Rapids on the Beautiful Buffalo River
After hearing about this river from friends, watching videos on YouTube, and procrastinating for literally, years. A group of us decided to do this trip in between spring rains. Canoeing is not new to me. I had spent much of my teen years on rivers across Wisconsin. Most were gentle and calm. The Rock River, Crystal, Bark and Scuppernong. Shallow water where your oar would hit bottom if you dug too deep in your stroke. There were rapids. And when they occurred, they were usually not more than a level two in difficulty. These were lazy trips. Passing a can of beer between canoes. Waiting to hear the rough water ahead and then preparing the canoe for a little excitement in shallow water. We'd laugh at the accomplishment and paddle along. Finishing the day after a relaxing ride. Around Georgia, I have traveled on the Altamaha, Ogeechee, and Savannah. Again, very slow and fairly gentle rivers. The Savannah was more like a lake than a river and the Ogeechee was deep like a swamp. The mosquitoes were the main issue here. Surely not the current. But, last week I went on a trip that tested my ability to navigate and stay afloat in a river. We had plans to go on Monday. Then the rains came. We moved the trip to Tuesday, then the flood levels came. And finally, on Thursday morning the river levels dropped to "high" and out of flood stage. We were going! As we stood in the pouring rain in cold temperatures, under a very gray and threatening sky, we watched the whitecaps and turbulent waters of the Buffalo at our "put-in" spot. My legs began to shake. I thought, "What the hell are we doing?" This was damn dangerous! Some of the people who were putting in ahead of us were in large whitewater rafts with a guide. We were alone in two canoes. About to be thrown into a commitment once we paddled away from the landing. My friend, Jim would be in the bow and I'd be in the stern. We all talked about how crazy this was. But, while doing so we all were tieing in our gear and balancing our canoes. There was no talk about aborting. We were going...hell or high water. Well, we had high water for sure!
The outfitter told us it would be best to get into the kneeling position when we hit rapids so that our center of gravity would be lowered. For a giant like myself that was good advice. And the kneeling position made it easy to pray. And trust me, in between the panic swearing, there was plenty of silent praying. I had planned to bring my large format film camera, but after seeing the speed of the current and the water ahead of us, I deemed it a bad idea and left it behind. Almost immediately after pushing off, our canoe hit swells and rapids. We started to spin because of the current and ended up facing back upstream. Rapidly, we pushed to align the canoe in the proper direction and prepare for the next set which would be only moments ahead. I felt like we were doing intervals. In bicycling, we used to climb large hills or sprint for a short distance and then calm down to a resting speed. Your heart rate would rise for the exertion and then slow down afterward, much like the boost of adrenaline was doing to my heart every time we heard water ahead and saw rocks. And every time we came through. If we kept the bow into the waves we'd get wet, but always come out fine. After about 3 hours of paddling, we noticed a sign along the river. It said, "Hell's Half Acre." I didn't pay attention to it at the time, but after a few minutes realized that this part of the river could be challenging even in low water and slower currents. On a day with waters just below flood stage, it would be wild. There were very few if any breaks in between rapids. At one point we saw large swells and waves ahead. "Hang on, Jim!" I yelled as we entered the turbulent water. We dropped down and over a huge rock. Water sloshed into the bow, soaking Jim. But, survival mode kicks in and you paddle harder. Immediately, another huge swell hit us! And then another! We were all in "reaction mode" trying to stay afloat and make it through. But, boy was it exhilarating. It was like a prizefighter was hitting us with jabs and we were covering our bodies trying to protect our vital organs. When we finally portaged that evening and unloaded our gear we talked about the trip like someone describes the catching of a big fish. The size kept growing and the event kept getting more and more dramatic. But, this is what makes it fun. By the time we went to bed, I know I must have mentioned a rock the size of a house in the conversation at one point.
The campground around us had numerous other tents and vehicles. We heard boy scouts singing homemade chanties and listened to the water in the river as we drifted off around 8 PM that first night. The next morning, I awoke to the sound of a gas pack "poofing" as it was lit and the boiling of water began. Dan Smith was preparing coffee. There was orange along the tops of the trees to our East. Horray! Sun! And as we checked the river level, we found that it had dropped almost below the "high" level. It was going to be a much better day and I hoped we could take in some of the scenery instead of being in a reactionary mode like the previous day. After gorging on our freeze-dried meals we tore down our camp and headed to the river once more. It was a bright and glorious morning! The sun glistened on the damp leaves of trees canopying over the river. Huge rock cliffs of orange and deep yellow towered 5-6 stories above us. Swallows skimmed the surface of the water getting their breakfasts, nearly swiping us as they arched and curved along the surface. This river was unlike anything I had ever seen. The air was fresh and cool. Filled with the scent of mountain laurel as pileated woodpeckers cackled in the distance. This was going to be one for the memory books. I wished I had brought my camera and thought of all the spots where I could take images, but didn't have the time.
But, just because the water level had dropped, didn't mean there were no challenges ahead. It was still high. There were still plenty of leaning trees and rocks to navigate past. At one point, Jim and I hit rapids at a slight angle. A huge gush of water swamped our canoe. Then we listed sideways like a sinking battleship and again, another wave crashed into us. The canoe was almost filled with water. Jim yelled, "don't panic, we can do this!" as we struggled to make our way to shore against the rapid current. Luckily we made it! And after lots of bailing, we had our canoe back to normal. My heart was still racing even after about 15 minutes. We came very, very close to "buying the farm" as they say. It was unexpected. I thought for sure with the lower levels it would be easier. But, we could not drop our guard. This part of the trip did have many longer gaps of time where we could drift with our paddles resting. There were many more places to land and enjoy the scenery, but the river was still pretty angry. About noon we saw the landmark that told us our trip was to end. We landed on a sandy spot and ate peanut butter on bread that had been smashed to an almost flattened state. And we absorbed the beauty around us. This was the first time on the trip that we heard cars and human noise. Our experience would be over in just a few more minutes, but the memories would last for a lifetime.
Here is a video I found on YouTube showing what Hell's Half Acre looks like. I didn't shoot this, but it gives you an idea of what we hit: https://youtu.be/CGKjvPB5Smw Thanks to Jim Garvey for most of the attached images. +5
25Sue Hatfield, Alexandra Scott and 23 others 4 Comments