Some of the best adventures I have ever had were the least planned. One trip in particular comes to mind on the banks of the Big Piney River in western Arkansas. I floated the Piney once as a teenager, but the water was very low and relatively tame. One sunny Saturday morning in April, I convinced two of my best friends that we should pack up and head out into the wild for the weekend. The only catch was that we had to drop off a hung over German exchange student to his host family’s home in the middle of nowhere. He somehow appeared on my friend’s couch in the middle of the night.
As soon as we arrived at the overflowing campgrounds, it became obvious that we would have to make our own site and so we did just that. We found a really rough, steep road that led right down to the bank of the Big Piney River and trotted down in my Honda Passport with all our gear, not worrying about how we would get back up the road in a two-wheel drive vehicle.
We built a large fire that night, grilled steaks, enjoyed the crispness of cheap beer and somehow invented a new language that I have yet been able to identify anywhere in the Americas. It was an evening to cherish and I close as I have ever been to an Old Milwaukee commercial ( I am dating myself a bit ).
The River Rough
The next morning was clear, beautiful and had the stench of adventure written all over it. We ate breakfast, loaded up our gear and were off to rent canoes for our trip. We made our voyage in two canoes. I had to paddle solo and my friends took the other one. The river wasted no time in introducing itself forcefully. Within a quarter-mile or so we were upon the first large class 3+ rapid. They call it The Mother. I guess whoever named that churning water did not have a very pleasant childhood. This rapid was particularly tough due to the size of the boulders that surround it.
I managed to navigate the rapid without major incident, but my friends’ boat was another story. As I was watching them approach the rapid sideways, I noticed a large tree branch bobbing up and down in the water just a few feet in front of them. You can imagine what scenarios were running through my mind at this point.They ran right into the branch and the hull of the canoe went shooting straight up into the wild blue yonder just as if it was being pulled upward on to the bed of a powerful tow truck. To my amazement, they were stuck in midair! The next thing I saw was my friend’s semi-bald head inch over the front rim of the canoe. The look he had on his face frames one of the most memorable moments of my existence. It was as if he had been unknowingly placed on a spaceship under sedation and just woken up to find that he was 100,000 miles away from planet Earth with only a banana to eat.
The canoe rapidly starting taking on water and flipped over spilling its entire contents, passengers, paddles, life vests, lunches and beer, into the river. Fortunately, no one was hurt during the incident and we recovered most of our gear. We spent the rest of the trip weaving our way around the whitewater and recounting their little dance with the prodigal river branch.
Simple and Free Rivers
There is no way for me to fully convey the laughter, satisfaction and contentment that we felt at the end of that day as we sat around the campfire, but I can imagine that the Caddo Indians of the area may know what I am talking about. The Big Piney River is lucky enough because it is far away from most major industrial and agricultural activity that its surrounding ecosystems have not been changed in drastic ways, but many of our nation’s rivers are not so lucky. If we want our children to enjoy rivers like the Piney and have priceless experiences in nature, we have to act.
Your Call to Action
One of the ways that we can preserve our local rivers is to get involved in local river and/or watershed organizations and speak out against developments that will impact the quality of rivers and their watersheds. The EPA has a great list of watersheds on their website. Another way that you can help is to get involved with organizations such as Trout Unlimited. They work to restore trout populations in cold water streams and their watersheds in the U.S. I have spent some time with members of their organization and thus I know that they do excellent work. I hope that everyone has the chance to experience a river the way that we did on that sunny Spring day in Arkansas. I would recommend keeping your beer consumption under three cans if you are going to float The Mother in high water. I want hear what you think about river conservation in your area. Don’t hold back! We need open discussion!
Here is a taste of the Big Piney on video…