Friday, August 14, 2015
TUMPED, RATTLED AND ROLLED
This great adventure began with a surprise and a birthday for someone not easily surprised. Early on our trip, I announced I was not giving away the location even if Burt guessed correctly. We were traveling a busy highway with many offshoots leading to interesting destinations. I wouldn't give him the satisfaction of figuring out my plan. After all, I had put time and effort into this surprise adventure. I told him to pack his basics. I packed tricks up my sleeve.
We zoomed past the last turn off point to a big vacation spot, We'd been traveling over two hours when he said one of the most rarely used words in his vocabulary - flabbergasted. Just hearing that word was satisfaction enough for all of my stealth. Almost enough. He knew I was pleased. I told him I would tell him when we arrived.
We drove through little Arkansas towns we had only seen on the state weather map. Ash Flat, Cherokee Village, Cave City. Homes and businesses lining Highway 67, some more prosperous than others. This was like the twilight zone to us, setting us down in another world in our very own state. We do get around - except for this northeastern spot almost in Missouri.
I announced we'd arrived in the little town of Hardy, home to great canoeing, kayaking and white knuckle tubing adventures located on the Spring River. Hunting and fishing. The Spring River begins in Mammoth Spring, Arkansas about fifteen miles to the north. A natural spring, eighty feet below the surface produces 9.75 million gallons of water an hour, a natural wonder producing the Spring River. The river is 58 degrees at all times. The river forks off in Hardy to a warmer version.
Canoe trailers are everywhere. Kayaks are tied to car roofs. This place is keyed into water adventures. Tourism appears to be a healthy business.
We had canoed in college and kayaks don't match our waistlines so I had gotten us a reservation for a float down the south fork of the Spring River Saturday afternoon. Neither one of us had ever floated or tubed down a river but children were included in the trip. I figured it must be child-friendly and made for the novice.
My bag of tricks included special sunglass lassos, waterproof bags and food, 85 sun protection for lily white skin, and his old hat and tennis shoes and hidden swimsuits. He was surprised again at my idea and preparation but most of all, the willingness of this summer couch potato to get into the water.
It was not a good sign when we walked up to the establishment and people were standing around complaining about the long wait for their rafting sessions to begin. It is always good to crack open a few cold ones to cool off any tempers. Beer and coolers, the more the merry for heading down water. Everyone was so pleasant standing around in the 100 degree sunshine.
If I were to describe in detail our fetching attire, which we felt was necessary to protect our skin, our daughter might never speak to us. Please don't tell RL I wore my favorite navy long sleeve blouse down the river. Burt was asked twice if we were from Maine (t-shirt). I do believe we had the experience of age over everyone else. But at least we were moving.
Another questionable happening was the pile of life vests being decimated as the rafters pulled out of Dodge. They are required to carry vests in the rafts. No one made a point of requiring we get a vest. After all, this was going to be a nice little float down a lazy river with a little rapid here and there. And the remaining life vests wouldn't fit my big toe.
The rickety old van used to transport us to our river of Oz was not a good sign of corporate cohesiveness. There were no instructions but Burt and I had seen other rivers where people looked so happy floating along, occasionally shooting through fairly shallow rapids.
The float (tube) is huge with a little canvas seat in the middle. This is the advertised Cadillac version, seriously. We wanted to be tethered to enjoy the experience together. I didn't want to go first because I had no clue of what I was doing. I had packed two waterproof bags for a picnic on the river. There were plenty of sandbars along the merry way according to the management. These bags were hanging on the tether but my float was not attached, yet. When you sit your caboose in the float, your limbs go flying up in the air until you remember the importance of grabbing the handles. This is the last moment of control until the lazy trip ends. Suddenly, you are at the mercy of the river while your husband is still trying to get himself situated.
At first, the current is a good sign, the first good sign of the day. I can still hear children getting in tubes with their parents. But the current is carrying Burt and me further apart. We can still see each others' faces and hear yelled conversations, but despite our best dog paddling, we can't catch up to one another. As the lucky one who ended up going first, I'm soon around the corner and into the first little rapid. This is so much fun! I will try and watch Burt make his initial rapid and wait for him.
My first rapid made me realize the current was perking along. I tried to stay steady and wait for my swimming partner but the water wouldn't let me. I could hear him come around the corner but by then I was moving swiftly out of sight. I yelled to him that I would wait at the next sandbar.
At one point, he yelled to me that he had tumped over. I could only imagine the fiasco. But at least it wasn't a canoe. Unfortunately, he couldn't reseat himself in the tube and had to hang on top of the float, going head first into the rapids. I knew his predicament but still had no control of my own journey, floating down the middle of the river, large sections of the river, totally alone, all alone. I did have a few good rapids but I was worried about him.
This was his birthday treat and we were doing everything separately. There was never a good stopping place. I finally saw a family playing on the banks of the river. A long set of steps went up to a house at the top of the hill. I yelled out and asked if the water was waist deep. The woman said yes. She was just a couple of yards from me when I decided enough was enough.
I launched off the tube into water over my head. I've grown up in water - chlorinated, beach, river, lake water. I've never had this feeling before. The tube flipped up over my head and my sunglasses and hat swam like a mass in front of my face. I'll never forget the shadowy underwater image. My first thought was "This is how people drown." The undertow was my next shock. I couldn't believe how strong the river bottom was flowing. I say the grace of God gave my legs strength to make it to the nearby rock shelf. I never let go of the float. When I reached the woman and her family, my arms and hands were shaking uncontrollably. I told them I just wanted to wait for my husband.
Burt finally arrived. I asked the woman if those were her steps and house. I told her I just wanted to walk up there and wait until someone could come get me. I recalled a rough trip on the Buffalo River when I wanted a helicopter to come get me. I told Burt I couldn't do it. If I had had my wits, I would have let go of the float. Whoops. The nice woman told us the river had been closed the day before. I could tell she wasn't impressed with the outfitter we had chosen. We were like two fish out of the water. She said she was always helping folks out. She helped us get re-situated and we headed back down the river. I never would have gotten back in if Burt hadn't had hold of my float.
For a short distance, the float was fun, going down rapids together just like I had envisioned. But we were soon separated again and my quiet, lonely journey continued. It seemed as if we couldn't stay together as we battled the current and the rapids. It was a very strange sensation, going down the river with no one else in sight. Nothing along the banks looked reliable and I was afraid of snakes. I was stuck in the middle with no way of slowing or changing course. Definitely not the afternoon I had expected.
Then Burt came around the corner, laying across his float, hanging on for dear life. Another rapid had tumped him overboard. It was hard to see someone you love struggling and not be able to help. He aimed for a rare large rock in the river and was able to right his float and get back on properly, resting in his Cadillac seat. And then finally, the river begin to slow and we were able to get back together. We gleefully floated to the second bridge, our landmark for disembarking. Our tour was ending. Exhausted, we pulled the floats up on a grassy hill and I collapsed on the ground. The picnic bag had not been sealed properly - my fault. Wrapped MM's and Kit Kats floated in the trapped river water. My Coca Cola was salvageable but my blood sugar was going down fast.
Our chariot arrived, a van in worse shape than the first one. Windows were loosely held on with duct tape which was a saving grace as a hole in the floor was sending noxious fumes inside. I promised myself to just hang on, I would soon be in dry clothes. We later laughed that maybe we were too old but scuttled that theory. Maybe we should just stick to chlorinated water but that would cut out the beach and the lake.
Dry MM's, a Sprite, Peanut Butter crackers and a nap gave me the energy to go to dinner. Burt met a live scorpion in the shower while I napped. Just more excitement to the day. We ended the day with a delicious steak dinner, watching the sunset on this part of the world, perched cliff side overlooking the river. It wasn't our part of the river, but I looked at the rapids for as long as light would catch the white ripples. They would be white even in the dark like the millions of gallons gushing to make a river, neverending, neverending, even in the dark. The river represented our survival, coming through the rough waters. But better served wearing life vests and tethered together, the best way to go down an uncharted river.