A Twisted Tale
A true story by Noah Fraser
The limestone rock was loose and slippery wet from the blowing rain that swirled into the little overhanging cave. I shared my sanctuary with several dozen wolf spiders the size of my fist and a six-foot snakeskin. Our shelter was just large enough for my yellow Blue-Hole canoe, which was packed with all the gear for my six-day solo float along 100 miles of the Buffalo National River. The Buffalo is famous for its limestone bluffs, which dominate the scenery at nearly every turn of the river’s serpentine path through the Ozark Mountains. “Thank you, Lord, for these amazing bluffs;” as my little prayer ended I jammed my paddle blade deep into a crack in the rear of the overhang so, by pulling hard on the T-grip of the paddle, I could keep the canoe from being sucked out by the wind.
Five minutes earlier, as I fought the wind while paddling across from the sand bar on river left to the bluff on the river right, one of my father’s stories popped into my mind. Almost 30 years earlier when he was my age, my father spent a week in the summer soloing the Buffalo. Just five miles upstream from my current battle he took shelter under a bluff from a very severe thunderstorm. Ironic I thought.
The clues had been apparent all afternoon on this, my fourth day, that the area was in for a severe storm. Earlier, I spent several hours finishing a novel while sitting in the cool water just below the Rush access point and had noticed the alto-cumulus clouds climbing upwards in the hot and humid mid-July air. Around 6 p.m., the sky began darkening, the wind increased and a light rain began to fall. Now, there is nothing worse than setting up a tent in the rain, with this in mind I rushed around a left-hand curve in the river and pulled up on the left bank. The rain stopped and it turned eerily quiet. As I opened the large blue NRS dry bag that held my tent, clothes and sleeping supplies, a loud noise, which sounded like someone sucking in a deep breath, reverberated off the cliff to my right. At nearly the same instant a loud cracking sound came from the trees that lined the left shore, about fifty yards back from the gravel bar. Then, a powerful gust of wind struck me and as I turned to run back to the canoe; a large, twenty-five foot tree branch hurtled across the bank, landing about fifty feet behind me. After the initial gust of wind, it began blowing from every direction. Almost a swirling, twisting pattern I thought unpleasantly as I pushed the canoe into the river.
Keeping the canoe on a straight path towards the overhang of the cliff on the opposite bank was nearly impossible. My carbon-fiber Aquabound paddle bowed in protest under my frantic strokes, which increased when the black sky opened its floodgates and torrents of rain poured down on me. After what seemed like an hour, but closer to 45 seconds, I was parked under the bluff.
The next fifteen minutes were a blur. Muscles taunt against the pull of the wind that flattened and twisted the trees across the river. Breathing air filled with dust and pieces of trees. Heart pounding, pushing the adrenaline throughout my body as the wind roared across the river.
Then, like the sudden end to a bad dream, the storm was gone. Tousled trees and light rain the only evidence of the passing violence.
I set up camp, ate peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwiches, washed in the river and promptly climbed into my damp tent.
The next two days were spent small-mouth bass fishing as I floated the last 14 miles of the Buffalo under beautiful blue skies. About a mile from its confluence with the White River, the Buffalo’s warm water flows downstream while the cold White’s water flows under and upstream. While I sat and floated along side my canoe, enjoying the cold escape from the hot and humid afternoon sun, a park ranger drove up beside me in his motorboat. “Weather’s supposed to get ugly soon and the White is releasing through all generators; that means the current is very strong and the river is a couple of hundred yards wide, kind of overwhelming in that little yellow canoe,” he said.
“Well I’m a pretty experienced boater,” I told him, and then thanked him for his concern.
As I merged with the White’s burly current, I was pulled downstream at a quick pace. It was 2 p.m. and at this rate I would be several hours early for my 5 p.m. scheduled pick up. But as I looked at the sky to the north, my left, I could see that the pace wouldn’t be sufficient. Black, black as night, and moving very quickly was a storm that covered the whole northern horizon.
Gusts of wind rocked my boat as the river tightened into a narrower channel with pastures on the right and a fifteen-foot high mud bank on the left. I kept moving; futilely thinking that maybe I could outrun it. I made my way over close to the left shore so I could rescue myself should my canoe capsize in the strengthening wind. Then the rain attacked, one after another the wind blown curtains of water slammed into my eyes and the canoe began to fill with water. Through the deluge, I saw a large tree whose roots had been exposed as the river ate away at the bank. Because of the height of the river, the roots offered a tiny break from the current. Recklessly, I made a dash for the roots, partially capsizing the canoe while leaning out to grab them. Pulling the canoe under one of the large roots, out of the current but now half full of water, I caught my breath.
I was happy to be out of the wind, huddled under the roots, but when a large limb flew from the tree I realized the immediate danger from falling branches. So I moved. Crawling in mud up to my calves, pulling the water logged canoe by its stern line I moved about fifty feet upstream and burrowed into the mud bank about six feet above the river. Suddenly everything was calm.
Peaking up from the mud bank I saw the black mass come over the hill and into field adjacent to the river. It wasn’t just a black mass; it was a cylindrical spinning monster whose open mouth would pass directly over me in less than a minute.
The tornado didn’t touch down close to me, but passed directly over my head in the most violent display of atmospheric anger I have ever seen. I lay clawing the mud bank as the wind, full of limbs and other things, battered me from all directions. Then it was over. Thirty minutes later I was dumping the water and sticks out of the canoe and paddling down river, through the mist that rose off the cold water in the humid July heat, to meet my father.
A Twisted Tale
A Twisted Tale
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