The River Journal Chapter 8 Back to the River and Cotter, Arkansas

I should mention the maps I used on this trip. The Game and Fish map from the trout fishing booklet was great. I’d purchased an excellent Jim Priest map at the Cotter Trout Dock. Unfortunately, I stored it in a bag I couldn’t reach without docking the boat. Another big Duh !  

The Game and Fish map worked great for my purposes. Later, I learned the commercial map was larger and added info on the outfitters. It would have been nice to know what services they offered float fishermen. Most of the outfitters really don’t offer “float and camp” folks a great deal.

I remember clutching that little Game and Fish map with a death grip. It was the only way for me to know when the next island or shoals would show up. That was important information. It also gave me an idea which side of the island the channel followed. I would think that in low water times that wouldn’t be a problem at all. When the water is this high, both sides of the island look to be the “real” channel. The false channel could drive you right into a grove trees or vine covered saplings.

Back to the river….oops… I didn’t make it last time.

The fog had more or less lifted as the Cotter Bridges came into view. I was able to snap a few pictures and the water seemed to be tamer.

I still wasn’t comfortable running hands free to shoot pictures. I had not wet a hook. It was now noon or a little after. The belly was telling me to stop and eat. Also I needed to find the port-a-potty.  The Cotter Trout Dock began to look like a port in a storm. Little did I realize how meaningful that phrase would become.

As I eased under the Cotter bridges I looked at the big old bridge pilings. On the downriver side of the closest piling was a giant whirlpool. That big old swirl was larger than my itty bitty canoe. I steered as far away from it as I could. I knew that thing couldn’t take me to the bottom of the river.It was my hard held opinion nothing good happens at the bottom of whirlpools. 

I can’t prove there isn’t some sort of sea serpent at the bottom of White River’s whirlpools. Nor can I prove he’s not down there waiting for the next careless boater. I guess someone could go down there and disprove the notion but I know one thing for sure, it ain’t gonna be me.

As I motored into the Trout Dock’s little cove I soon saw why the river had begun to feel a little tamer. The places I had marked the night before were now three feet above water. The folks at Bull Shoals Dam had closed at least some of the seven gates. The water must have been dropping down as I had come down river. I had been on the tail end of the crest. So I guess the Proud Mary was surfing the back side of a swell. That’s probably weird water logic but it makes sense to me right now.

I parked the canoe as high up on the grassy lawn as possible and threw out the anchor. I took the bow rope and tied it to a stake in the lawn just in case they opened up those gates once more.
I went in to say hello to Debbie and Ron. Debbie was there but Ron and the guides were out on their appointed duties. One client had cancelled that morning causing the dock to have to pay a guide for a lost day. If they can’t collect from the customer the last minute cancellations are tough. People apparently wake up with a hangover or cold or the wife wants to go sightseeing so they cancel.

This morning when the dock folks called the client at his hotel he said his wife was scared it was going to rain. The dock told them no problem they furnish little poncho’s just in case. The city man couldn’t believe they would go fishing in the rain. Rains come and go on the river. It might rain all day or fifteen minutes. The dock master told him, “you bet especially if you and I have to pay the guide rain or shine”. The man showed up an hour and a half late.  Sometimes they don’t even bother to call to let the dock know they’re not coming. Tacky folks.

We all agreed that being a mom and pop business has gotten a lot tougher. People have decided to listen to lawyers instead of living up to their word or handshake. Now we have all these laws and nobody pays attention to them. We were much better off when the original Ten were obeyed. Sometimes it’s better to be on the river and not try to figure it out. I wonder who we have to blame for this mess? I can tell you it did not start in the “leatherwoods.”

The guides tell me things are not the same in the hills as they were when we were kids. They tell me to be sure to lock up my gear especially my fishing stuff. Both guides I talked to agreed, camping with my gear had been a good idea.

When I asked why the changes in basic community morals they told me it was a recent thing. I guess in the back of my mind I already knew the answer. I just didn’t want to hear it.

Methamphetamines………ice. It is the scourge of the Ozarks just as it is in such formerly pristine places as rural Iowa. Meth is eating rural America bite by bite. Little towns and villages are losing their good hard working young people to it. There seems to be nothing to save us from this plague.

I keep thinking someday we will have a great revival in this nation. I keep thinking Christianity will rise up and take this country back. But it is so, so hard to help the young ones when all of their information comes from the hard left. That includes the government indoctrination schools some call public. How can you combat all the movie and television leftist propaganda? The revival has to be felt among the children first. I’m afraid it will take the hand of God to change their minds and hearts. I just hope HE doesn’t use the Old Testament examples of attention getting. It’s a toughie and I don’t have an answer except to pray for a gentle form of Divine intervention.

Back to the river…………..

Debbie was surprised to see me. She thought I wouldn’t arrive until late afternoon. I was just as surprised. She must have thought I was out there fishing my little heart out. Little did she know I was white knuckling the tiller almost the entire time. Debbie and I discussed whether she could meet me at Norfork the following day. I asked how long she thought it would take me to reach the island. I wanted to make sure I could reach it by dark. She said I would need to get back on the river fairly soon to make it. I agreed. I would hate to set up a wilderness camp in the dark. I would be shoving off as soon as I finished one chore.

I had decided I was dealing with what two of our great American poets, Delbert and Lyle, called “Too much stuff”. While I was docked near my car I took the opportunity to unload about a fifth of my gear. Extra food, extra fishing rod, extra paddles, seats, you name it and I got rid of it. It’s a problem with me. This “too much stuff” thing. I always try to plan for the “what if”. Then when I get to a real “what if”, I have so much gear I can’t find my “what if” fix it gadget.

ARGH…happens all the time. With my camera gear I have a lot of gizmo’s but each of those have a specific purpose and are kept in the same reachable place at all times. I say put it back where it lives so we will know where to reach it the next time. It always works. There is a lot to be said for the familiarity of a daily routine.

With all of this camping, fishing, boating, eating and mapping gear who knows where to find anything. I needed to cut down on stuff. We’ve got too much stuff to deal with emergencies. Even after I unloaded the extra gear, the canoe still weighed too much. Unfortunately, I didn’t know it at the time. Nor was I aware how important it would become a few minutes later.

I tied my GPS to a bag right in front of my cramped knees. That darned tackle box had me where I couldn’t straighten my legs. A few days before I thought I just had to have a big box so I could put all my fishing tackle in one place. When I did my test run on Lake Lavon it was not a problem. I didn’t have all the other gear in the boat.  The lake was calm and I could lean back against my little canoe seat and prop my feet up on the tackle box. I rode along at trolling speed thinking I had it made. This was not Lake Lavon on a calm day. This was a much longer trip. I needed room for my legs.

After repacking the canoe I shoved off thinking I would take a break at the first Game and Fish ramp. At that point I would be able to grab a quick lunch. Now I know why the outfitters prefer a shore lunch. It’s too damned much trouble to eat in the tiny little boat. The next stop was to be a short run and I was hungry.

The river was about to teach me a lesson in time management and relativity. One, time is everything in an emergency. Two, neither the river nor weather gives a damn about you or your time perspective. The river and weather are going to do what they are going to do no matter whether you like it or not. So get used to it and either deal with it or get off the river.

All this conversation about the rough water and being concerned should be taken with a grain of salt. The river changes from hour to hour depending on how much electricity the dam is generating. One gate or eight gates, it’s all the same to the power generating guys and the river. The amount of experience you have in your boat and on the river is what will create your comfort level. Having said all that, I am afraid I have left the impression that the White changes constantly. It does not. The river might go for months with very little change in volume. I just happened to hit it on a rough few days. I heard later the level went down about the time I left and stayed there for weeks. Just my luck I guess.

I had been out of my comfort zone since shoving off. If I had been an experienced river hand I would have enjoyed the high water. The old heads would love going over the shoals at this speed.

Again, it’s a personal thing and I don’t mean to scare anyone. But I do want you to understand what you will be facing if you ever float this river at “high tide”. Then it’s up to you. If you are comfortable with your equipment and experience then jump on it. Contact the outfitters or Southwestern Power to learn about water conditions then make your decision on river travel for that day.

As I shoved off from the serene little cove at the Cotter Trout Dock I had no idea my anxiety was about to reach new highs. As I reached the channel I noticed the speed and power was returning to the river. The water was on the rise again. The turbulence was back. The cold water was boiling underneath the little craft as I entered the current. I’d noticed the clouds while packing and repacking the gear. I was hot and sweaty from the sun and my body welcomed the coolness of breeze. I dipped a little 56 degree water and poured it over my head and shirt.  It didn’t dawn on me what that cool breeze meant. I thought it was the cold water throwing it off as the next “rise” came down river.

I was less than forty-eight hours out of big city life and hadn’t reacquired my animal instincts. That put me at a disadvantage. Normally, after being in the out of doors for a few hours you notice the primitive instincts start to creep back into your soul.  Possibly they had returned but maybe it had been too long and I had forgotten how to pay attention. Maybe the caution instinct was overshadowing all the others? In any case I was thinking like a city guy. In present day society rain is, at worst, a minor nuisance. Our travel decisions are made on the time required to achieve a goal rather than the consideration of a real and present danger. Safety from the elements is almost a given in our cars and homes. We just don’t worry about the weather unless it is a severe storm like a hurricane or tornado. My senses should have been shouting. “Those are storm clouds you idiot. You have to stay at the dock until they pass”.

Instead, I pushed on, anxious to get to the next ramp and lunch. Then onto the camping area and in general keeping up with my self imposed schedule. Same thing got me into trouble in Costa Rica once but that’s a different story.

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