put up with roaring crosswinds the whole drive, which meant a lot of pitching and swaying. The hands were firmly on the wheel at all times, which was not conducive to a relaxed drive.
As we always do we stopped at Macadoodles, a huge liquor store at the state line (Arkansas still has wet/dry counties, archaic liquor laws) to stock up on the required amount of beer. The only other stop was in Springdale at a grocery store to purchase the requisite food supply for the adventure.
Once you get east of Springdale there are no real options for the purchase of the aforementioned supplies and even gas stations are few and far between. More on this later.
You turn south and head for Ponca, which is headquarters for most of the canoe outfitters for the upper Buffalo. This is the most scenic part of the drive, but also the hilliest and curviest, due to the Boston Mountains you’re in at this point. The bus does really well, although much shifting is required, both up and down. Once at Ponca, it’s about ten more miles of scenic mountain driving until you get to the turn-off for our traditional campsite, Kyle’s landing. The gravel access road is 2.5 miles of steep, often rutted downhill maneuvering. Once there, many beautiful campsites are available.
We selected ours and proceeded to set up camp. Since last year, they had created three brand new camping “pads”, with nice, level crusher-run gravel spots. I thought I would be clever and park the bus as close to the pad as possible, but I ended up getting ON the pad and almost getting stuck, as the gravel was not well compacted and the rear wheel sank pretty far in. A mighty “heave-ho” from the brothers, with me at the wheel, was all it took to extricate Tullio from the pad. A minor gouge in their brand-new pad was hastily smoothed out and, voila, good as new! Ted brought a brand new tent which wasn’t even out of the box yet, but was a dome-style, so setup was easy. I brought my trusty Kelty dome tent for Brother Dave and I, of course, slept in the relative luxury of the bus, off the ground, dry, very cushy.
We also carry an old Easy Up which has seen many years of service. The name is a misnomer, as it takes all three of us, cursing and fighting, to get it up. Once you do, it provides wonderful shade and protection from the rain, should it be necessary. The weather was windy, with gusts barreling through every now and then, so we staked it down pretty good.
With camp having been set, up all thoughts turned to the consumption of beer and relaxing before dinner. Oh, yeah, we were now in party mode. Suddenly, a gust of wind ripped the Easy Up from its moorings and one corner smashed into the windshield of the bus. Jeez Louise! A golf ball sized impression was made right at the bottom corner of the windshield. After the initial surprise followed by disgust, Dave got out the duct tape and covered affected area, inside and out. It could have been much worse. It could have hit right in the middle and smashed the whole windshield or it could have hit the metal body and caused a disturbing boo-boo.
As it turned out, this was an omen of things to come.
It was cold and windy and looked like it could rain. Certainly not ideal conditions for camping or rafting on a river filled with snow melt. But, with the liberal application of cereal malt beverage, it did not seem to matter. Perhaps the weather would turn for the better overnight.
I slept well and warm in the cozy confines of Tullio. About daybreak, I heard the pitter-pat of raindrops on the roof. Not much, but enough to cause the rolling of the eyes and the thought that we would either be floating in the rain or bagging the float altogether, neither of which was particularly appealing. But, by the time I heard Dave rattling the pans and getting the burners fired up for coffee, it quit.
After a hearty breakfast, we secured camp and piled in the bus for the trip back to Ponca and the put-in point. The river is gauged for floatability from the old highway bridge that crosses the river there, and it was a great level for a raft. So we put our “supplies” (beer) in the raft and shoved off.
We’ve done this for many years, but we don’t do it often enough to be considered anything but beginners, whether it be canoe or raft. It takes us a couple of bends in the river before we get our wits and skills about us. Right off the bat we made a poor navigational decision and got hung up on shallow rocks. We grunted and groaned, trying to get unhung, but to no avail. I got mad and, cursing a blue streak, jumped out of the raft and dragged us into the deeper flow. I was wet up to my knees but none the worse for wear.
We continued on our merry way, three men in a tub. Our ability to maneuver the raft sharpened right up and it was actually going where we wanted it to. The sun even came out briefly and things were looking pretty good. But the clouds closed in again, the temperature dropped, and the wind began to whip up all about us. Then, near tragedy.
We ran into a half submerged rock and got hung up. Ted, recalling the ease with which I pulled us off before, jumped in, without looking. He went in up to his chest. Flailing about, he totally submerged. When he came up, he just lay on his back with a “Take me now, Jesus” look on his face.We laid hands on him and got him in the boat. Needless to say, he was soaked to the bone.
With the threat of hypothermia present and still a good couple of hours from camp, we elected to skip the traditional hike up to Hemmed-In Hollow to see the 300-foot waterfall. We paddled on like crazy to keep warm and finish the trip quickly and without further incident.
Back at camp, a blazing fire and the liberal application of cereal malt beverages set things right. Tragedy averted, but what a trip!