Day 1 on the Buffalo River
Mike Mills sits in a canoe like a king in a throne, upright and at ease. Thick arms skim the craft over the river. Oftentimes his paddle stays out of the water for long stretches, needing only one deep stroke to navigate a rapid, letting the current - and years of experience reading it - do the rest. And yet one stroke of his takes him as far as three of our hurried stabs at the water. He is a man in his element.
We are nervous, Darrell, Kim, Rachel, and I, on our first day on the river. Mike is taking us from Ponca to Kyle’s Landing, ten miles or so, to train us for the rest of the trip. We will take out at Kyle’s and return to the beginning the next morning and start the trip anew. “The first 10 miles is the most beautiful part anyhow,” Mike says. He speaks with certainty, a man used to making split second decisions and making the right ones.
Mike begins by teaching us the draw stroke, the most important lesson, he says. A draw stroke is a stroke where the paddle is parallel to the canoe and you pull in toward the canoe. It is the primary tool of the person in the bow (or front) of the canoe. It moves the tip of the canoe in the direction of the paddle - and can be the difference between hitting a rock and gliding past.
“My job is not to judge, “ Mike says in his easy Arkansas lilt, “It’s to assess. Then I know what I have to teach you.”
None of us knew the draw stroke prior to this little lesson. All of us had canoed on lakes before, but lakes usually don’t have water pushing you toward rocks and debris - of which there is plenty. The river finished flooding no more than a week ago and downed trees are around every bend.
After learning the stroke, Mike takes us down the first rapid. “Most rapids on the Buffalo River are 1s and 2s,” he says, speaking of the classification of rapids which range from 1 (easy) to 6 (impossible). “The classifications basically relate to the likelihood of you being seriously injured or killed if you fall out in a rapid. 1s you might get a bruise, 2s it’s possible to break a bone. 3s and 4s and 5s you could be severely injured or worse.”
We all make it through the first rapid just fine and the second as well. On the third, Rachel and I get hung up sideways on a rock. Mike paddles next to us, yelling at us to power stroke (a long deep stroke meant to propel you forward). We do. We make it off the rock without tipping. Though we feel a little bad, Mike congratulates us.
“Two more seconds and you would’ve started filling up with water. It’s much better to hit the rapids head on. But you did alright.”
On the next rapid, we hit an eddy, spinning ourselves around and head backward through the branches of an uprooted tree. Rachel folds forward in the canoe and the branches fly over her head. Again Mike congratulates us. “It’s good to know what to do when things aren’t going right.”
True, but we’d prefer to be doing things right. Darrell and Kim seem to be getting along better. All of us want to impress Mike. He’s the kind of man whose respect you want to earn.
In the calm stretches between rapids he grabs onto our canoes and dispenses his advice. All four of us nervously glance ahead to the rapid just ahead, but Mike barely takes his eyes off us as he talks, paying no mind to the upcoming rocks and trees and rushing water.
"It’s better to pick a line and stick with it. Decisiveness. When you start second guessing your decisions is when you get into trouble."
When we make it to Kyle’s Landing, a few hours after we put in, about 5 o’clock or so, we’re tired and giddy. Mike invites to his house to talk, go over maps, and have a drink (no food - he doesn’t eat dinner: “Just a glass of red wine, and a handful of nuts.”).
When he asks if we’d like to go home first and "freshen up" or come straight up with him, we dither. He barks, “there’s a rock coming up in the river, make a decision.” We decide to freshen up.
His house sits on top of a large mountain overlooking the river valley. A window covers the whole east facing wall. It makes for a gorgeous sunrise, he tells us and encourages us to arrive at 6am tomorrow and watch.
We all pour over the maps with Mike and he labels rapids, potential camp sites, things to watch out for, and spots too beautiful to miss. He writes in a red permanent marker and the maps (with good reason) are waterproof. Finally, empty of stomach and full of information, we leave for our cabin to eat and sleep and rise with the sun for the true start of our trip down the Buffalo.
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