We got up early and ate some peanuts and cheese. Then we started packing up camp. The tent was wet, along with most of the rest of our gear; but we needed to get downriver. We hadn’t made many miles in our two very short days of paddling on the Illinois. So today had to be a day of moving at a good rate of speed for a lot of hours.
Wednesday, May 19th
We paddled steadily and dodged snags for most of the morning. The sky was beginning to cloud up, but we were making time. Not long before noon, though, we rounded a bend and came face to face with another big sieve. There was a huge blockage of downed trees; and in the big middle of it all was a flipped, wrecked boat. Once again, we were being carried along too swiftly by the strong current to reach either bank before we hit the sieve. We had to act quickly, or we would be in a world of hurt.
So I jumped out of the canoe and grabbed one of the downed trees at the top end of the sieve with one hand while catching hold of the stern of our boat with the other hand. But the current was too strong. I couldn’t hold on. So I let go of the tree and held onto the canoe. We were being swiftly carried into the heart of the sieve–and disaster. Jerry grabbed a limb and slowed us some before he lost his grip. Then I made a huge effort and grabbed onto another big limb, while keeping hold of the stern of the canoe . . . and this time, I somehow managed to stop the canoe. Then Jerry and I dragged the boat against the current, working our way out of the sieve limb by limb, until we reached the top again. Jerry spotted a gap in the fallen trees just wide enough to fit the canoe through. It took time and effort, but we worked the boat through the narrow channel. The sides of the canoe scraped as it went through, and Jerry and I had to balance on the tree trunks while guiding the boat. We managed to get the canoe through into a very narrow and shallow channel between the sieve and the righthand bank. Finally, we climbed back aboard and got going again.
After a little while, a heavy rain started to fall. I could barely see to steer, and Jerry had to constantly bail water out of the boat. The river was rising again–quickly–and we knew we needed to find some shelter and regroup. Not long after that, we came in sight of the Chewey Road Bridge. So we put in on the left bank, covered the canoe with our one remaining tarp, and slogged up under the shelter of the bridge. On our way to the covered area, I found a pair of pink flip-flops. They were a tad small, but I managed to jam the left one onto my bare left foot. It looked damn silly, and felt funny–but it beat the hell out of hobbling around on my bare left foot. So Jerry and I both had two shoes apiece again. I dried off under the shelter of the bridge and changed into dry clothes. Then I put on the poncho that Jerry had given me before we started out on the trip. Talk about better.
At the first lull in the downpour, Jerry and I headed back down to the canoe and put in. The river was rising swiftly, and we decided that the time had come to cut our trip short. Rather than camping another night, we’d paddle straight through to the take-out point. But we still had a long way to go to get there. Jerry’s car was all the way down at the Echota Public Access Area just above the Highway 62 Bridge. We continued on, making great time, and with the weather starting to clear. The river was moving very fast now. We passed the Round Hollow Public Access Area and the No Head Public Use Area. The sun started to shine, and the air warmed. We took off our ponchos.
It was now after 6:30 p.m., and the river level was dropping steadily and quickly. So we decided to stop at the first gravel bar or island where we had cell service and check the weather forecast. It wasn’t long before we sighted a perfect spot on the righthand side. This particular gravel bar (it actually an island because the river was running so high) had a high flat spot, about six feet above river level, where we could set up the tent if decided to stay on the river. We figured if the forecast was favorable, we’d spend the night and paddle down to the Highway 62 Bridge in the morning. Our best guess was that we were still about two hours from the take-out point.
Jerry and I both used our cell phones to check weather reports. There were more storms coming, but no flash flood warnings. We should be safe enough, we figured, if we set up our camp atop that rocky outcrop six feet above the current water level. So we set up the tent, gathered firewood, spread our wet stuff to dry in the late afternoon sun that was shining strong now in a clear and lovely sky. I cooked up another batch of fish hash, we drank a couple of much-needed and well-deserved beers, and enjoyed the gorgeous sunset that was unfolding over the cliffs to the west.
Just after sundown, though, I heard someone yelling at Jerry and me from atop the bluff on the east side of the river. There were houses up there; and a woman was standing in her backyard, yelling down at us. I didn’t see how we could possibly be on private property, but something was obviously the matter. So I walked as close as I could get to her on the gravel bar/island, and could barely make out what she was saying over the sound of the rushing river. There were big storms coming, she said; and a flash flood watch had been issued. I replied that we were six feet above the river level, and that I felt like we should be safe for the night. I also told her that we had a good deal of river experience, and that I had battened down the tent to weather a big blow. She graciously said that if we changed our minds, we could use a covered area behind her house for shelter. I thanked her, and went back to drink another beer.
It was now about 8:30. Jerry and I both got back on our phones and checked the updated forecast. Sure enough, the storms were strengthening and a flash flood watch had been issued. But no warnings had been posted. I checked the river level. It was still falling. The sky was clouding over again, and a light rain began to fall. Jerry and I, both exhausted from our day on the river, headed for our sleeping bags. Sleep was not long in coming.
I was awakened by the sound of heavy rain on the tent. And there was something else. Someone was yelling. This time, there was more than one voice. I listened hard. Finally, I made out: “YOU’RE GOING TO DIE.”
As might be expected, this got my attention. So I pulled on my river shoes, grabbed a flashlight, and walked out into the rain to the spot on the gravel bar/island closest to where the voices were coming from. There were two men up on the bluff, and the same woman I had talked to earlier. They said that the storms had continued to develop. There were tornado watches now, and a flash flood warning had been issued. They said that if a flash flood came, the gravel bar/island we were on would be completely covered by water. They said that they had seen this happen multiple times in the past. They also said we could stow our gear on their property at the top of the bluff, under cover, where it (and we) would be safe.
I went back to tent and woke up Jerry. I strongly felt that we would be safe atop our six-foot rock bastion. But these people lived on the river, and knew its ways. Jerry and I talked it over, and decided it wasn’t worth the risk staying on the gravel bar/island. We should gather what gear we could tonight, carry it over in the canoe, and come back tomorrow for the rest.
We packed up, hurriedly, the stuff we could carry. The rest we put in the tent, which I battened down even further. It was incredibly dark, and a heavy rain was falling. I wasn’t crazy about the idea of crossing that rain-swollen river under these conditions. The folks across the river said they had a dock that we could use. If we missed it, though, I knew we’d be carried downstream on the swollen river. In the dark. But if these people were right, the alternative seemed worse. So we pulled the canoe along the gravelly bank as far upstream as we could get. Then we climbed in and paddled like hell across the dark and swift-moving stream that was lit only by lightning flashes. The folks on the far side had a dock all right. But it was flooded, and landing was difficult indeed. All I had to aim at was a flight of stairs rising out of the river. They had a flashlight on the stairs. I took my best guess, and Jerry and I paddled for all we were worth.
We managed to hit the target exactly. One of the two men on the stairs secured the canoe, and we unloaded our gear. The two men helped Jerry and I get all our stuff up to the top of the bluff via the stairway, and we stowed it all under cover in the backyard. Then Jerrry and I hauled up the canoe. There, we met our river angel. Her name was Juanita, and we thanked her for all the help. She said it was nothing, and told us we were welcome to use her property again in the morning to recover our gear–if it wasn’t carried away by the river. In the meantime, she said, her nephew Mark (one of the men who had helped us dock and get up the stairs) would take us in his truck to get Jerry’s car. After that, we could find a hotel in Tahlequah where we could spend the rest of the night.
We found Jerry’s car with only a bit of trouble. Then we moved our overnight stuff from Mark’s truck to Jerry’s vehicle. Finally, Jerry and I drove into Tahlequah and checked into the Super Inn. We unloaded, spread our clothes to dry, showered, and collapsed into our beds.
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