Floating the Buffalo

 Floating the Buffalo River

Last week we loaded up the family and navigated my Toyota Tacoma up the winding paved back roads of Arkansas to our rendezvous at Ponca. There are so many variations of green right now, as you look across the rolling erosions of the Ozark Plateau. The Spring breeze lifts, flutters, releases the leaves of white oak and red oak. The river flows at a moderate level after how many days of rain in the last month. It was our day to float these waters.

We use Lost Valley Canoe. Of course, we do. They’re kind, friendly, have the basics and even some organic and natural sundries in their general store. And they do good by us year after year as we hit the Buffalo, our community from the Headwaters Community School, from the Ponca low-water bridge to Kyle’s Landing.

Now I’m damned good at paddling. Seriously. Not like whitewater, nose your kayak over the lip of a 300-foot waterfall good. But I’m good at canoeing flat water and river. Solo.

It’s the tandem that kicks my ass. Not when I’m the teacher and some newbie is obeying my every command. No, I’m good at telling people what to do too. I guess if I’m totally honest here, I’m really good at paddling …except with my wife.

Drives me crazy, really.

Backstory: I used to work at an outdoor retailer. Sometimes we’d have these blow-hard gunwale fascists come in with their wives in tow, looking over our stock of watercraft and demonstrating how much they knew about the art. Oh yes, they’d taken Sugar Creek. Mmhm, yes, they’d been to the Boundary Waters.

They’d swagger between our Mad River canoes, telling ‘the little woman’ what was what about Royalex or Kevlar, that expensive beavertail paddle, or our prized wood-ribbed 12-footer. I loved starting up a conversation. This guy would dismiss his wife with a wave of his hand.

“I just stick her up front and tell her to paddle. I do all the work in the back of the canoe.”

My cue. “Oh, really? Well, that’s interesting ’cause you can’t really propel much from the back. All you can do there is steer, really. The person in the front is where all the power comes from.”

The woman gets a you-don’t-say smile on and turns toward her husband. The man looks at me with a I-can’t-believe-you-just-did-this-to-me look before sputtering, “Well…. I mean…. That’s….”

She’d say something like, “So all this time you’ve been acting like you’re doing me a favor, and I’ve been doing all the work?”

I tip them over the edge. “Oh yeah! That’s exactly it.”

Then I walk away. I never really understood why my sales numbers weren’t better.

But I… I am a master communicator. Here on the Buffalo River, I put Kristin up front, knowing I’m the better paddler. What are you doing? No, just paddle. I’ll steer. We need to be closer to the other shore. Don’t pull so hard to the left. You’re fighting against me. Just paddle forward. There’s a rock up there? Don’t tell me. Just get us away from it.

Another canoe slides up past us. A friend laughs and tells Kristin, “Just tell him anyway.”

I’m sure I gave him that familiar I-can’t-believe-you-just-did-this-to-me look. And it dawns on me: I’m one of those blowhards!

I wasn’t that bad all day.

I hope.

But I watched his wife and him slice cleanly through the water, intuiting what the other would do at each end of their boat. They’re only like 9 years older than I, but they’ve been together nearly three times as long as Kristin and I have.

In truth, Kristin described it best when she said that communication is like a river. You start off sweet-talking each other into getting into the same canoe. You have these expectations about how the trip is going to be. Pretty quickly you find yourself talking at the other person. A challenge or two and you find yourself screaming at each other.

You might capsize.

In fact, not that long ago, we did. Last year we floated for the very first time as a family. We put into the Big Piney River at Long Pool. The water was reasonable, but we loaded our 3 kids and dog with us into a 15-foot canoe. We did fine. Until we came around a bend, sideways into a mostly submerged snag. Yes, I was shouting instructions. Yes, we both got totally confused. And the bow went under.

It seemed like forever to me, but others with us said it took a split second for us to grab our kids in their PFDs and exit the canoe away from the snag. It shook me up, actually. My mind slowed down to consider every thought and action, the possibility that one of us could get hurt… or worse if we weren’t careful. But we got everyone to the safety of shore, and after we got the canoe free of the snag, we all got back in and down to the takeout.

On the Buffalo River last week, we never capsized. We got a lot better at paddling together. We took out at Kyle’s Landing and returned to Lost Valley. With beer in hand and smiles on our faces, Kristin and I talked about a good day canoeing.

Again, it’s like she says. Communication is a river. If you go with the flow, you might eventually figure a few things out about each other. If you’re lucky enough, you might learn something about yourself. You’ll capsize occasionally, hopefully, less frequently. But if you jump back in, and if you’re really fortunate, you might learn how to communicate with each other a bit better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *