Mishap on the Buffalo River

"It is pleasant to have been to a place by the way a river went," Henry David Thoreau wrote. Just my sentiments, as I surveyed the Buffalo National Scenic River on a trip to northern Arkansas in early May. The river suggets a kind of serpentine vitality, and on this day its taut surface resembled the smoothness of mercury as it coiled into a bend in the near distance. I was eager to launch our rented canoe and be swept along to our takeout point five miles below.

Forty or so years ago, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers thought the Buffalo should be harnessed, like all respectable rivers, by one or more dams. But some visionary conservationists decided otherwise. They persuaded Congress in 1972 to guarantee its freedom as the first "national scenic river." Now, for 135 miles, the Buffalo is constrained only by the tall limestone bluffs of the southern Ozarks that form its winding banks-a joy to people who like to canoe, kayak, fish, or go birding. The National Park Service manages the river and its neighboring hills.

We pushed off and surrendered to the current, using our paddles chiefly as rudders. We saw no other humans on our descent. A wood thrush sang from the dense deciduous forest that covers much of the bluffs, and two tufted titmice called to each other from opposite banks. Ah, Thoreau!

We almost made it. Gliding around a bend, we saw that a line of sandbars stretched across the river just ahead. The current sorted itself into three or four prongs, compressing and accelerating through openings in the obstruction. Predictably, I chose the wrong channel. Swept into the too-narrow opening, our canoe sideswiped a wrecked clump of shrubs, overturned, and charged downstream without its occupants. We floundered, dripping, onto a sandbar.

Drying fast in the warm sun, we waited for rescue on a beached log. Three turkey vultures, aloft on the updrafts atop the towering bluffs, seemed eerily interested in those two creatures washed up on the bar far below. Our voyage had terminated sooner than planned, though we still agreed with Thoreau. It is pleasant to have been to a place by the way a river went, wherever we eventually ended up.

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