6 B THE KANSAS CITY STAR, SUNDAY JANUARY 5, 1964
Heading Into a River Rapids (and New Year) on a Cold, Straight Course
By Ray Heady
THERE is a slight dimple on the water to the right. That means a submerged rock just_ below the surface. It could be sharp, probably is solid. There is a root wad to the left. But the trunk of the wind-wrecked tree slopes up onto the bank, not across the stream. That means the canoe can, miss the rock on the right, cut close to the root wad on the left and enter the chute of fast water strait on.
It's important to go into a rapids just right. If the canoe noses into the chute straight, it s only a matter of pouring on paddle power, keeping balance, and the current of the river does the rest - takes you through the chute skedaddling.
But at the end of the chute, the river bends sharply to the left, with the water curling the roots of a hangman's willow. Undermined, the willow is about to drop. It leans out over the river at a low angle, only three feet above the river. Three feet! The canoe can slide under it, but not the canoeists. They will have to duck low to get under.
If the duck, they will let up on both steerage and paddle power. The current then will whip the canoe into the base of the willow. That means a swamping - wet clothing, paddles drifting downstream, teeth chattering, wristwatch and billfold soaked and the long process of drying out clothing, bedroll and shoes over a blazing fire of driftwood.
Oh, it's most important to enter a chute of fast water right. Clear the rock, skirt the root wad, pull hard to the left to clear the willow, hit it hard and fast - and don't look back.
HARD AND FAST, and don't look back. Once in the boiling chute, your course is set. It's too late to stop. It's too late to do anything, except dodge the rocks and stumps ahead. Those behind you won't hurt you. It's that moss-covered monster to the right that will throw you. Pull hard and miss it... and that submerged stump that suddenly looms left; veer hard .... thump.., bump.., grind. ~.. watch that hangman's willow ..pull left..left...duck Iow...lower . . .
The chute flattens out into a deep pool . .. the water calms down.., the canoe glides as if suspended in midair... 10 feet of water below, so clear the veins of leaves on the bottom of the river are visible. . .
Above, the lead blue arch of a winter sky . . . take a deep breath, and float the pool slowly. serenely and confidently. The chute is past, there will be others ahead. Look up . . . a bald eagle, its head snow white, floats overhead, wheeling in big circles . . .
For once you are matching this great bird's effortless glide . . . you are floating easily and beautifully on winter water below as clear as the winter sky above . . .
And, as the sun comes up the hoar frost that has coated the trees along the river during the night, begins to break apart and drop from the branches into the river. Hoar frost is light and airy. If floats instead of dropping downward, each tiny feather as delicate as an atom of goose down.
For two miles downstream below Bennett Spring, the hoar frost is thick. The spring water is nearly 50 degrees warmer than the winter air where it flows into the Niangua river. So the river writhes in vapors. The vapors mingle with the hoar frost. For a few miles, a string of 14 canoes moves through a white tunnel of frost and vapor.
Then the sun climbs over the hill, knocking off the frost and gradually dispelling the vapor. A new day is born. Also a new year. It is now 1964.
THE 14 CANOES carried 30 persons. They were on the Ozark Wilderness Waterways club's annual New Year's float trip. They floated the Niangua river from Bennett Spring state park 13 miles to Floyd Holman's farm. Usually they float the Current river on New Year's day, but the Current river is eight hours by car from Kansas City and the Niangua is only four hours. Since New Year's day came in the middle of the week, the group drove to Bennett Spring Tuesday evening, staged their New Year's eve party in a shelter house, floated the river Wednesday, and were back in the city by late that night.
For beauty of scenery, multitude of springs and grandeur of bluffs, the Niangua is not in the same league with the Current river. but it's a pretty river, with clear water, a few fast riffles and probably better fishing. It has rainbow trout for several miles below where Bennett Springs enters, smallmouth bass, goggle-eye and channel catfish. but mainly, it's half the distance from Kansas City, and where time is a factor, that's important.
THE GROUP ASSEMBLED in a shelter house near the spring for the New Year's eve party. Tarps were hung from the eaves to form four walls, and a roaring fire of oak logs was built in the huge fireplace.
Even so, the cold seeped in. It was a solid cold -- 1 degree above zero by 10 p.m. when the shrimp began boiling in the kettles. It was a balmy 24 degrees in Kansas City. For some freak reason, Bennett Spring was locked in a mass of frigid air that extended southward in the state.
Despite a layer of thermaknit underwear, a layer of insulated underwear, a wool shirt and a down-filled coat, the cold came through. It came up through the rock floor of the shelterhouse, through shoe soles, two pairs of socks, and gripped human feet. It came in tent flaps, curled in and around sleeping bags, and found its way past zipped seams. To those who slept in station wagons, it chilled the floor of the wagon making the metal joints creek, and worked its way through air mattresses, layers of blankets and sleeping bags and into human bodies.
A degree above zero, outdoors, means you don't get warm on two sides. You roast on one, freeze on the other. If you back up to the fire to get your back warm, the intense glow of the logs starts your britches smoking, but your front stays cold. If you face the fire, it nearly sears your front, but your rear is cold.
The heat gushes from the fireplace in a torrent. It blasts out two, three feet, then, presto, it's cut off . .
Just like a knife stroke, it's cut off. That's where the zero temperature hits it and drives it back.
We looked around the tarp walls. There wasn't a thermostat in sight. No knob on the wall where you could regulate the heat nicely, say from a cool 71 to a comfortable 73.
We thought of all those silly people back in the city, throwing confetti, blowing horns, wearing silly hats and attending stuffy New Year's' parties--in homes, hotels and restaurants -- with, thermostat on the wall.
DID THOSE creatures of the city know what a wonderful invention the thermostat was? Did they know where their heating plant was located? They probably didn't even know the difference between radiator and furnace heat.
We bet those creatures of the city, singing silly songs and laughing out loud, had never studied a thermostat. They probably didn't even know how it worked.
We bet some of these city men were in shirt sleeves, and their wives in low-cut dresses, out in the kitchen, making sandwiches and mixing liquid cheer.
We felt sorry for all those creatures of the city. They were probably warm on both sides at the same time. We wondered if they had ever had the awesome experience of freezing on one side and roasting on the other -- at the same time.
Someone came in the shelter house and said Old Man 1963 was coming down the spring branch in a canoe. They said he had a message for the group. Everyone dashed out of the shelterhouse into the zero night to see the Old Man.
One gulp of that air and my brain froze. I looked back and thought I saw a thermostat on the wall. A beautiful know. I reached for it -- to turn it slightly. It wasn't a knob at all -- just a hole in the tarp where the zero air was pouring through like a steel sword.
Must have been seeing things. Again I felt sorry for all those silly people back in the city -- but not much.
FATHER TIME (Joe Acuff) dressed in white wig and flowing robe, came downstream from the spring in a canoe. He climbed the steep ban and entered the shelter house. He was carrying a basket filled with pine cones.
Briefly, he reviewed 1963, saying it was a year of both good and bad news. The club had had some wonderful trips together, but there were events of catastrophic importance -- the death of President Kennedy and the long draught which caused the Buffalo river and several other Ozark streams to cease running. He said he hoped the new President would carry on and Mother Nature would provide some water for the Ozarks before too long.
He passed out the pine cones to various members of the club. One by one, they stepped forward, received the cones, and tossed them into the roaring fire. The cones burst into a flare of colored flames -- green, red, yellow, orange.
As the cones burned, the members made brief speeches -- a sentence or two. They expressed their appreciation for a club that was active, rivers that flowed, beauty of nature, health which permitted them strength to enjoy the outdoors.
Father Time said his time was about up. He said he wished this year could have been better, but it had not been too bad. He had to go now, he said, but he hoped everyone would remain and welcome the Young Year, which would arrive soon. Everyone remained. They could not be pried from the fire with a crowbar.
Father Time left the tarp house, descended the steep bank, climbed into his canoe and drifted away downstream into the vapor that was rising from the stream
Maybe you have seen Bennett Spring sparkling in the April sunshine. It's a beautiful spot. But did you ever see it on a cloudy night, in dead winter, with the temperature 1 degree above zero?
It was a dead lead color, a witches cauldron of swirling vapors. The water flowing from its bowl was a seamy as molten lava. A great horned owl, on its frigid prowl for forage, flew along on its frigid prowl for forage, flew along the streams, drifting between white sycamore branches that now and then caught glints of moonlight as the ragged clouds parted. The scene was a page out of Poe.
THE NEW YEAR drifted in soon, in another canoe. The New Year was 1-year-old Donald Eubank, dressed in white underwear (over his insulated garments) top hat, black gloves, and short red skirt. Gold numerals on the skirt proclaimed 1-9-6-4. His cheeks were nearly as red as his skirt. He was a well padded New Year.
By that time, kettles of water were boiling (on one side) and seven pounds of frozen shrimp were dumped into them. A little salt and wood ash were added. The shrimp were served two ways -- too hot to eat; or, allowed to cool a bit, re-frozen before they could be peeled dipped and eaten. They had a wonderful flavor on one side.
Those who were smart, put on stocking caps, and gloves and stood by the fire until well roasted -- then made a run and five for the sleeping bags, shedding their shoes at the last second. Those who didn't slept cold.
Even so there were no frostbite casualties, and everyone came crawling out of somewhere at 7 a.m. New Year's day for a quick, hot breakfast and the short drive to the Niangua river where the canoes were launched.
Even so, 1 degree above zero is far from a record low for a float trip. A couple of years ago the mercury dropped to 13 below while the club was floating the North Fork river. That was a Thanksgiving weekend trip, and the club was not really prepared for such weather. Some of them almost considered giving up winter canoeing after the trip.
After surviving Tuesday night, most members agreed that the 13-mile trip Wednesday was a breeze. The temperature climbed way up into the 20s. The river was low but crystal clear. No ice was encountered until about seven miles downstream. There were no upsets. Everyone played the tricky places carefully.
A few canoeists even shed their coats Wednesday. A few miles of pulling on a paddle does wonders to warm up the body on all sides. It was a smooth trip -- and the club had the 13 mile stretch to themselves. Few fishermen were out.
SO THAT'S the way we hit the New Year -- hard, fast and not looking back. We survived the night and could have whipped a bushy-tailed bobcat the next day. We are safe in saying that because we have never seen a bushy-tailed bobcat.
Anyway, we hope you got a fast start in 1964, too.
Dr. Will R. Eubank Home Page
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July 1, 2000