Excerpted from Chapter 1: Buffalo River
The Buffalo is a picturesque river in northern Arkansas that starts in the Ozark mountains, and then flows eastward. The Buffalo winds around steep wooded bluffs, and in places where it chooses the water drifts happily by flat areas of green grass and occasional sandbars. But not when we were there!
Twenty-four of us, a group organized by Willie, arrived from all over southern USA to spend five days canoeing. We were delayed one day in getting on the river, because it was in flood due to three inches of rain a few days before. As Ethan and I strolled along the river a small bird with deep blue plumage fluttered from one tree to the next, and caught our attention.
“Hey, Popper! Do you know what that bird is?” said Ethan excitedly. Popper is the name my grandchildren call me, so I had suggested years ago that Ethan call me this too.
“An indigo bunting,” I replied stroking my beard thoughtfully. “At least I think so.”
Perhaps it was the excitement of the imminent canoe trip, something he had never done before, but Ethan was interested in everything.
“Did you see that?” he pointed a short time later and lowered his voice as we caught a glimpse of a snake – perhaps five feet long and thin in size – as it slithered into the underbrush. “That’s not a rattlesnake….”
“I think it’s a cottonmouth,” I interrupted. “Also called a water moccasin in some parts of the country. Watch out for these critters…..they can be aggressive.”
Ethan is a curious boy, quite open and honest, and prone to ask questions…..often direct and sometimes even challenging questions. He would have been successful on the debate team, but chose to focus on sports instead.
Ethan and his mom live next door to me in Albuquerque. As a 16 year-old, he is soon to be a junior at Santiago High School. Ethan is good at sport, and is point-guard for the high school basketball team. He also plays on the football team where he is an agile wide receiver. People say he is a good-looking boy with a mat of short black hair on top, peaked along the centerline, and with deep brown eyes. He likes to wear a hoodie in the winter.
“Are you nervous?” I asked when we reached a bend in the river where it was flowing fast, and splattering over some sizeable rocks. High bluffs along one side reflected the golden light of evening.
“Hell no!” he replied with a glance up at me who stood several inches taller. He grinned as he shook his index finger at the churning water. “I’ve bounced off football players bigger than these puny waves.”
An athlete’s cockiness, I thought. But Ethan backs it up with a great work ethic — in sports and studies. I smiled when I recalled that he told me once that he struggled with physics, which has always been my specialty.
As we walked further, a warm sense of affection seeped through my chest. Since Ethan has been raised by a single mom, Angelina, I have often taken him hiking in the Sandia mountains – the La Luz trail is a favorite trail. The mountains rise to over 11,000 feet and present a spectacular view from my house, particularly when they light up with pink reflections of sunset.
To our dismay, we must have had another inch or more by morning. However, the river had risen only a little, the leaders voted to go, and we hit the river in the rain. Although it wasn’t cold, Ethan and I had on ponchos created from plastic trash bags. In all, 24 canoers in twelve boats embarked that fateful morning. Ethan, in the front of my canoe, was not an expert and neither was I. We sailed along the fast-flowing river, admiring the imposing bluffs enshrouded by rain, but keeping a watchful eye on the rippling water.
Before noon we ran into trouble, as the river started rising rapidly.
“Where do we go here?” Ethan shouted anxiously as we could see the river split around a small island of trees.
“Let’s go right,” I yelled, straining to move the canoe in that direction.
“We’re not gonna make it,” Ethan turned his head with a frightened look on his face.
Our canoe tipped because the current was too strong and we rammed into the trees. We had life-jackets on, and surfaced between the canoe and the trees, which was not a good place to be! I was terrified of the slippery swirling water, which made it hard to hold on to the canoe, and I was afraid of being separated from Ethan. We managed to pull ourselves upstream of the canoe, and clung tenaciously to a large log which also was jammed against the trees. When the current rushing under the log whipped off my rubber river shoes I knew that this was a dangerous situation, because if you get sucked under you can get caught in branches or roots, and never come up.
“Wrap your arms around the top of the log,” I yelled at Ethan. “Don’t let go of the log no matter what.” Instinctively I knew we had to stop from going under the log, or we could die.
“Let’s crawl toward the end of the log,” I yelled, “where we can get kick away from the trees and hopefully float to safety.” I could see that the end of the log stuck out from the trees. However the log was wet and slippery and very difficult to hold. As we inched sideways, kicking out strongly to stay above the log, a smaller log that was being carried downstream careened into my shoulder, and forced me to release my grip.
As the water dragged me under the log, in that split second I knew I was in deep trouble. However, my life-jacket must have caught on a knot in the log, and prevented me from going any further. But I was under water, and under the log, and I was terrified. The strong water flow had pulled my body down and almost out of the life-jacket, and I couldn’t reach the knot that had hooked me. As my breath was running out I knew I didn’t have much time. My hands clawed for the front buckles to release my life-jacket, but they were opposite my face by now, as I felt my body slipping even further out of the life-jacket. As I fumbled at the buckles, I was jerked sideways back and forth like a flag on a flagpole. When my breath expired, I prayed “Please save me God,” as I began to lose consciousness. My last thought was for Ethan…..hoping he would survive.
The Gray Nomad.
Probing the practice of Christian believers……
Commit your way to the Lord – roll each care of your road on him; trust also in him and he will bring it to pass. (Psalms chapter 37).
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