Support the Big Muddy
Congress defines our Nation’s designated wilderness as areas that are untrammeled by man, and where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. It is an area where wildlife live wild lives.  We experienced the wildness of our designated wilderness within the Ponca Wilderness on the Buffalo River, Arkansas.

The adventure was a two night canoe trip with the Kellenberger family, Joe, Allison, Eli (15) and Hanna (12).  We launched our canoes and kayaks from the Ponca low water bridge on a sunny Friday afternoon and drifted alongside the towering bluffs and turquoise colored waters of the upper Buffalo.  Our loaded canoe (complete with two nights worth of luxury camping and two Labradors) was dragging the rocky bottom of every shoal.  At one point I even exclaimed that I wish we had more water, as I was growing tired of polishing every rock with the bottom of the boat.  Perhaps in our desire for more water we should have been more specific as too just how much more we wanted.  Unbeknown to us, the river was listening. 

We pitched camp that night on a high bank within an open savannah bottom land.   After a hearty dinner and a relaxing fire, they sky gave in with little showers.  We marked the water’s edge with a stick to measure the rise of the river and retired to our tents for the night.  We inspected our river gauge the next morning to find that she had only risen a few inches, but the sky was black.  Wasting no time, we packed camp, loaded the boats, and continued downstream.  Just as we exited the canopy of the trees at camp, the sky broke free.  The rain pounded down in buckets.  We were all laughing at first, enjoying the steady beating of the rain upon us.  But in time the smiles drifted to frowns as our body temperatures dropped.   

Just ahead was Jims Bluff, with an overhanging ledge that blocked the rain.  A perfect opportunity to pull over and stay dry until the rain let up.  The ledge of the bluff line was a good 10 feet above the water line.  We pulled the boats ashore on the ground near the upper edge of the bluff.  The consensus was to wait it out, and with such a nice dry spot to camp, decided to wait out the storm.  Our map indicated that we were close to the trail leading to hemmed in hollow, so we spent the afternoon hiking to the largest waterfall in the Midwest positioned at the end of the hollow.  The rain had increased the intensity of the 200 foot waterfall to a thunderous roar.    We returned to our camp under the little ledge later that evening to a swollen brown river.  We knew that the river dropped as fast as it rose, so we weren’t too concerned seeing as we weren’t paddling until the next day and we had acquired such a nice dry camp under the overhanging bluff.  We sat around a small fire that evening, while the sky broke free once more, only this time ferociously.   Meanwhile, the river had no place left to go but up.

Around midnight I awoke to a slight sound of metal clanging.  I grabbed a light and crawled to the edge of the bluff.  Shining the light through the pouring rain, I see my canoe floating along edge of the bluff, a paddle inside tapping on the sides of the boat.  The river had risen, flipped over the boat, and miraculously pushed it against the bluff, rather than sucking it downstream.  The other canoe was partially submerged.  We climbed off the bluff and slid the boats to the top where we were sleeping.  The canoes had narrowly escaped, but the kayaks did not share the same fate.  The river had separated us from the ledge where we placed the kayaks.  We were shining our lights trying to see any signs of the boats, but they appeared to be gone.  It was here that we realized that we are in a bad spot.  We knew we could hike out, and hit a trail that leads a few miles north to a gravel road.  But we would have to sacrifice the boats and most of the gear. 

The night slowly crept by as we patiently awaited the breaking dawn to reveal our fate.   The morning dawn never officially came; replaced instead by a gray sky slowly emerging from the dark clouds.  We found one kayak that was miraculously spared from the downstream torrent, but the other one was never again seen.  The good news was the rain had stopped, and the river was dropping.  The brown river was roaring, but estimating the rate of the drop we were thinking we would be able to paddle out the next morning.  We had enough food and a filtration unit to provide plenty of water, all was left was the time…and hope for less rain.  We hiked around a little searching for cell phone reception, but the wishful thinking was just that, as we were miles from the slightest sign of civilization, even from the highest point around.    

Around 2 o’clock that afternoon, we see a raft and a whitewater canoe paddling around the bend toward our bluff.  “Park Rangers” they exclaimed as they approached our little bluff ledge.  A few minutes of conversation about our situation, confirming everyone here was ok, led to the statement that we had to leave, right now. 

“We’re predicting at least ten more feet of water coming down this way, if you want out, we have to go right now” expressed the man in the whitewater canoe, later identified as the general manager of the Buffalo Outdoor Center.

Looking at our little bluff, it was easy to assume that ten more feet of water, and our bluff ledge would be an underwater shelf. 

“We want out, but we have loaded down canoes, not capable of white water, with kids and dogs”.  I expressed.                 

  The response I received was delivered with an unsure tone, but accompanied by tips on how to keep the boat stable and stay near the raft. 

We packed camp in record time.  Hannah was seated in the raft, as we were one kayak short.  The whitewater canoe lead the way, insisting we stay to his course as much as possible.  The river was wide enough under the flooding conditions that it eliminated many of the obstacles.  Our two labs could sense the presence of danger, as they hunkered down with little to no movement.  We were navigating the waves with ease, despite the gunwales being only a few inches from the surface of the water.  Around the bend was Hells Half Acre, were we were instructed to “just do the best we can”.   The waves were rolling about 5 feet high.   We both laughed when we saw it, not believing we were doing this.  I spoke softly to the dogs as we approached, calming them as I struggled to rudder the canoe head on into the rapids.  We climbed over the first of the rapids taking in loads of water.  Our weight was too heavy to stay above the rolling wakes.  By the third rapid, I could tell we were riding much too low, and felt the boat sink from under our seats.  Tank was swimming to stay in the boat, and Dakota gave me a wild expression as was drifting along my side.  We held on to the canoe, as its buoyancy kept it near the surface of the water.  Still seated, albeit underwater, we navigated the remaining rapids and tried to get to shore.  Dakota swam back to the boat and climbed in Sarah’s lap as I struggled to get us to shore before the next bend and more rapids.  The problem with a flooded stream is that there is no shoreline.  The water was in the trees, which could create a difficult situation if you get pinned between the water and a tree.  Fortunately, we were able to find a spot where we could pull up enough to roll the boat.  Looking back, the rest of the crew handled the rapids great, especially Eli, navigating the little kayak over the rolling water like a pro.  The dogs revealed their trust as they had no issue getting back into the boat, despite their expressions asking “are you absolutely sure we need to do this?”    

The end was just around the bend, with no other major incidents.  We had survived with a great adventure story.  The feeling of accomplishment soared as we looked back at the swollen river.  We did not just paddle on the Buffalo River, we paddled through it.  The unknown variables of this trip created in all of us a memory that we will likely never forget.  A memory of an adventure in the wilderness, the way wilderness should be experienced........wild!   

Afterword:  The Buffalo River continued to rise, reaching 18 feet above the Ponca bridge.  When we paddled out, it was less than 1 foot above the bridge.    

5/6/2011 03:21:57 pm

It was quite an adventure and after it was over I am able to look back on it with a smile and a bit of an ego, but watching my son struggle with the fear he had of something happening to not only himself, but maybe his parents, sister and our friends and watching him come thru something that builds a 15y.o. boy into a man without complaining or revealing his fear was almost more than a mother is prepared on the spur of the moment to watch unfold. I think we all became better people that day. I am so glad we had the adventure with the wonderful friends we have and hopefully adventures like this seal a friendship for life.

6/6/2011 02:26:41 am

What a story! I am so glad you guys made it out ok, and had some experienced paddlers in the group to play it safe as possible. As Josh mentioned in his blog, getting pinned against a tree in that current can be quite dangerous, as I've experienced trying to get off a flooding Niangua once. What an incredible experience! One you'll definitely never forget! Cool pics too.


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