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Out There: On the river with my boys

9/28/2004

Throw a tent in my gear, and it's sure to rain. And Aug. 11, 1996, was no exception. The minute we shoved off, a frog-strangler started.

The boys were undaunted. The adventure had begun.

From the start, it was a trip for my sons — Matthew, 12, Shaun, 11, and Jared, 10. I had promised them an unforgettable journey — a 60-mile float on the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers. Three friends went along — "Uncle Bill" Hailey, a close companion; my best friend, Lewis Peeler; and Lew's 14-year-old son, Justin.

The last 40 miles of the Arkansas possess a wild character seldom seen in today's big rivers. Once you're underway, it's easy to imagine you've traveled back to the days of early explorers.

Best of all, the lower Arkansas is a fishing paradise. It harbors great numbers of fish — largemouths, catfish, white bass, stripers, crappie and more — and because of its remoteness, it receives few visitors.

It was here, below Wilbur Mills Dam, we began our journey.

Rain poured as we left the landing — four boys and three men in a canoe and two johnboats. The boys dubbed it "The Survival Trip."

Camping gear we had, but other than sandwich fixings, we agreed our food would come from the river. No fish, no supper. Hand-held games, radios and other modern conveniences were banned.

Rules were banned, as well. The boys could do as they pleased, as long as they wore life jackets when swimming and boating. Their fun, I decided, shouldn't be encumbered by unnecessary restrictions.

We allotted three days for our journey. Day One would take us 15 miles downriver. On Day Two, we'd make camp at the mouth of the Arkansas, 25 miles farther on. Day Three would find us at our takeout point, a 20-mile float down the Mississippi.

Day One

The rain abated when we reached the Yancopin Railroad Bridge, three miles below the dam. The tracks have gone unused for decades, and the bridge's steel framework looked rusty and old. Two outer spans were raised, as if someone were waiting for a steamboat to pass.

We stopped for a while — swimming, fishing, exploring — then moved on.

Except for a lone deer camp halfway down, the Yancopin Bridge is the last bit of civilization on the lower Arkansas. Downstream there is only the river and the big woods around it — and on this day, four boys eager to make camp and start their fun.

We pitched our tents on Melinda Bar, a high, mile-long sandbar that has long been a landmark for river travelers. When camp was ready, the boys were off. Lewis and I paddled out and set trotlines. Uncle Bill kicked back.

Justin fished and caught a nice bass, dinner for two. Several catfish soon joined it in the fish basket.

Swimming and exploring occupied the other boys' time. They found a pool of water left when the river receded. The bottom oozed with sticky delta gumbo.

They caked it on their half-naked bodies. Leaves pressed in the mud completed their aboriginal garb. They looked like natives hunting for wild boars. The fun was in full swing.

We feasted on fresh fish that night, then retired to the tents away from the mosquitoes. We had survived Day One.

Day Two

I arose at dawn. The boats were gone. The river, shrouded in fog, had risen six feet overnight.

I awakened the others and cast off on an air mattress. "What if you don't find them, Dad?" the boys asked.

"Then I'll see you in New Orleans next week."

I found the canoe a few miles downstream. The johnboats were farther on. With sighs of relief, we rounded them up and broke camp.

Lewis, Justin and Uncle Bill headed downstream. The boys and I followed on a raft of air mattresses.

We watched as a peregrine falcon flashed across the river. A deer stood fearlessly as we floated past. Hundreds of bank swallows swarmed around riverbank nest holes. Endangered least terns shot from the sky like arrows, fishing for minnows.

Abundant wildlife constantly reminded us of the wild country we were in.

By noon, we were motoring downstream again.

White sandbars stretched to the horizon, cleaner and prettier than Florida beaches. We stopped now and then to swim and fish, but mostly we floated, watching as the scenery unfolded.

We agreed that none of us ever felt so far from civilization as we did on that day. What a wonderful feeling it was.

Lewis and I caught some crappie in a small oxbow. We ate them that evening beneath a painted sky at the mouth of the great river.

A rain shower drenched us as we made camp, but the clouds soon broke. And, as the sun set, it bathed distant thunderheads in salmon-colored light. The boys waded out to swim and fish in the first currents of the Mississippi River.

We survived Day Two.

Day Three

The Mississippi swallowed us. "It's huge!" said Matt. "It's gigantic!" shouted Shaun.

Indeed, we felt small on the Father of Waters.

Civilization rejoined us here.

Loggers worked the big timber just down from the Arkansas' mouth; they were the first people we'd encountered since leaving the dam.

Homes could be seen. A grainery. Roads. Power lines. Buoys. Barges. Litter. We left the wilderness behind.

"Imagine what it must have been like a long time ago," I told Shaun and Jared as we made our way downstream. "Have you heard of Hernando DeSoto?"

"Yes," the boys said. They learned of him in school.

"He landed at the place where we camped last night in 1542."

"Wow!" the boys said.

"How 'bout Marquette and Joliet? And La Salle? Have you heard of them, too?

"Yes," they responded.

"They camped there, too, with a great tribe of Indians, way back in the 1600s. La Salle and his men built a great cross and raised it there. He claimed these lands for the king of France. Mark Twain came by here many times, and John James Audubon, the great bird painter."

They turned and looked at each other with eyes opened wide. History was never so fun.

We floated several hours, absorbing the river's majesty. All of us felt exhilarated. No one wanted to see the takeout.

Unfortunately, all good things must end. At four that afternoon, The Survival Trip was over.

We survived.

Each year since, we have done it again, with my youngest son Zach along for the fun.

Another adventure

On the last trip to the lower Arkansas with my boys, I went out when everyone was asleep and sat by the water. It was cool; the mosquitoes were gone. The stars shone brighter than I remembered.

As I sat there, thinking about the explorers who had come before us, thinking about the Indians who had lived here, thinking about the red wolves that had once howled in the night, the woodland elk that had roamed nearby woods, the magnificent steamboats that once plied the rivers, I found myself overwhelmed by a feeling of great awe.

I wondered what dreams now colored the sleep of my boys. It was their third river campout, and they had gone to bed exhausted.

Now a river mistress also has charmed them. And, in them, I see hope for the future of these precious waters.

Make the time

Perhaps you will never float the Arkansas and Mississippi with your kids. But somewhere near your home is a wild river or a little lake or a back forty on a neighbor's farm where you can enjoy a special trip together. All it takes is time.

Plan it now. Keep it simple. Leave the rules at home. Open the door to the great outdoors and step inside with your children.

Disney World and Six Flags were never so good.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.