Broke toe on the Buffalo

It started about three years ago.

One of the summers where I get together with my parents and my sister, her kids and mine, our long-suffering spouses.  The yearly family week at Lake Chicot.  My nephew must’ve been about fourteen, fifteen at the time.   Asked me if I’d take him floating on the Buffalo River.   He’d never done anything like that before.   Never “roughed it” out in the wild green like in the crazy stories his Uncle Matt told him.  Sure, I said.  Absolutely.   I’m pretty sure he asked me at least once a year for the past three years until finally, around Christmas this past year, he called me out on it.

It’s his senior year.  He’s 18, about to head to college.   All he wanted to do over his Spring Break was float the Buffalo with his Uncle Matt.  Last chance.  He wasn’t going to ask again.

How could I say no?  I mean, this kid is THE kid whose birth made me an Uncle.  He followed me into the woods when he was little.   I planted the seed then, I’ve told stories upon stories.  What kind of favorite uncle would I be if I let this man down?  No kind at all, I tell you.  No kind at all.

About a month before his break, he started texting me.  Uncle Matt, what do I need to wear?  What do I need to bring?   Do I need a tent?  What kind of clothes? 

Wait, son, wait.  I’ll tell you closer to the time.

Two weeks out, I start getting texts from my sister and my mother.  He’s driving them crazy with it.  Does he need to bring his truck? What kind of sleeping bag should he buy?  Does he need to bring food?

Gimme a week, son.  Just bring your life jacket and the clothes on your back.   Let me get closer and check the weather, check the water level.    

We still gonna go?  You not gonna cancel it?

Trip’s still on, son.  Trip’s still on.  

A week out, I checked the weather.  Looked great.   Lows around the low 40’s, highs in the low 60’s.  Sunlight the whole week.   I threw out a courtesy invite to Kat and The Professor because, well, that’s just what you do to your best wilderness buddy.  He spread out the invite and pretty soon it looked like we had about eleven people signed on to come.    I secured three kayaks and a canoe from my brother-in-law, as well as a trailer to pull them.   Plan was to launch from the Ponca low water bridge and float down to Pruitt.  3 days, 2 nights.  Try to be moving downstream by 10 a.m. on Wednesday.  Out of the river sometime Friday.

Kat was so excited that he and his son camped out at Steel Creek Tuesday night.  I gathered up my two boys, my nephew, and my father and left out of here before dawn on Wednesday.

This was the first time in almost 30 years that I’ve gone out into the wilderness with my father.   He took me on the Buffalo once when I was 16.  What I saw then surely planted the seed for what grew into a deep love of this entire area as an adult.   I thought it would be a nice gesture to invite him along, let him see his grandsons paddling along the river he took me on so long ago.

I like symmetry, so when I invited my father
and he agreed to come, I immediately chose
as close to the same route as I remember
from then.  It has been a few decades since,
but there were two things I distinctly
remembered. . .

The trip down to Ponca was quiet.   The old man and three boys (10, 14, & 18) all fell asleep on the way down.   We got there to find out that four had already dropped out, but we still had a party of seven.  Unloaded the boats and the gear, then I packed up while Kat and Poppa shuttled the trailer and a vehicle down to Pruitt.  We put in at the Ponca low water bridge.  [River Mile (RM) 28.5]

It was cold.  Overcast and rainy.   As soon as I got the kayaks packed, all four boys just sat in them. . . on dry land, facing the river and waiting a half-hour still for them to return from Pruitt.  I kicked back in the rear of my borrowed canoe and started reading from a Cormac McCarthy book I found tucked into my backpacking gear.

I said it was cold already, right?   Was still cold when we finally launched into the water.  Got everyone pointed in the right direction and down the river we went.

The first mishap was at Steel Creek, just a short bit downriver.  [RM 31]

My nephew, who later earned the river name of Flip needed to poop and there was a bathhouse right there.   Can we stop?  Sure. . . knock yourself out.   Beast, still getting his water arms under him, shot his kayak right over a rock where it went sideways and dumped him straight into the cold drink.   Soaking him.    Just as I was hopping out to rescue him, Poppa stood up and promptly fell over backwards into the water.   I helped him out and rushed over to where Beast was in a near panic and splashed down to get him all sorted out.   Ruined my digital camera ‘cause it was still in my lifejacket pocket.  (That’s why I don’t have any pictures from this part of the hike.) Beast was done at this point and ready to go home.  Poppa was ready to throw down against this granny standing on the bank who thought his asynchronized dive was the height of humor.   I lifted my hand to wave downstream at Kat, Professor, Flip, and Squirrel who were dry(er), warm(er), and wondering what the hold-up was.

I traded clothes with Beast so that he could at least have something dry.  He was done with the kayak, so I put him in the canoe with his Poppa and hoped for the best.   I hopped on the kayak and away we went.   Twenty-something more miles of this, right?   We’ll be fine!  Fine, I say.

The next person to go down was my nephew.   Not his fault, really.  It was his first time on a river, first time in a kayak or canoe.    But he lost his fishing pole and got his gear all wet.   And there was no sun out. . . I mean, none at all.   And the wind blowing hard.   The boys swear they saw snowflakes and I don’t completely doubt them.  It really was that cold.    Around lunch-ish, we pulled up on a rock bar and made a fire.   Everyone under the age of thirty was complaining that they couldn’t feel their feet or hands or face.  They were freezing and wanted to go home.   Squirrel said he had full-on frostbite happening and while I didn’t think it was quite that cold, I knew enough about taking kids into the wild to know that at the very least boy had to warm up his toes.

We threw some food into them, swore it would be warmer and nicer tomorrow, and let them thaw out by the fire.   I dove into my dry bag and pulled out my fleece jacket for Squirrel.  Put some dry socks on him and on Beast.   Off we went again.   Plan was to float till about 3pm and then find a good place to camp.  We pushed them along with promises of camp fires, fleece blankets, and toasted marshmallows.

The boys were making great time and Flip said he wanted to see the “really big waterfall” and so we stopped near the Hemmed-In Hollow trail [RM 35.5] and did a short hike in.   Poppa stayed behind to bail water out of his canoe.  He was in a 14’ canoe full of gear and it really was overloaded, even with Beast taking my spot.   The boys, Kat, and I all went to the waterfall.   The last time all of us had been there together was when Beast was still a kindergartner called Bear Bait.   (In fact, I think that hike was where he earned that first trail name.)  Ol’ boy is in High School now.  Time does find a way of getting past us, doesn’t it?   The Spider Tree he played on then was long washed away, but I did make him pose by a flat rock that I’m pretty sure he crashed out on about nine years ago.   The water was flowing great off the falls and whenever the wind would kick up, the waterfall would bend about two-thirds of the way up and land a good 30-40’ away from where it normally landed.  That was fun to watch.

 

 

 

Back to the boats, back on the river.   We made camp directly across from Lockhead Barn at [RM 36].  It was beautiful.  Full moon made the whole world visible.   Temps did drop pretty low, about 10 degrees lower than we expected.   I was okay, but Poppa and the older boys slept fitfully.   We did find out that the dry bags kept in the belly of Flip’s kayak were soaked.   None of it was cotton, so I wasn’t too worried about hypothermia – – but it did mean that Squirrel and I went to bed soggy.

I still have the army surplus dry-bag that my father
used on my first Buffalo River float.  It is dry-rotted,
some, and not as fancy as the ones I ordered off of
Amazon. . . but how could I not bring it?  I did have to
take them all shopping, though, so that they all had
non-cotton clothing to wear.  I needed to keep them
warm, even if I couldn’t keep them all dry.

I was trying out my newest hammock that night, a Clark Vertex Ultra double hammock.  I bought it so that, hopefully, I can finally get Momma out on the trail with me.   I’m so much heavier than lil’ man, though, that I sank lower and his half rose a good foot above me.   Everything was stable and it slept real comfortable.  When he found that Monkey was soggy, too, he started whimpering a bit.  He wasn’t cold, just damp and uncomfortable.  He wanted his momma and he wanted to go home.  This is very, very unusual for Squirrel.   He’s the hardiest of all my backwoods boys and other than once being convinced that Kat’s midnight snoring was a wandering zombie, he’s never gotten homesick or scared.  Other than Squirrel, his other trail name is Deathwish because of how fearless and awesome he is.  I reached up and held his hand for a while.  Asked him if he was cold.  He wasn’t.  “Just soggy.”   I promised that tomorrow would be warm and sunshiny and that we would have a great time.  I told him how proud I was that he never once even came close to tipping his kayak over and that he was the fastest of all of us on the river (truth. . . the boy is so light in his kayak he’s like a leaf on the water, dandelion fuzz on the wind).   He pretty soon was breathing deeply asleep and I followed soon after.

20190321_184552

Monkey drying out in the Clark Vertex Ultra. Monkey is an honored member of our wilderness adventures and has moved on from keeping Beast safe to keeping Squirrel comforted.

Breakfast the next morning, I awoke before dawn with a bladder more full than my desire to stay in the warm sleeping bag.  The full moon was hanging low over the barn and you could see everything as clear as noon.  Stars everywhere.  Not a cloud in the sky.   My phone camera is really inadequate to capture how beautiful it was.  Not the first time that I’ve wished I had a better camera.  I crept over to the fire and slowly whispered it back to life.  Just sat there a long cold while, wrapped in a fleece blanket and thinking about things I probably shouldn’t be thinking about.  Wondering how we were going to reconfigure the weight in the canoes to get us better down the river.  Hoping it would warm up soon.

As the rest of the group thawed to life, I started getting coffee ready.   I asked Flip how he slept and he said, “Great. . every hour or so.”  Then proceeded to tell me how he was in a constant war between his bladder and his body heat.  Poppa didn’t sleep so good, either, making the neophyte backpacker’s mistake of trusting the forecast lows to dictate how much clothing to wear to bed.  (The answer is All.  All the clothing.  He would not make that mistake again.)  A not-so-quick breakfast had us packed and on the river again by almost 10:00 a.m.

Chaos and trouble began very shortly after.

I told you that smaller canoe was overloaded.   Poppa at the back, Beast in the front.  While in his glory days, Poppa spent a bit of time on the water . . . it’s been a little few decades since he’s captained a canoe with a kid in it.  I didn’t get the full story of it, something about confusing left and right in the heat of the moment, but we weren’t but a mile or so down the river when I hear Beast yell out and I see the canoe sideways against a rock and completely submerged.   Beast was almost in tears, standing outside the canoe and trying to pull it and his grandfather out of the water.  (Ain’t happening, hoss.)   I zipped the kayak around and fought upstream to calm him down.  Poor kid thought the whole thing was his fault and started apologizing to me.   I soothed the Beast and told him no worries.  I got this.    Gave him the kayak and sent him downstream to join the rest of the team.  I helped Poppa out of the canoe and got him settled on the bank – which wasn’t much more than saturated sand on a steep slope.  Once he was settled, I started rescuing the contents of the canoe.  One tent, an ice chest, the gear box, metal grate. . . did I really put this much junk in our smallest canoe?   I saw Kat working his way upstream to try and get across but the water was too deep.   I waved him off.  Needed him to swing down and be with the boys anyway.   I worked the canoe up on the rock and just started bailing with a small camp bowl.

Took forever.

Was very cold.

Eventually got it empty enough to move toward the bank.   Bailed it out as much as I could but there was still the issue of getting it through the rapids.  I decided that my only option was to walk it down so I loaded it back up.  Loaded my dad back into it.  Grabbed the front rope and eased it back down the river to join the rest of our intrepid floaters.

A short side-conference with Kat and we decided to shift contents around once more.  He was in a 17’ canoe, so I put one of the ice chests in his and swapped Poppa for The Professor.  Much more balanced loads now in the two canoes.   Beast, now completely cured of his kayak spookies, stayed with his kayak and our party was off once again.

For about fifteen minutes.

Kat pulled his canoe up about 30 yards from a fast flow of rapids to adjust Poppa’s seat.  It was leaning too much and throwing off the balance.   I pulled my canoe in to see what I could do to help when I see Squirrel just FLY past me and shoot like an arrow down the rapids.   He was gone before I could even yell for him.  Flip shot past next and that’s where all hell broke loose.   I turned to check on Kat and heard my nephew just start hollering.  He’s bellowing in his terrified man-boy voice, but I couldn’t see him from where I was.   No time to get a canoe worked around – and not sure I could get to him against the current anyway if I were in a boat – so I just took off running.

Here I was, Hasselhoffing it through thigh-deep rapids toward the sound of yelling.  The icy cold water was nothing compared to the grip of fear on my heart should I let harm come to my baby sister’s favorite boy.  (I love her, but I am terrified of her wrath.)  I saw him against the bank, clinging to a limb and while he wasn’t in immediate danger he was in full panic which could quickly lead to danger.  His kayak was gone, his paddle and gear all gone.   My left shoe caught on a rock and floated away as I kept running in the now waist-deep water toward him, trying not to let the current catch me.

He’s a big ol’ boy, so I reached up and grabbed his arms.   Using my best Stern Daddy Voice, I called out his name a couple times before he looked at me and stopped bellowing.    “You’re okay!   You’re safe!   It’s okay!  Calm down.”  Eventually, he nodded, and I told him to follow me.   I walked him back upstream toward the shallow end of the water and helped him cross over with instructions to walk back to where everyone else was waiting at the base of the rapids.   I then headed back to my canoe and we eased down picking up his gear as we went.    When I finally got back to where everyone was standing (the boys all wide-eyed) at the bank, I sat down.   Kat had rescued my shoe.   Putting it on, I realized my left pinkie toe was pointed in a rather unnatural direction, roughly 90 degrees from the rest of my little piggies.  I didn’t feel a thing – whether it from adrenaline, shock, or the icy cold water.  The boys were all wide-eyed staring at me.

“Pretty sure it’s broken.”  I reached down and skronched it back into position.   There was appropriate sounds of disgust and disbelief from my audience.   One of ‘em asked, “Doesn’t it hurt?”

“Nah.” I said.   ‘course, I figured that wasn’t going to be true in a few hours . . . but the looks of awe on their face made this semi-falsehood completely worth it.    Squirrel said, “You’re a hero!”

Damn right, boyo.  A broken toe ain’t nothing compared to what my sister would do to me.

Now, ever since he tumped his kayak the day before, Flip had been asking us when the next and worst rapids would be.   Kat had been telling him about this one spot coming up that Flip was terrible worried about.   Kat walked over to Flip and put his hand on his shoulder.   Told him, “Remember me telling you that there was one more really rough spot?”   Flip nodded.   “Well, that was it.  Welcome to Grey Rock Shoals,” and pointed to the rather large and rather grey rock we just passed by.  [RM 38]  Flip’s jaw dropped.   “NOW you tell me?”

Kat came over to tell me that we’ve made 2 miles in the past two hours.   We can’t keep that kind of pace and stay on schedule.  The map came out and we set a goal to try and make it about six more miles before we break for lunch.   All of our happy crew took inventory.  No kids lost.   One fishing pole gone, one camera broken, and one toe destroyed . . . but other than that, everything was cool.

The sun was finally all the way out and the world had warmed up.  It was a beautiful day.  The kids were happy, even Flip because I rescued his backpack.  Even the wind was at our backs.   Down the river we went.

20190321_152036

Squirrel, handling that river like the absolute boss he is.

 

We made great time after that.  Five miles in the next hour.  Squirrel was now absolutely forbidden to go down any rapids without an adult telling him to go.   A whitetail deer crossed the river in front of us.  We saw caves and geese and birds and wildlife everywhere.  Even saw a bat in full daylight flittering around outside of a cave.  The boys were all laughing, none of the canoes swamped or got hung up.  We decided to at least hit Erbie before looking for a campsite.  Maybe stop on river-mile 46 around 4 o’clock or so.

We found a great camping spot right where we needed to, right when we needed to do it.   As we were unloading the canoes, one of the teen’s phones blipped to indicate some kind of notification and they (and their grandfather) all rushed toward phones to see if they had service.  Kat and I continued setting up hammocks and getting the camp sorted.  Squirrel, a phoneless 4th grader, continued gathering sticks for the fire.  Connections to grandmothers and mothers were attempted unsuccessfully as a single 3G bar proved insufficient for that desperate grasp at digital civilization.

I hobbled along with my toe finally starting to bark at me.   (I swear, I thumped it on every rock and stick between here and the Buffalo River.)  Got a big fire going and we started cooking off all the rest of the food.

One of my favorite memories to tell the boys
when we’re around a campfire, is how just
absolutely horrified I was when my dad pulled
out a can of spam, wrapped a lump around a stick
and cooked it over the campfire.  Which meant
I just HAD to bring Spam to have my dad cook it
on a stick.  It was seriously pretty stinking good.
20190322_074511

Poppa readying the infamous Spam On A Stick.

Burgers, dogs, hot links, mac & cheese.   Everything on the grill.  The older those boys get, the more bottomless they become.   We brought enough food . . . barely.   S’mores, of course, crammed in the few empty corners of their stomach before all of them staggered toward the hammocks and an early bed.

20190321_180253

Beast & Flip . . with Kat in the background. You’re never too old for a well-earned S’more.

Poppa was snoring almost as soon as he zipped in (wearing, I might add, every piece of dry clothing he brought with him.)  Squirrel opened up all the remaining Hot Hands body warmers and passed them out before having me boost him into the hammock.   He kissed me on the forehead and told me that today was a better day and he’s glad he didn’t go home early, but that he still misses mom and will be ready to go home tomorrow.   I asked him if Monkey was soggy and he smiled.   Neither one of them.   Dry as a bone.    He was asleep by the time I eased on back to the fire.

20190320_185600

Flip & The Professor

Kat and I stared at the flames for a while, talking a little bit about work and next year.   It had been a while since we had camped together.  Even longer since we had been on the river together.  Reminisced a bit.  Re-planned this trip in the way we do sometimes reflecting on how we could’ve done it better.   I’m always glad to have him with me in the out there.

It was a much warmer night until about 3 a.m. when the temperature plunged and decorated our hammocks and clothesline with frost.

20190322_080238

I figured my early fire starting the day before earned me a few extra minutes of warmth pretending to be asleep while Kat coaxed a fire back to life.

 

 

 

We cooked up a huge breakfast of eggs and sausage, bacon and spam, onions, peppers, cheese.  Just a glorious buttery greasy meaty mess of breakfast.   Whatever was left in the coolers got added to the pot.    We weren’t taking any food home.

20190322_074616

Everybody loaded up and it was, really, a beautiful but gloriously uneventful float home.  It ended as peacefully as it began chaotically.  We muscled everything up to the parking lot at Pruitt and crammed it all onto the trailer.   The boys were either lost in their phones and tablets or conked out asleep by the time we made it back to Kat’s truck still parked at Ponca.

I asked Flip if the trip was everything he wanted it to be and he nodded.    Not much for words is my gigantic manboy nephew.   I then asked him if he wanted me to take him again and he paused then said, “In tha summer.”   I laughed and he added, “And I want to be in the canoe with you.”

16 year-old me.  We’ve just finished floating the Buffalo
River at flood stage.  Ponca to Gilbert in two days, one night.
My dad and I are sitting on an upturned canoe, waiting
on our ride home.  There’s some fully drunk college kids
partying on the rock bar.  Two bikini-clad girls in front of us
decide it would be funny to moon the boys behind us.  Teenager
me was just in the line of fire when they drop trou.  My dad turned
to me and said, “Don’t tell your mom.”  I’m pretty sure that’s
the first thing I told her.  Other than the Spam-on-a-stick, that
is the other memory that has stayed with me.

Pretty sure I can make that happen.

We all signed a map of the Upper Buffalo to give to him.  Marked all our stops and the sites of our misadventures.  Maybe one day he’ll have that map with him when he takes his kids or grandkids out on that river and tells them about his crazy Uncle Matt.

 

{Broken Toe Epilogue}

BrokeToe

Second thing I did, after taking a shower, was to head out for an X-ray and some better pain meds.   As I’m writing this, a week later, my toe still hurts. . . but not nearly as much as the pain my baby sister would have inflicted on me had I not saved her favorite son.

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