On May 26th, the muses finally came together and provided an opportunity to venture out into the Ozarks. Sharon and I the loaded green canoe on the red truck and headed out Highway 16 from Fayetteville toward the town of Patrick. We were supposed to meet my friend and co-worker, Brad Hufhines and his wife, Stephanie, at the Patrick Bridge over White River. Just past Crosses, we saw Brad and Stephanie headed toward Fayetteville with his red canoe on top of his brown Suburban. Well, I said to Sharon, I guess we passed the town of Patrick. So, I found a wide spot in the road and turned around. As it turns out, Brad was running into the store at Crosses to get a little gas. Soon enough, we regrouped and headed on down to the bridge as planned.
The Patrick Bridge is a little more than a low water slab, but not much. When we pulled up at 9:30 that morning, three boys were busy jumping off the slab and floating down stream. It was about 68 degrees and the water was certainly cool, but they didn’t seem to mind. The game must have gone on all day. When we got back to the bridge a few hours later, they were still at it; but by this time, they had progressed to jumping in on the upstream side and riding the current through the box culvert. Brad and I loaded his canoe on my truck and we all headed on down Highway 16 to St. Paul.
At the White River Bridge just downstream from St. Paul, we pulled off the road. This was to be our launch site. Let me take a moment here to thank whoever owns the property next to the bridge for leaving the access open. I should also thank folks using this access for not littering. The site was basically clean. Perhaps if more recreationalists would respect the land, more of these informal access points would remain open.
A rock garden near St. Paul turned out to be a good place to relearn our paddling strokes.
There was a bit of apprehensiveness about putting in at St. Paul. While I was confident that it was floatable, none of us seemed to know much more about the float we had planned. From the USGS topographic maps, I could readily see that the gradient of the river was about 20 feet per mile, which makes it comparable to the Mulberry River in steepness. But there was not nearly the volume of flow that the Mulberry normally has during the spring. At that moment, I suspected that our little excursion could get lively, and I was right.
We unloaded the boats. I pulled my truck back up by the road just in case it rained, and we took off heading downstream toward Patrick. It was now in the mid-seventies. There was a strong south wind, but we were headed north so it didn’t really matter. We were comfortable in tee shirts and shorts. The water had a nice clear green color, and the flow was adequate but not high. In the first riffle, I noticed a blue smudge on a rock which indicated others had gone before us. I was starting to feel good about the day.
Sharon and I have paddled a lot together, but not in white water. She knows all the basic paddle strokes — draw, sweep, cross bow draw, forward and back strokes etc. But like I said, we have not done a lot of white water.
The next riffle was what we call a rock garden in the Ozarks.
As the flow picked up, rock gardens gave way to chutes and turns.(White Near Patrick)
Like the name implies, there were lots of rocks sticking up just high enough to catch a canoe. There was ample water to float through so we headed in. I was shouting directions to Sharon — “draw, cross bow, draw, sweep etc. – as we tried to avoid the rocks. Well, Sharon knew the strokes, but her recall was a little slow. We went through the riffle kind of like a pinball. The green canoe was now the scratched green canoe but we were still dry.
We drifted into the pool below the riffle. Sharon asked, “Why don’t you just say left or right? That would be much clearer.” Well, those that have paddled white water with me before understand that I only know two directions and they both were pronounced “left.” That often leads to confusion. We proceeded on. Brad and Stephanie were up ahead. Their daughter Stella was sitting in a camp chair in the middle of their canoe.
I’m happy to report that for the first couple of miles, the riparian zone along the side of the river was almost fully intact. Dense vegetation lined both banks and there were wild flowers galore, with pink Phlox being the most abundant followed by white Pentstemons and red Fire Pinks. But the prize for the day was Indigo Bush, a large bush with dozens of rusty, purple, spikey flowers. It was a pleasure to paddle alongside the mature forest.
After we passed the confluence with Fanning Creek, the volume of flow picked up. Rock garden riffles turned into white water chutes. With each chute, Sharon gained a little confidence in her paddle strokes. She was even starting to read the water. By the time I yelled a direction, she had already started. We were becoming a team. Brad and Stephanie were now a bit behind us.
At one particular rapid, all of the flow concentrated into a narrow chute roughly 15 yards long. At the end of the chute, the current ran square into a huge boulder. The water pillowed up on the boulder and shot off to the left. It was clear that one missed stroke and we would be swimming. I nosed the bow of the canoe into the chute and off we went. At just the right point, Sharon reached out over the left side of the canoe and did a perfect draw stroke. I hit a sweep stroke in the stern followed by a rudder and we were through.
Brad, Stella and Stephanie Hufhines
Below the rapid on the right of the canoe, there was a strong eddy formed behind the boulder. On impulse, I pushed the bow of the canoe over the eddy line and hollered “cross bow.” Without hesitation, Sharon reached across to the right of the canoe and dug in with her paddle. I laid out on a low brace in the stern. In a flash, the canoe spun around and we were sitting in the eddy facing upstream. It was a perfect eddy turn. We sat there and waited for Brad, Stella and Stephanie to come through, just in case. They did fine.
On downstream, the river turned more northerly and the valley opened up. The river now flowed through a wide alluvial valley. Unlike the Buffalo or Kings rivers or even the White further downstream, there were no bluffs, or even much rock of any kind to constrain the river. The river was still very attractive, but there were signs of bank erosion almost everywhere. Even in reaches with intact riparian zones, the banks were eroding although not as dramatically as where the riparian vegetation had been removed. One look at the soil on an eroding bank told the story. It was nothing but silt and loose gravel. It was alluvial soil, which has virtually no resistance to erosion.
Alluvial soil in the valley bottom has no resistance to erosion.
Just past the Highway 295 bridge at Combs, we stopped for lunch. Brad and Stella went swimming while Sharon and I ate our peanut butter sandwiches. Overhead a bird was flying around erratically. That’s strange I thought. On closer observation it turned out to be a bat, in broad daylight. Stephanie said that seeing a bat in daylight was bad luck. The next thing you know some small birds chased an owl out of the trees, heralding even more bad luck. Shortly thereafter, we loaded up and paddled on down to Patrick. The boys were still playing at the bridge. Several others had joined them. Brad shuttled us back up to the truck. After we transferred the canoe, we headed home. I’m still waiting on the bad luck to fall. I think we skated by it … this time.