Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Coyotes and Screech Owls

A cool front blew in to coincide with the autumnal equinox, making the first day of fall actually feel like it here in the piney woods of deep east Texas. I was looking forward to sleeping with the windows open, and I wasn't disappointed. Sometime during the night, I awoke to the yipping and wailing of a pack of coyotes; it's a sound I look forward to this time of year. I like living where I can enjoy their wild serenades. It helps me remember there's a little wildness out there still. I got another treat just before dawn. It was far off, and at first I thought it was a coyote, then a dog. My dog and cat both let me know they heard it too. I listened hard and then realized it was a screech owl. I hear a lot of barred owls and an occasional great horned, but these are a treat.

Friday, September 11, 2009


I've been seeing signs of fall for a few weeks now. First I noticed on my morning walks the absence of the Wood Thrush and Summer Tanager. Now I've noticed the bucks have shed their velvet and thankfully have found something better than my young pines to do it on this year. On my drives to work I am beginning to see a hint of red on the black gums, and the cedar elms have just a tinge of yellow, and the sassafras are turning too. I'm ready for the change of seasons, such as it is here in the piney woods of northeast Texas. By the calendar, fall is only a little over a week away, but the news comes slowly down here.

When the weather cools, I love to sleep with my windows open, and hear the coyotes, sounding like a band of Indians on the war path. It's fascinating to me that a group of 3 or 4 can sound like a dozen or more. With my windows open. I can also hear the sound of tree frogs, barred owls, the occasional screech and great horned owls that share the woods.

I haven't heard geese flying over yet, but it shouldn't be long now.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

What I did on my Summer Vacation

OK, I'm a teacher, so you should have expected a line like that ;-)
But seriously, I did have a great summer. As you can tell from the name of my blog, I like to spend time on the river....and beyond, the beyond being mostly what surrounds the river. I began kayaking about 10 yrs. ago, when I was living just down the road from Caddo Lake. My first boat purchase was a Dagger Baja, 16' sea/touring yak. I'm happy to say that it still serves me well. Two yrs ago I purchased my first canoe, a solo Wenonah Vagabond, another right on purchase, as it's perfect for canoe camping. Which brings me back around to my summer vacation. It started with a trip to the Buffalo River, a 65 mile, 5 day trip from Tyler Bend to Shipp's Ferry on the White River. More to come... OK, this is long, but it was a long eventful trip....note: I apologize for the ferrying back and forth with tenses, try not to drown;-)

Buffalo River Trip Report 2009

Day 1 Mon. 6/8/09
6.5 hrs to Tyler Bend. Arrived around 7 pm, stopped to talk with some canoe people in the campground at it turns out to be Pam Elwood, an ACC and OS member, she told me that Karen and David from LA, BCOS, were also in the camp. After setting up my tent, I walked down to meet them, found that Barbie, another BCOS member was with them. I'd met her on the Ouachita/ Paddle for the Planet trip last month. Warm that evening, but cooled off nicely after dark.

Day 2 Tues.
Met at the put in at a little before 11 to get a spot in the shade, as suggested by David.
I introduced myself to Alice and Charline, the trip leaders. Met Margaret aka “Stan”, and discovered we have the same boat, her’s in . ivory. I had been told that she was an interesting person, and I had seen her in the documentary The Buffalo Flows. I would find out later that her late husband(cancer) Gordon had nicknamed her Stan, and he was the love of her life, so she is Stan. She was coming along as an independent, which meant she would go ahead of the group solo, self-sufficient. I got several chances on the trip to talk with her, and I hope to paddle again with her.

With support/kitchen johnboat loaded, we departed for our down river adventure a little after 1:00. There were 17 of us ranging in age from 15 (Tyler, with her dad, John) to who knows, probably 70+.
We made an obligatory stop at the Gilbert General Store for drinks and to have a look around.
We camped the first night at Red Bluff, paddling about 8 miles the first day. The water was perfect for a swim, especially after putting up the tent in the sun. That night it rained a little, and because I didn’t have my tent fly staked (threw it on during the night) where it made contact with the tent I had a little drip at just about my forehead. Pam who had camped next to me experienced the same thing. As she put it, we gambled and we lost, by not properly putting on the rainfly early on because it was warm. She loaned me a couple of her 12 inch nails for the next night. The weather service had predicted between 20-40% chance of rain for the entire week, so we figured we’d get some rain at some point.

Day 3 Wed.
We left about 9, after breakfast and breaking camp. Today we would go 15 miles to Spring Creek.

I saw my first ever Louisiana Water Thrush, the teeterer as it is known.

I kissed the end of a strainer early in the day, but managed to lean into it and work my way around it. The next rapid with strainer turned out to be very tricky, and one of the inexperienced, but arrogant regulars traveling with a first time newbie girlfriend ended up in the worst case senario with the boat and boaters stuck in the tree, and had to be rescued by the John and his daughter Tyler who were sweep this day.
I too had trouble with that rapid, but after kissing the previous strainer, I got too far away from it and the bow caught the inside eddie and swung me around. Rather than heading into the strainer backwards, I paddled into shore and walked to the end of the rapid, better safe than sorry; no shame in that. I later asked Charline, who had stopped to keep an eye on folks because of the nature of the rapid/strainer, if there was anything I could have done to prevent kissing the previous strainer, as I have an inordinate fear of them, and she said that while she paddled most of the time with her Zaveral paddle, when she gets to sticky places she switches to a paddle with more face, which I did from then on and it kept me safe for the rest of the trip-Lesson 1.

65 miles is certainly a great stretch to improve paddling. We stopped to play in a spring fed creek, very cold and refreshing, we hiked up it and took lots of pictures, including a beautiful wild rose.

That night we had another great meal, and all headed to bed. The weather said 40% chance of rain, and after the night before, I took care to attach the rain fly properly and stake it with Pam’s two nails. I hadn’t brought stakes for my tent as I usually just stack some gear in it for weight, unless I’m going to have it up while I’m away hiking or paddling.

Lesson 2 don’t leave home with stakes!!! I had pulled my boat up as high as everyone else had and our high water stake was at river’s edge. I had already taken off my shoes when I got to thinking that if the wind got up it might blow my Zav paddle away, (since it weighs only about 10 oz.) as I had stuck it under the canoe, so I got up, put on my shoes and walked down and secured it between the hull and the float bag, this would later prove to save my $200+ paddle. I undressed, and was just finishing brushing my teeth when I noticed the wind pick up just a bit, then die away;a few minutes later.... boom! it hit with a vengeance ! The first sound was the parawing over the kitchen exploding…I hurried to get dressed knowing we would have to chase down kitchen tables etc. Before I get my shoes on, I hear a rapid thump thump thump, and someone screams canoes!!! All of the canoes, save one barge, heavily loaded, were flying down the bar. I burst out of my tent barefoot in the rain, wind and lightning; I did have my headlamp on, and met my canoe rolling down the gravel bar. I grabbed the painter, and my flying life jacket (which has my wallet and car key in the pocket) this episode will prove to be lessons 3,4 & 5 respectively.) I manage to have drag have lead the canoe up to the tree line and secure it to a tree. I climbed the sand bank, up roots and probably poison ivy vines to get to it. I ran back to gather what gear I could, grabbed several paddles, and helped someone, not sure who at this point, turn the barge canoe parallel to the wind. While all this is happening, my tent, which I had positioned broadside to the wind, to “catch a breeze” after the warmth of the night before, (this falls into the category of be careful what you wish for) is practically lying on its side from the gale. The only thing that kept it from flying far far away, were the two stakes from Pam…bless you Pam! Alice comes around to check on people and gear, and sees that I will not be able to sleep in my tent tonight…at this time the wind is stilllllll blowing. She informs me that I can sleep with Charline and Ginger. John and Tyler also offer as their tent is next to mine. I unzip the back door on my tent and extract my thermarest pad and sleeping bag still in its compression sack, and therefore dry ;-), and Alice and I head for Charline’s tent. She and Ginger graciously take me in. I am soaking wet, and peel my clothes off and slip into my bag. I tell them I was just about to pee when the storm hit, and I really need to go, I wrap a towel around me and Ginger hands me one of her “freshettes” a FUD, and I slipped out of the tent. I’m standing there peeing when I see flashlights heading my way. I quickly finished, and climb back inside. The lights asked if we have room for one more; Darlene had also lost her tent for the evening. Thank goodness for big tents! Charline and Ginger are in cots on opposite walls, and there’s just enough room for Darlene to squeeze in on the floor beside me. She is in a rain jacket with just bra and panties underneath when she arrives carrying her sleeping pad. Stan comes down and brings her a wool blanket, and some dry thermals. Ginger gives her a garbage bag to put her wet pad in as well as her sleeping bag, and I end up with the wool blanket as a pillow. We were all so charged with adrenaline we laid there and giggled and talked for two hours like teenagers. When the rain stops, we are treated to a display of fireflies like I have never seen before. The following morning the tent is dubbed the “battered womens shelter.” We survey the damage, gather up gear and tables from the yard sale along the gravel bar and it appears we have only lost one PFD and one dish pan from the kitchen.

I couldn’t help but rib Alice about what she'd said after dinner the previous night “ What a wonderful day the river gods have blessed us with” or something on those lines. She later said that her husband reminded her of this faux pas also. The river gods may have been kind, but the wind gods taught us never to doubt their power. We were blessed though, as we didn’t have hail, no one was struck by lightning, or otherwise hurt.

Lessons 3,4 & 5; always tie you boat above where you lay your sleeping pad (thanks Cowper, I could have used this tidbit of info a little sooner), do not leave your life jacket with your wallet and spare key in the boat at night, and NEVER underestimate a 40% chance of rain. It has the potential to spawn severe storms and because the front was stalled out on the AR Missouri line it remained so for days. Later, driving home, I would see examples of the damage the wind caused all the way past Little Rock. There were tornadoes reported in Pruitt, winds from 100mph in eastern OK, to 70 and 50 in our general area. The leaders said that in the 13 yrs they have done the trip, they had never encountered winds like those. Guessing, and judging from later info, I’d say they were at least 50+.

Day 4 Thurs. (I told you this was long)
We paddled another 15+ miles today and camp above Big Creek. We stop at Buffalo Pt. to resupply water and swim, then off we paddled to Rush to rendezvous with Wild Bill’s to get ice for the food coolers in the john boat. We are informed ahead of time how to run Clabber Creek rapids, which I had read about and was a little uneasy about running. I ran them accordingly, and although I take on some water, it seems easier than I expected.This is to say, I did not fall out of the boat, wrap it around a boulder, or die. Of course the water levels are just right, not too high or low.
There was no doubt that I’d secure all of my gear, my tent (with rain fly attached)boat secured, before going to bed this evening. Charline loaned me 4 of her 12 inch nails as well. Of course it didn’t storm at all, but it was cooler. The food each day has been great, so I guess there is something to be said for a support boat. And, in the event of an emergency, especially in the back country, it would be a very good thing.

Day 5 Fri.
We headed off again for another 15 miles to camp at High Burr Bluff. We stopped for lunch across river from where the trail to an old school house is located. Some opt to hike it, but even though I have coated my long pants, tennis shoes and socks with Permanone, I opt out, as the weather up river is beginning to rumble, and is headed our way. There are mammatus clouds forming and I’m ready to stay ahead of the storm.
It began to rain shortly thereafter, but a nice gentle rain, which can be a pleasure to paddle in as long as there’s no lightning, which there isn’t, although we still hear thunder off in the distance, which unnerves me.
We got to camp with light rain, and fearing the bottom will drop out soon we opt to set up our tents. I get the tent up, with the rain fly on, but not staked, when the wind and rain hit hard! Everyone is scrambling to get tents done; David and Karen are frantically staking their tent, and I’m just standing in the rain, holding onto my tent once again. As soon as they complete their’s they come and help me with mine.
The storm moves on in about 30 min. and the sun comes out and we enjoy dinner. We see the first signs of the water rising, as the dry strip of land between the johnboat and the kitchen has disappeared.
We get the story from Alice of the nickname for High Bluff; Dead Wife Bluff, and how a man and woman were camped here and during the night the woman gets up to go to the bathroom supposedly, the husband goes back to sleep and in the morning finds her floating in a pool nearby. The man doesn’t know what to do, and afraid of what people will think, wraps her in a tarp and puts her in the bottom of the boat and then at the take out into the trunk of his car. He finally reports to the authorities, but no charges are filed and it is called an accident. Rumor is that there were drugs involved, a probable overdose.

We are graced with out second eagle, this one landing in a nearby snag and watching us for some time.

The forecast had dropped from 70% to 20%, but we hear that a tower is out nearby and no longer transmitting. This is not good, and it foretells of what transpired during the weather which has been all around us during this trip. About midnight, just as the weatherman had predicted, a crack of thunder wakes me and I think, oh here we go again! But fortunately it just sprinkles and moves on.

Day 6- Sat.

Everyone was thankful the weather moved along last night and we didn’t have round 2 of Wed. nights storm. The water level is stable for now, and we had breakfast, packed up and headed for the take out which is on the White River. As we neared the confluence we stop and everyone is advised to put on their PFD’s, (which I have worn the entire time),because we are told the water is very cold and if they are releasing from the dam, will be very swift. It was obvious when we reached the White, as it was indeed icy, but they are not currently releasing, although there is a good flow. I am disgusted with what appears to be remains of fish that have been mutilated beyond recognition in the dam turbines. The river is so full of this that I can’t imagine swimming in it.

We reached Shipps Ferry about 1:00 unloaded, packed up, had a bite of lunch, then said our goodbyes, and head home.

Prologue: When I check the weather and ACC reports the next day, I see that the Buffalo rose 7 ft in 2 ½ hrs on Sat. morning, at Ponca, the river is closed and campers deal with close calls in the early morning hours. We were on our way to the takeout as this was happening far upriver.

What a great trip! The scenery on the Buffalo is just amazing, as anyone who’s ever been there knows; the springs, creeks, bluffs, seeps, ferns, shoals, all of it is just gorgeous. Drifting down the river and listening to only the sound of copious bird song.
I look forward to more floats, and hiking when the weather turns cold as well.