The River Journal Chapter 14 Smith Island


The Buffalo National River passed by quickly. I didn’t get a good look as I had to start navigating the Smith Island chute. With this much water the little canoe  picked up speed as I began the narrowed channel. I remembered Debbie of the Cotter Trout Dock telling me to stay left and go to the far end of the island. There I would see the tents and steps.

I did that and was again concerned about the speed I was traveling. I knew I would have but once chance at landing the boat. The little motor would not be able to fight back upstream if I missed the landing. The island seemed to be flying by when I saw the steel steps. The tents were visible in the background. I was going to have to do this right. The current was not going to give me a second chance. I turned the craft toward the bank and gunned it with all the throttle I dared. The little boat kicked around and slid right in next to the steps. Slick ! I mean, if anybody had been watching they would have thought I knew what the hell I was doing.

The water was up to the top two steps of the aluminum steps. I guessed it to be three feet above normal. At this point the steps were almost a necessity due to the steepness of the slick muddy bank.

I pulled my canoe as high as I could. It was way too heavy for the sharp incline. The first thing I did was to take the little motor off and carry it up to dry ground.

Then I began to unload the canoe. Since I was going to be there all night why not get everything out then drag the canoe up further. I had not a clue how high the water could come up but there was flotsam high above my head in the trees. That’s what I did. I unloaded and placed all the gear on a high point near their kitchen tent set up. I then pulled the canoe up above the steps thinking that level would be above the present seven gate high. Water higher than the steps would require a big rain. With no more rain in the forecast I hoped I would be safe for the night.

The Cotter Trout Dock owns this campground. I had paid to camp here. It was a pretty decent set up for their group fishing charters. There were three wall tents each containing three big beds. A cooking tent and a dining shelter with banquet tables was set up nearby. Debbie had been quite proud of the work Ron had been doing all summer and well she should have been. I would have been happy to find a place in the woods without high weeds and underbrush. They have cut the weeds and made a clearing of about a half acre. I walked barefoot the whole time I was camped there. 

The island was a big sand bar with huge trees on it.  I figured the cold water would keep snakes from crossing over to it. I have always been very careful about the creepie crawlies. (Man was I ever wrong)

Note: I later learned the Buffalo and the White sweep all kinds of critters down from upstream. Snakes, bears, deer and you name it are often spotted on the island. They get there involuntarily and adapt to life on the island. This cheechako didn’t know this at the time. Duh, no double duh. Or as the man in James Lee Burke novels says, “No duh”.

I could see what looked to be a couple of out houses in the distance but figured I would explore that later. It was time to look around and locate a place to set up camp and fix supper.

It was hot and muggy in the shade of the island canopy. I was sweating big time while unloading the gear. The jungle hammock went up between the tent frame and a tree. I wasn’t thinking about anything other than two strong points to tie the hammock ropes. Later I would learn my mistake.

I know. I know. Why would you put up your own shelter when there were three wall tents and two big rainfly’s? I told the folks I wanted a place to camp and that is exactly what I intended. I wanted to sleep in my Clark’s hammock. I had looked forward to it. It was comfortable, cool and bug free.  The jungle hammock does a good job and is fairly quick and easy to put up. The big fly that goes over it provides shade and rain proofing. The mosquito net walls allow fresh air all the way around. But, in this situation a breeze would have been helpful.

I categorize my equipment when making checklist into five groups, 1) shelter, 2) food, 3) canoe, 4) clothing and 5) camp comfort. I made one shelter equipment mistake. I picked up a summer sleeping bag at Sam’s right before the trip. I thought that would make sense since it was summer time. The Swiss Army bag was cheap and I mean cheap like in less than thirty bucks. It did the job when I used it on the cot the previous night. Now in the tight confines of the hammock it was way too bulky. The bulk was a problem in packing as well. It required too much space in the boat bag as compared to my seventeen year old, minus 30, Goretex, bag from my Rocky Mountain days.

I planned to make a switch and bring the Colorado bag on my return trip. At this point what I really needed was a cloth sheet for the hammock. I would remember that as well. The hammock and a sleeping bag sock should work well in the summer.  If I get cold in the mornings I will zip up the sides of the jungle hammock and little cocoon will warm up.

Once, my shelter was set up, I turned my attention toward food and supper. “Old faithful”, my little propane, one burner Coleman was there. The little tripod stove was great and had been with me twenty years or more. The other old timer in my cook kit was my teapot. I had purchased it during my “On the Road” years. I walked into a store some Bellingham, rugby playing, firefighters told me about. The guys called the store the Mountaineer’s Co-op. It was in downtown Seattle near Eddie Bauer. I had to pay $5 or something to join the coop and shop. I have been a member since that summer day in 1969. They had a new name and later on expanded it as Recreational Equipment Inc. I think they are probably still my major source of outdoor gear. Sometimes I think they get a little too hip for my old ways but they are young people serving a young market so I guess they should be excused.

I met the rugby playing, ex-Marines on a forest fire on the banks of Lake Chelan near Wenatchee, Washington. I spent a month fighting fire with those guys. I was “on the road” riding a 500cc Kawasaki (it was a big bike in those days) up to Alaska. The goal was to get a job on with the soon to start Alaska Pipeline project. The pipeline didn’t start construction for another two or three years but no one could predict that at the time. It was first come, first serve on the jobs. Instead, in Seattle, I seized up the “rice burner” and needed some work to pay for layover time as well as repairs.

It seemed this 69 Mach 3 Kawasaki had systemic or epidemic problems with their new fangled oil injectors. The damned two stroke also had very poor brakes and way too much horse power for it’s light weight body. I was half way to my destination with little or no money. The parts were in Japan and would have to be ordered. There was a big back order due to the damned things blowing up all over the U.S. The folks at Burien Honda told me to chill for a few weeks. I thought, “what the hell am I supposed to do way up here where I don’t know anyone”. When the Seattle newspaper said the Forest Service needed fire fighters I became a fire fighter with his thumb in the wind. I smelled a paycheck and a campsite. Wenatchee, wherever you are, here I come. In the two months I was on the fires, I made enough money to get my motorcycle out of the shop and then some. But it was getting too late in the summer to be going to Alaska on a bike. I would try again the next spring. And did.

Good experience. Good people. Good country. I met a lot of White River Arkansas folks who had gone to Wenatchee to pick apples and stayed. It seemed like every time I met a local they wanted to know if I knew their relatives in Guion. People don’t realize that before we were over run with illegal Mexicans, hillbillies were this country’s migrant workers. When I was a kid I remember people talking about picking apples and working the wheat harvest. I was under the impression the folks were making good money. I guess I didn’t understand the economics of migrant labor camps.

In any case, I enjoyed my summer in the Cascades. I met some really interesting folks and picked up some memorable experiences. I lived out of doors for a couple of months and loved it so much I signed up for Forest Fire duty the next year in Alaska. That was just as much fun but just a little further out in the boonies. A month of the Grayling waters for bathing and I was ready for that Fairbanks sauna and other neat Alaskan indoor experiences.

Now back to the camp…….

My two old friends the teapot and the three legged stove were ready. I screwed the little Coleman gas container onto the stove and set the water to boil. I pulled out the little coffee drip gizmo and set it into the plastic cup. Tonight I was living high. It was cocktail hour and I had some of that good old chicory laced Community Coffee. To a coffee junkie this stuff is hard to beat. There is no cream or sugar allowed, its’ a camp rule. I decided that one long ago when I found ants in my gear. The culprit was a broken sugar sack. No, no, not again thank you.

While I drank my after work coffee I enjoyed some of the cookies I had lifted from the grandkids’ stash.  After all, old “gram”daddy wouldn’t want the little ones eating stale cookies? Hmm…cinnamon gram crackers of some sort. This is good stuff with strong coffee. While I enjoyed my repast I continued to unpack gear onto a banquet table. I got my supper out and heated more water for the double oatmeal packets. Then dumped the oatmeal into one of my little backpacker pots. I stirred in the water and hooray, we have a warm supper. There were canned entrees in the pack, but I missed out on my planned oatmeal breakfast that morning so I was making up for it now.

Desert was a large can of peaches. The after dinner kicker was the peach juice right from the can. Oh yeah, just like Steve McQueen or somebody in the Magnificent Seven. Or was it Steve McQueen as Max Sand or whatever his name was in the movie about Hop-A-Long Cassidy and Howard Hughes. Anyway I knew that movie cowboys had always favored a can of peaches so that was enough for me.

After supper, it’s supper in the hills. Dinner is what you have at noon. I walked down to the steps and washed out my little pot and cup. I hope the trout like the left-over oatmeal. I had a feeling they would.

I packed everything back into the water proof bags and sealed each of them. I didn’t know about bears or coons so I wanted to seal away the smell best I could. I was half way expecting a big old blow that night so it wouldn’t hurt to have everything stowed in a position where it couldn’t fly away. The mist started to build on the river as I listened to some folks somewhere upriver talking and having fun. I couldn’t exactly hear what they were saying but it was nice to hear the cheerful voices.

The river was still high but didn’t seem to be rising.  I pulled the canoe higher as it was lighter now. I tied it to a tree with plenty of slack in the rope. I wanted it to float and not be tied on a short rope in case the river rose drastically. I could look around me and see drift wood in the trees above my head.

I was still hot and muggy. I realized how much I had perspired that day and how much I needed a shower before bed. Uh oh, here’s where the rubber meets the road. I rummaged through my gear and found my kit. There was a bar of soap handy so I grabbed that and went to the steps on the bank. I was well aware of the 56 degree water but the shock of wading out into it waist deep was an eyeball popper. To lean over and grab double hands full of water and throw them all over your head and shoulders was breath taking. So there you are exactly what you want to be at bedtime, breathless and wide eyed. Except this time I don’t think the words meant the same or had anywhere near the same effect.

My towels had been used as a cushion in the floor of the boat when traveling on the trailer. The little motor was lain on them for the trip to avoid friction with the boats floor. I am afraid they were rained on and might have even had a little gasoline dripped onto them. They were not an option for drying off. I did have a little golfer’s gimme towel. I had stuffed it in with the kitchen gear. It now became my plush Four Season’s robe. I loved it. The warm humid air on the cold skin was good. Now to bed.

I climbed in and realized I was actually laying lower than the sides of the hammock. If a breeze came through it would pass over me with little relief. ARGH, again. I was tired and didn’t want to fight it so I just laid there and sweated. In a few minutes I felt coolness against my back. Where the bottom of the hammock touched my back there was a cooling effect. Soon the rising fog crept into the campsite and helped me forgot about the heat. Before I knew it I had dozed off and was knee deep in never, never land. Just about dark I heard a noise that awoke me. Oh that noise, yes, I know what my snoring sounds like even in a deep sleep. Then I heard a reactive noise. A very loud “whew !” Silence, took over. I had spooked a deer and he or she had sounded the alarm. I laid still and tried to see through the mosquito netting but I had the wrong angle of view. I couldn’t see into the woods in the direction of the warning sound.

I couldn’t see a thing. My hammock was strung wrong. I now wished I had turned it to face the river. “No Duh”. I was so intent on just getting the thing hung I didn’t think of the first thing every tourist looks for, a room with a view. Now that ticked me off especially since I was at an odd angle and couldn’t see into the woods or the river. But I was too tired to do anything about it.

I waited 15 or 20 minutes then got out of the hammock. The deer had left. Apparently, I was in their evening pasture and they were not happy about it. I hated it, but that’s the breaks. The brush cutting the folks from Cotter Trout Dock had done resulted in a good deed for the deer. The young short grass was providing great pasture for the Smith Island deer herd.

The evening went well. The rolling storms abated for the night and I dozed on and off. I had a headlamp in the hammock as well as my old pal, Mr. ACP.
Soon enough, my eyes were used to the dark. I really didn’t need any help from the lamp. As far as Mr. ACP went, well he just always goes where I do whether he is needed or wanted. He doesn’t bother anybody, eats very little and gives me great peace of mind.

Note: Thanks to my little cousin Johnny McKelvey for turning me onto James Lee Burke. I read around twenty of his mysteries last winter. The guy is a great writer and lives in two wonderful places, Montana and South Louisiana.

Next up….. train, train,
train I ride.

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