Bolts and Buckets: Canoeing the Lower Mountain Fork to Little River, Oklahoma… in a Thunderstorm

DSC_1166(State #2/50) The forecasters called for storms and the Oklahoma skies obliged. Maybe it was retribution for all the jokes I’ve made at the state’s expense or maybe because I decided to begin my trip in mid-April — thunderstorm season in the South.

Shane and I stood at the edge of the Lower Mountain Fork in the late afternoon, watching as the sky darkened in the West. No sprinkles yet, but a low grumbling of thunder let on what was to come. “Okay, let’s move before it hits.” I told Shane. We put on raincoats, unstrapped the canoe, carried it to the beach and began loading up. A guy watched us from a backhoe 150 feet away. He came over. “Y’all know a storm is coming?” He was really just trying to figure out if we were stubborn or stupid or both. The answer, of course, is both. “Well, Shane here only has 2 days off from work, so we have to put in today.” I explained. The man considered this a moment and then, looking on the bright side, added “Okay, well there’s good fishin’ around where the creeks flow out when it rains.” I told him that we didn’t have fishing poles (cost of license per state is too high to be viable). He seemed let down; they all do. Every state I travel I leave another human shaking their head in disbelief that I’m not fishing. They’re not mad, just disappointed.

DSC_1128The guy wished us well and we resumed our frantic stowing. “Oh, dammit! Are you kidding me!?” Shane said. I looked over. He stood, mouth agape, hands outstretched and palms towards the sky. At my brother’s feet was a now empty gallon jug of water; Shane had kicked it over. As he stood dumbfounded, a bolt of lighting streaked overhead and cold drops began to pelt our faces. It was upon us now. Then, it occurred to us that the rest of the drinking water supply was in Shane’s jeep, parked at the take-out, 12 miles downstream. Indeed, the God’s of Oklahoma were exacting their revenge.

DSC_1142Shane drove off to town for more water. I sat on a hill, under the awning of a closed up river outfitter, keeping an anxious eye on the packed canoe down by the water. After 20 minutes of constant deluge, I began fearing high water would come and sweep Rider down river to Arkansas. Lightning tore through the sky as I ran down the hill, splashing through one giant sheet of runoff, beneath 100-foot pine trees. Filled with gear and now, gallons of water, the canoe must have weighed 200+ pounds. I managed to move her 2 feet up the bank before sprinting back through the mud and below the lightning to shelter.

Shane returned after a half hour. We took advantage of a lull and slid the canoe into the green water of the river. There was still light rain and thunder, but it was 5pm and we had to get moving. Lightning flashed as we floated under an old metal train bridge. “What’s my paddle made out of?” Shane asked. “Aluminum.” I answered. “Great.” Shane said. “No, aluminum isn’t a conductor, remember?” I responded. “Yeah, but wood is.” Shane said as he looked back at my paddle. I failed to point out that probably he’d be killed too if I got struck, being all of 6 feet apart.

Now, once we accepted our soggy condition and that lightning might fry our innards at any moment, it was kind of a nice day for a canoe. I’m serious. Birds of all kinds — swallows, kingfishers, ducks, geese, crows, great blue herons — seemed to enjoy themselves. Many even sang from the trees and flitted over the river as if it was a sunny day. The water was still clear enough to see turtles and big gars near the surface. Nature, it seems, moves on with her business even when conditions aren’t optimal for photography, sunbathing or recreational activities.

DSC_1152A mile in, Shane and I did our first set of swift-water runs. The 1st and 3rd went well, but we got caught sideways on a gravel shoal on the 2nd. To be fair, it wasn’t my fault. Hell, I can’t even blame it on Shane, although I’d prefer it if I could for narrative purposes of course. The deep-water run on the cut back had a fallen tree in the middle of it; there was no safe way through. Therefore, we had to try the shallow middle part, where we dragged bottom until coming to a stop in the middle of the riffle. I popped out and moved the boat down to deeper water.

As I hopped back in the boat, Shane spotted a large bird on a dead tree. It was a bald eagle, though not the sexy and majestic one we’re used to seeing on cable news networks and plaster gas station statues. No, this eagle’s feathers were wet and matted and he had the demeanor of a dog left out in the rain. Though he might have been looking down at us and thinking the same thing, so I won’t judge. A few minutes down stream another larger eagle flew from the tree bank and out over the water. We agreed that this bird looked more postcard ready as it disappeared around the bend.

DSC_1196The sky began to clear right as we saw Wild Goose Canoe and Kayak Rentals, our stop for the night. A man in a lime green shirt approached the riverbank. “Hey… Eric?” the guy called. “Hello… Greg?” I shouted back. I had spoken to Greg on the phone multiple times over the past week, bugging him about rivers to canoe, conditions, take out points, etc. He owned the Wild Goose Outfitters. “You can pull in here and I’ll show you where you can camp.” He said. Greg helped us unload while his wife checked the weather. A sweet yellow lab, named Tory, followed us to the pavilion. The shelter was large enough to fit two picnic tables under. “There’s a stump that needs to go, you can make a fire on that if you’d like. I’ll go get you guys some dry wood.” Greg returned with a wheel barrel full and a starter log.

Shane and I spent the majority of that night under the pavilion, having beer,  tending the huge fire when we could and watching wave after wave of storms roll through. We would have survived in the tent, but we were thankful for the shelter. We fried up sausages around midnight before passing out in the tent under the patter of rain.


That huge spike is when we got on the river

The next morning the river was up by several feet. What was green and calm 12 hours before was now brown and flowing. Greg brought us out coffee and we stared at the muddy river. He pulled out a graph of water “generated” from the dam upstream. “It’s up to 2500 cubic feet per second right now.” I nodded not knowing what that meant. “I won’t put people on the river past 1000.” Greg clarified. “You’ve got some experience through, right?” I gazed out at the swollen river, moving huge logs down at 5 miles per hour. “Yes, some.” I answered. “Well, just stay to the middle and you’ll be fine. Text me when you get to Ashalintubbi, it shouldn’t take long.” Greg said.

DSC_0063Boy, was he right. Shane and I flew down that 7 miles in 1.5 hours of canoe time. Wearing our life jackets, we canoed under cloudy, yet rain-less skies. In normal conditions, the best rides are in the fast parts of the river, near the cut bank and under the trees. But, we stayed the hell away from such hazards that day. Shane and I blazed along, reaching the Little River, which is twice as wide as the Lower Mountain Fork. It didn’t move as swift, but was even higher with all sorts of upwelling, floating debris and swirling currents. There were also eddies and areas of unsettling dead water. Knowing there were alligators in this river Shane said, “I don’t like when we’re not moving on this water.” I agreed.

The sign at the takeout was nearly underwater. The Little River was up around 8 feet from 2pm the day before. Any higher and the sign would have been submerged. We would have missed the takeout and ended up in Arkansas (only 2 more miles downriver). Shane joked that it would be an amusing call for us to make to Greg — to come get us from the next state. He probably would have done it, too. Greg seemed like the kind of guy that likes helping people, even two idiot brothers from Texas.Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 4.26.55 PM

River Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Lower Mountain Fork to Little River, OK 4/10-4/11/17
  • Weather: Thunderstorms, rain, cloudy and cool
  • Miles canoed: 12
  • Launch Point: Bridge at Hwy 7 Bridge (34.0413, -094.620963)
  • Camped:  Wild Goose Canoe & Kayak Rental (33.986365, -094.594474)
  • Pullout Point: Ashalintubbi Landing, Public Access Point (33.957418, -094.518235)
  • Outfitter used: Well, didn’t use (though have in the past for floats), but was greatly aided, sheltered and caffeinated by Wild Goose Canoe & Kayak Rental (580) 584-2277). Much thanks to Greg and his wife, Darla.
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Mammals: Gray Squirrel, Feral hogs
  • Birds: Bald Eagles (4), Vultures (blackhead, turkey), Belted Kingfisher, Blue Heron, a multitude of songbirds and various duck species.
  • Reptile/Amphibians: A few turtles of sorts
  • Noted Species: American Alligators do have a natural population in the Little River, one of the furthest north and west of their range (Most people believe the alligator only exists in the quintessential swamps of the Deep South. In reality, they have existed as far west as Fort Forth, Texas, and, very likely, all the way up to Virginia). Black Bears make it down to the part we canoed on occasion, but mostly stay in the foothills upstream.
  • Ecoregion: Ouachita Mountains (36b) to South Central Plains (35b)
  • Dominant trees: Bald Cypress, Willow, Sycamore, American Elms
  • Current Threats: Didymo (invasive algae) kills insects fish feed on. Chicken farms runoff and phosphorus pollution.
  • Trash collected: Two small grocery bags of trash (cans, plastic, the usual)
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2 Responses to Bolts and Buckets: Canoeing the Lower Mountain Fork to Little River, Oklahoma… in a Thunderstorm

  1. Deb Beveridge says:

    What a trip! Awesome writing!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Well glad you made it safely through Eric

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