- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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By now it was hot, Arkansas hot, with a thick stand of second-growth timber blocking the breeze. Fresh hatches of gnats buzzed in the swelter, and snakes rustled in the weeds. The party pulled in at Jim Bluff, a cool, long cave on the left-hand side where someone, years ago, had swung a cable from a ringbolt in the overhanging rock roof. "Swimmin' hole." said Benton. "Here's your gen-yoo-wine, oldtime, mythical swimmin' hole." Some of the group played Tarzan—whooping out on the cable to drop into the 60° water—while the others rested and looked for animal signs in the mud.
At Sneed Creek, Hedges pulled in to refill his canteen from a rill on the left bank. The Buffalo water is drinkable most of the year, but during periods of high water it carries a lot of gunk. Now the talk was growing apprehensive: Gray Rock was yet to be run, and it had dumped more people than any other rapids on the Buffalo's 125-mile journey to the White River. Margaret I ledges could talk of nothing else—every riffle, chute or dogleg on the river brought forth comparative images, and Gray Rock loomed larger and meaner in the imagination each time she spoke.
But anticipation breeds inattention. Just above Hemmed-In Hollow, a wooded, tight little valley on the left side of the river, the Buffalo turned tricky. Its heavy current threw a sidearm curveball at Bernie and Sammie, spilled them for the fourth time and wedged the bow of their canoe under a half-submerged willow tree. Looking back to enjoy the scene, Fred McCraw and John Callison slammed a stub and were also swamped. Once again Benton roared with laughter, but Hedges was unsmiling. "This is the kind of water that can kill you," he said as he worked the jammed canoe free. "That's why I never tie anything down in a canoe—not spare paddles or bailers or packs. You get a foot tangled in rope under a canoe that's being held down by tons of water, and you're not going to get out easily."
Next obstacle was Toilet Paper, so named because Harold and Margaret once marked it with strips of tissue for some laggard canoes that had never run the Buffalo before. In moderate water. Toilet Paper looks like a wet. warped staircase, dropping off at such an angle that it must be run from right to left at 45 degrees with lots of quick draw-and prystrokes to keep the canoe from hanging up. Today it was completely covered, and though every one of the party's canoes brushed briefly on the shoals, all came through without mishap. Just below, everybody stopped to look at Bear Cave Hollow, a narrow, wooded draw down which runs a clear, icy creek. The feeder stream spills over ledges of limestone that look like steps, and the Hedges have dubbed it Coors Creek, in honor of the beer. A can or two of the real thing might have been in order, what with the heat of the day and Gray Rock just ahead.
With all that anticipation—and five spills already racked up—Gray Rock was bound to be impressive. The roar of the rapids was audible half a mile upstream, and if that weren't enough a giant bluff guarded the left turn into the approach. Hedges beached the canoes for a reconnaissance. Benton looked up at the guard bluff and studied the contours. "Sho'," he said, "another face." And there it was—the guardian of Gray Rock, a warped head rising out of the shoulders of the bluff, gray and gritty, its eyes sealed in shadowy folds of stone. "He's glaring at us," said Benton. "He don't like these canoes breaking up his view of the rapids." The old man hitched at his crotch and spat to leeward. A few drops hit on his stained yellow shirt and spread slowly.
While Benton waited in his canoe the rest of the party scouted the rapids. It was not an anticlimax. Just below the turn under the glowering face a chute dropped for a third of a mile in a series of interlocked haystacks. Willow stubs lined both sides of the river. At the end of the chute the rock from which the rapids took its name seemed to block the river completely—a low, striated spur of black and gray that projected from the left bank and disappeared into frothy brush on the right. "Just before you reach the rock, if you get that far, you have to start drawing to the right," said Hedges. "The river makes a hard dogleg in that direction, and then it whips around hard left past the rock. The current will put you on the rock if it can." Then he ran his arms through a series of strokes, far clearer than his words, which told how to make the turns.
Hedges went back to the canoe while the others argued strategy and tactics, their voices rising in response to the river's noise. "I don't understand what they're doing," Benton complained. "What're they talking about so much? They'll have to do it. Why don't they just do it?" Hedges nodded and shoved off. The others followed.
Four of the five canoes made it safely, though all shipped water through the approach run, and one actually brushed Gray Rock without capsizing. Bernie and Sammie—their energy up and their coordination for once nearly perfect—slammed through the haystacks, made the tough, right-hand turn neatly (Sammie's wrestler's muscles drew the canoe half a foot to the right with each stroke), and then spilled spectacularly through the hard-left turn to wash ingloriously half a mile downstream to the next gravel bar. Gray Rock had been had, so to speak.
So had Sammie. As the party approached A Bluff (so named for a perfect capital A etched naturally near its crest), the B & S Show performed its last number—a wicked spill at the top of a quick chute that left Bernie clinging to a tree trunk and Sammie rolling down a 200-yard reach of boulders and white water. He emerged in mild shock. "I'm gonna walk out," he said. "Just point me in the right direction." He stumbled off into the growing dusk, with the river cackling behind him.
In camp that night the freedom from consequence Benton had described so many years ago became a reality for the party. The tents were up, taut and cool and canvas-smelling. Bobwhite quail whistled back and forth in the dusk. Slabs of cedar split from the ancient stumps left by the Eagle Pencil Company's loggers spluttered on the campfire, filling the air with pungent smoke. Sammie poked at steaks and fried potatoes with an enormous bowie knife and told wry stories about his days as a professional wrestler. The others laughed and sipped bourbon, content in knowing that dinner would be ready soon and there still would be four more days on the river. The time scale had shifted—four days could be a lifetime if you let it.