(State #29/50) We stood peering over the edge. My best friends and I — all skinny and largely void of chest hair — stared down at the river below. From 50+ feet the Current River looked like a stream of carwash runoff, flowing against a curb towards the gutter. The canoes were little pecan leaves washed to the side. Our fellow youth were gawking miniatures from a model train set. Everything was so far down and comically tiny. We had tested the turquoise water below and declared it was a suitable depth. All we needed to do was get enough distance to clear a tree branch and we’d be fine… so our underdeveloped teenage brains assured us.
If anyone was going to talk sense into my friends and I, it’d be our youth group leader, Chad. “I don’t know, this looks really high.” We shouted down. “Ba-kaaa buc buc buc ba-kaaa! Chickens!” Chad taunted back. The climb up was tricky enough — hands grabbing roots of cedar trees, fingers clinging to fissures in the limestone and water-sock clad feet slipping in the mud messes created from our dripping suits. Picking ticks from our legs, we knew we were only going down the fast way. Nobody, however, was eager to volunteer to be the first lemming. We played a quick game of rock-paper-scissors. Andrew lost and an f-bomb echoed through the Ozark hills. Andrew, suddenly a shaky 90-year old man, crept to edge. Trevor, Marcus and I counted him down… at least 3 times. Finally, he leapt out and disappeared. We all leaned and watched our friend plummet past the clinging tree, through the air until his now small 6-5 frame turned into a white cloud of water. A moment passed and then a mop of wet hair surfaced and let out a tremendous celebratory cry. With Andrew alive, the 3 of us had no choice but to follow…
Fourteen years later I sat in the gravel at the same place we had camped, to exact date, back on that first trip to the Current. In that decade and a half, much had changed: floating the river was not part of an “Extreme Youth” trip for church, but one of many waters on my long journey to canoe all 50 states. My girlfriend, Taylor, took the place of my gangly high school compadres; it was her first long canoe tour and first visit to my favorite river. For my part, I had filled out with the muscle and fat of adulthood. I even had something akin to a beard, which Taylor had originally championed. But, over the last month it had gone totally wild-ass. “You look like Robin Williams from the beginning of Jumanji,” Taylor said, laughing.
As for the river: earlier in the spring, a 100-year-flood had ripped down the canyons, redrawing the details of the Current’s banks, gravel bars and overhanging sycamores. The flood devastated shops, homes, and towns. Even the store at Two Rivers, at least 20 feet above normal river level, was gone — I didn’t believe it until I saw the bare foundation where a building used to reside.
The Current River, despite the hellacious flood, remained gorgeous, pristine and remote. Gravel bars shift, trees fall and wash away, but the caves stay and the springs continue thrusting out millions upon millions of gallons of the cleanest, coldest, bluest water you can imagine. The memories of my first summer youth canoes and the more recent adventures (including two hospital trips) all exist in this river valley set between the green hills of the Ozarks. Over time these memories blur and mix, submerge and resurface, and carry on downstream to the warm and fuzzy place where nostalgia resides. Each new trip acts as a spring to recharge the river.
As I sat, partly hungover and waxing nostalgic, the June sun burned off the rain and clouds as the morning lengthened. Taylor slept, curled up in her sleeping bag on the gravel bank of Big Creek. I didn’t wake her as she had survived one night of raccoon raids and another night of rain falling on us with a tarp not quite big enough to cover both of us. “My feet are soaked,” she told me. Mine were too, but at least we hadn’t been killed by The Maniac.
We launched Rider two days before and thirty-five miles upstream at Cedar Grove. There, hordes of people unloaded from buses into canoes, kayaks and tubes (an unattractive feature that I don’t recall from our high school trips). Some, I’m sure, were there to enjoy America’s first National Scenic River, but the vast majority were there to get f’d-up. I can only judge to some extent, as much or our more recent guys trips have revolved heavily around beer and liquor. But, we don’t litter the river with empty cans as we float. We sleep out under the stars and take in the outdoors. Most importantly, we don’t lounge on a raft and listen to Limp Bizkit as our weird, fat bodies and bad tattoos redden in the sun. No, we get drunk and see how many of our weird bodies can fit on an inflatable alligator — we do being a jackass on the river right.
Minus cliff jumping, Taylor got the full experience of my youth and recent floats. She jumped in and swam in the freezing river, she skipped rocks, canoed under overhangs and slept out under the stars on a tarp. She paddled with more enthusiasm and genuine strokes than half of my friends ever have managed and became an efficient spotter of obstructions in the river. She looked for wildlife and was determined to see a river otter. I said mink, beaver and muskrat were more likely, but we’d look.
Taylor even let me lead her a few hundred feet into the cave. She fell silent as the natural light faded away. I yammered on like normal, pointing out features and looking for cave salamanders, bats and the white monsters from the movie “The Descent.” Finally, I looked back at my mute girlfriend, saw her face and determined she’d had enough cave fun for one trip. “I think I need a beer,” Taylor half-joked when we reentered the light of day. I rummaged through the cooler and cracked two open — enjoyable for me, medicinal for her.
We canoed twenty miles that first day. With five miles to go, we stopped at the Pulltite takeout. Now evening, the tattooed flabby hordes were redder and drunker. One woman fell, bounced off a large raft and landed, laughing, into shallow water. Taylor was about to go help her up when the woman said, “Well… I’m peeing!” She continued giggling as we walked away.
Taylor and I arrived at the campsite I had hoped for with enough time to gather firewood, set up camp and prepare all before dark. We drank beer and took bets on when the first firefly would appear; Taylor missed it by one minute. Falling asleep that night, Taylor called out and brought me back to consciences. A raccoon had stolen the small dry bag a foot from her head. I got it back, but the onslaught continued. Every time I dozed off, I’d hear “Eric! The raccoons are back.” I threw rocks near them to scare them off, but they kept at it most of the night, even bringing their adorable babies along with them. At one point, one stole the brown felt “Pharrell” hat out of the pile of food stuffs. The raccoon dropped it into a little lagoon as I hurled rocks. I missed wildly with one and nailed the side of my poor canoe, giving Rider a new dent in the hull.
The next afternoon we approached my favorite camping spot at Big Creek. But my heart sank as I saw a canoe on the gravel bar with stowed sleeping gear. A couple walked back down the creek and we went to talk to them. “Oh we were just stopping, waiting for the rest of our group.” They told us. “So, it’s alright if we camp here?” I asked. “Sure!” They replied.
Their names were Josh and Katessa and they were from Southern Indiana. We hung out in the early evening sunshine, drinking beer, swapping stories of the river. We took pulls of “Mila,” — the Jack Daniels blend sponsored, ridiculously, by Mila Kunis. Josh and Katessa were great company, smiling, laughing and joking along with us by the riverside. One of the guys they were waiting on, however, was a murderer… (dun dun duuuuunnn)