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Buffalo River

Oh brothers lets go down,
Lets go down – come on down.
C’mon brothers lets go down,
Down in the river to pray.

As I went down in the river to pray,
Studying about that good old way,
And who shall wear the robe and crown,
Good Lord show me the way.

Down in the River to Pray (Alison Krauss, 2000, although it may have been composed by an African-American slave in early 1800s).

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.”

“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 time.

“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. The mountains rise to over 11,000 feet and can present a spectacular view from my house, particularly when they light up with pink reflections of sunset.

“Let’s go back to camp,” I suggested. “We can sit around the fire before we roll into our sleeping bags.” Our group had pitched camp on a large sandbar in the Buffalo River, and Willie was optimistic about the weather for the next day.

Around the fire, one chap from New Orleans gave us a fascinating account of his job…..dredging up from the Mississippi River logs of cyprus trees which had lain underwater for decades. The logs could be dried out over time, and the wood was still quite valuable for building materials.

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.

Ethan told me later what happened. He panicked when he saw me slip beneath the log. He kept hoping I would come out the other side, but soon realized that I must be trapped under water in amongst the trees. He knew how dangerous it would be for him to let go and slide under the log, because he might become trapped also. Crying inside, he felt he had no options to try to find me, let alone save me.

Suddenly a voice rang out as clear as a bell above the sound of thrashing water: “Move to your right, hold on with your left hand, and reach down under the log as far as you can.” Ethan glimpsed a figure on the bank of the river about thirty yards away. Ethan rapidly moved over and reached under the log. After groping around for a second or two in the dirty water, his fingers closed on a strap and he pulled like crazy, slowly drawing me up and out of the water. During this operation Ethan switched the top of my life-jacket to his left hand, and grabbed my belt to lift my head above water. He quickly wound the top of the life-jacket around a small branch to stabilize me.

Another call, just as clear, hit Ethan’s ears: “Open his mouth, tilt his head down, and pound on his back with your right fist.”

Although this was tricky in the thrashing water, Ethan followed the orders and after a few seconds I suddenly coughed and spat water. I was dazed for a minute or two before asking feebly “What happened?”

“A guy on the shore told me how to find your life-jacket and I pulled you out,” Ethan replied.

“Who was he?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where is he?”

Ethan nodded in a direction along the log, but we saw no-one.

“He’s gone,” said Ethan simply.

After I recovered my strength, we resumed crawling sideways along the log until we reached the end, then cast off into the powerful current. Once clear of the trees, and buoyed by our life-vests, we laid back and were carried downstream until we landed on a sandbar at the edge of the river where some of the others had gathered. We huddled around a blazing fire to absorb its warmth, and waited. The tension was palpable due to the uncertainty surrounding missing members of our canoeing party.

“What’s with your leg?” Ethan pointed as I was rolling up my pant leg. It was lacerated by the struggle with the log.

“It’s okay. Just surface stuff.” I looked at the scratches, some of which were quite deep. “But I thought I was a goner,” I added. “Thank God for the man who told you what to do.”

I thought about this.  When we get out of here, I will ask the canoeing party if someone was on the bank yelling at Ethan. I really want to know who helped save me.

It was a half-hour before we received any news, and it was not good. A man came floating down toward us in his life-jacket. “Willie needs help…. his canoe tipped and we don’t know where he is.”

Willie was 75, and you can get hypothermia when wet and stranded for a long time. By staying close to the calmer waters of the shoreline, two expert canoers set off upstream to try and find him. Eventually the experts picked up everybody, including Willie who had been in the water a long time. His face was haggard, and he admitted he was emotionally drained by the entire scene. I suppose he also felt the responsibility for the decision to embark on the river this morning.

After recovering by the fire, Willie offered a prayer. “Thank you God. We thank you that no lives were lost, and no serious injuries occurred. The busted canoes and the lost equipment we can deal with.”

The river had been closed to all canoers during the second flood, but we had been on the river and did not receive that piece of news. Later we heard the river was four times higher than the level at which they close it to all canoers, including experts. The Buffalo River had flooded twice in one week, which was unheard of.

“I have led this trip for 45 years, but have never seen the river this high,” Willie continued. “We had prayed for safety on the river, and God protected us because it could have turned into a tragedy.”

We only canoed for one day, but it was as memorable as the five planned days would have been. Four canoes were lost out of twelve. About one half of the group ended up in the water. Three of the missing canoes were found downstream next day, and the one Ethan and I had started in was split in two. Although some bags were found, several billfolds, clothes, and tents were lost.

While in the bus later, I asked who in the group had called across the river to Ethan. The only response was a collection of blank looks, especially when I described how Ethan got the spoken directions which had saved my life. One woman suggested with a smile that maybe it was my guardian angel. I wondered if perhaps she was not far from the truth.

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