Rites of passage are one of the most important occurrences in children’s lives. Often the most meaningful rites are those that involve a deep connection with the natural world. I had an arduous rite of passage one summer on the Buffalo River in northern Arkansas.
Silly plastic toys
I had just acquired my driver’s license a few months before and was eager to strike out into the wild. My brother and I loaded up my GMC Jimmy with what I thought were adequate supplies and made our way to my friend Jeff’s house to pick him up for the journey. We stopped at a sports store and bought an inflatable kayak. I had little experience with paddling and thus did not realize the uselessness of an inflatable kayak, but would soon find out the hard way.
Nutritious camp meals
We arrived at the Buffalo River campground late in the afternoon and made a fire for our hot dogs. After a satisfying meal of hot dogs, marshmallows and Coca-Cola, we tried to set our sleeping quarters in the back of my SUV. For some reason, I thought we could all fit comfortably in the back of it. It never got below 85 degrees that night and we got very little sleep.
The next morning, we rented a funyak from a canoe rental shop and hopped in the car with an old Cajun man that shuttled us to the launch point up the river. He told us dirty jokes that we mostly did not understand and when he left us at the boat launch the last thing he said was, “Laissez les bon temps rouler.” I did not know what he meant, but no words could have been further from the reality of our river journey.
We quickly realized that the inflatable kayak was not fit for the river. You could not move it forward by paddling. It had to just float with the current, which was non-existent at several places in the river. After two or three arduous miles of dragging the kayak over rocks and unwrapping it from trees in the river, we stopped for lunch. We had plenty of sandwiches and fruit bars until we flipped the kayak after lunch and the entire contents of our cooler went floating down the Buffalo River. The sun was setting, we had ten more miles to go with a lot of still water and the only sustenance we had left was a single Nutrigrain bar between three people.
We tried to sleep on a sandbar in the river that night without any sleeping bags or tents. I managed to curl up on the kayak while my brother and friend slept on a tarp spread out over the large rocks. The one time I did manage to drift off a bit, I woke up to find a black widow spider on my leg. Fortunately, it did not bite. We were hours away from the nearest medical facility.
The home stretch
The next day was one of the most difficult of my life. I had to drag the kayak with my large, lazy friend in it across ten miles of shallow rocky river on a completely empty stomach. It took us all day and when we finally reached the launch point where my vehicle was parked, the only thing I could think about was FOOD!
As we made our way back south to my house, we heard on a local radio station that there was an escaped serial killer roaming the wilderness area very close to where we were camping. Fortunately, we never saw him. We had nothing to defend ourselves with on the river save the large rocks all around us.
Your call to action
This trip was rite of passage for us. It taught us the value of preparation and knowing the river conditions that we would encounter. I believe that every youth should have the opportunity for such experiences, but this is only possible if we preserve the places in nature like the Buffalo River. In a time when state budgets are crunched and state parks are some of the first budget items cut, we need help preserving wild areas more than ever. One of the greatest organizations I have ever worked with is the Nature Conservancy. They preserve and manage wild areas all over the U.S. and many other countries.
The Buffalo River was the first national river in the United States and it is one of the few undammed rivers left in the lower 48. It is a wonderful place to camp, hike, fish, swim and enjoy the beauty of the oldest mountains in the country.