Heavy Water

by Keith Bridgman

...You glance ahead, sighting a line. Must veer right, you kick it over, pull hard to swing the bow, set it up, then you're in...

Running the rapidsYou stand ready to launch after weeks of waiting, weeks of communicating with the others in your troupe, and countless hours of anticipation. A chill runs through you, not so much from the cool, damp air of Springtime in the Ozarks, but more from the uncertainty of unknown challenges the river will offer on this day. You've been here before, but each float is unique and no two are ever the same. The water level is above the optimum which means what was difficult the last time, becomes almost dangerous now. There is a strength to the current not presented before. Its clear waters tinged with marine blue, broken by swirls and eddies, and white caps at it cuts across, over, and through even the most simple of obstacles. There is a muffled roar. You know just down stream, around the first bend, the first difficult area waits. What will it be like today? With the higher water levels you know quick reflexes and steady nerves are in order. The first one is always the most difficult, the one to judge the rest of the float against. A mistake here, no, it won't happen, you won't let it. You've traveled too far to let the conditions ruin it for you. You are ready and confident.

This could be any one of many Ozark whitewater rivers, but you've chosen this one. Tough enough to present a challenge, but one which falls within range of your capabilities. Even so, the higher water level creates a new set of parameters. Are you up to it's call? There's only one way to find out.

You slide the canoe off the rack and feel its weight on your shoulders. The rocks underfoot, slip and give way as you trudge to the edge of the bone chilling river. You slowly turn and carefully flip the canoe off your shoulders and gently lay in onto the edge of the rushing river. The current is strong even here, and you hurry to corral the canoe before it gets away and point the bow upstream securing the bow line. Extra floatation is required today and you secure it, along with extra paddle, lifeline, waterproof bag carrying essentials which must be kept dry. You stand ready.

Before shoving off, you read the water at the put in and determine your initial strategy, tighten up the lifejacket and hop onboard. You shove into the current, quickly paddle upstream and out from the bank, plant a port side back brace and allow the bow to swing around to clear the clump of rocks and debris recently flooded by the rising waters. You kneel and brace your knees against the curved bottom of the canoe. It's been much too long since the last float, and the canoe feels shaky underneath your embrace. There's no stopping now. Although you are aware of the breathtaking scenery, you have no time to reflect on it for the current is threatening to throw you into the far bank of the first bend. You lean to port and brace, back peddle to adjust, brace hard again, but are not quick enough and bump hard against the submerged boulder along the bank. The canoe teeters, but you swing with it knowing it takes a lot to capsize. Keep your balance, slow your ascent, regain control. Just ahead the first set of class III rapids approaches.

You glance ahead, sighting a line. Must veer right, you kick it over, pull hard to swing the bow, set it up, then you're in. The bow kicks up and to port, the haystacks slap the gunwales. You don't paddle, only control with braces and sweeps. You ride up and over and ship water for the first time, then repeat it. At first your mouth was dry, but now you feel exhilarated ready for anything the river has to offer. You slip through the last set of haystacks into deep, slower running water. You don't notice it at first, but all at once you are aware of the grin stretched across you face, and that feeling of euphoria begins to swell up inside.

Getting ReadyAhead, it starts as a muffled drone, then becomes a louder roar. You stretch as high as you can to see. The main event is approaching, Class III+ rapids.  The river picks up speed, then cuts sharply to the right, runs thirty yards through a shoot, then falls into a trough, the bottom of which contains multiple rows of curls high enough to swamp your vessel. They are sinister, with hydraulics powerful enough to present a real and present threat to your safety. You slow with a back brace. Kick the stern out to line up the bow. You want to miss the overhanging limbs on the outside edge. The best line is dead center, through the gauntlet. You let the current carry you as far as you dare before pushing hard to cut inside the overhangs and maintain your line. You lean slightly as they brush against you, a near miss, but no time to second guess. You are caught in the surge and down you shoot into the first curl. It towers above you and your bow slams into it and is kicked to port. You correct with a hard brace and sweep to swing it back in line, but the paddle grabs only a boiling mass of air trapped in the foaming whitecaps. Tons of water flood your craft and the extra weight makes it sluggish. You feel yourself pitched upward as you ride over the crest only to be dumped into the foaming spray of the next one. You've over compensated and your bow is kicked to starboard and tips precarious, the gunwale inching ever so close to the edge of the boiling waters. Your knee slips, and you feel out of control, but somehow you slide over the second still afloat. You scramble to regain control just as the third curl slams into you. There is no way you can stay upright on this one you think, as a ton of foaming, enraged, river engulfs you're vessel and you are sitting in ten inches of ice cold water. You struggle to turn the sluggish canoe and not a moment too soon to meet head-on the final curl. The extra weight from all of the shipped water causes you to cut through the wall instead of over, and you ship even more, but some how you've stayed upright, in control, and the surge spits you out the back and into calmer water. You holler, not once but twice and then a third time, and raise the paddle above your head in triumph. More of the same is ahead, and with each ride, your confidence returns and you begin to look for the more difficult line purposely aiming for the largest curl, and deepest drops. You're in control and have mastery of your craft on a wild river.

Running the whitewater rivers of the Arkansas Ozarks is not only challenging, but can be dangerous as well. Never attempt it unless you have significant experience in handling a canoe or kayak. We've been lucky over the years and have been able to run at least a few of the jewels of the Ozarks, like the upper end of the Buffalo from Boxley to Ponca during high water, The Big Piney and the Mullberry, two of the better examples. It's not for the faint of heart, and be willing to have you breath taken away not only from the ice cold water but from the sheer excitement of the moment.

I've gained a lot respect for nature's fury over the years, suffering through a multitude of harsh weather events on many of my outings. But the greatest respect comes from the unrelenting force of Heavy Water. It doesn't stop and wait on you. It has no empathy for you. And, it will certainly void your warranty should a moment of carelessness cause you to make a mistake. It is a powerful force, but one that can be harnessed and enjoyed with the proper technique, equipment, and experience. Once conquered, there are few things that create a sense of exhilaration like running a set of rapids in a light weight canoe or kayak.


Learn a little about Keith Bridgman

More stories

Return to The Canoe Camper's Home Page.

Copyright Gregory Consulting Limited 1996-2006.
All rights reserved.