Adventure on the Jacks Fork

Dad and I were two hours late. The sun had slid behind the bluffs, casting deep shadows on the river. I dug the canoe’s paddle into the water and shivered with anxiety. I scanned the riverbank for the car with Mom waiting to drive us back to the motel. But each bend looked the same, no car, no road. Dad was sure we hadn’t far to go, but I was considering mutiny.

My father was a careful planner. Growing up, I had always felt safe when he was in charge. When his plans proved overly ambitious, his ingenuity for problem-solving took over and disaster was averted. His close calls became fodder for family stories. For example, he refused to stop until the gas tank was down to the last drop, which he alone could calculate. On one summer trip in the Nevada desert, the car coughed and stalled on the interstate. But not to worry! He shifted into neutral and we coasted downhill for a mile, onto the exit, and into a gas station. Chuckling at his luck, he pulled up to the nearest pump.

Sitting in that canoe, I wondered if his lucky streak had come to an end.

The autumn day had been crisp and clear, perfect for canoeing the Jack Forks River in the Missouri Ozarks. My parents had driven from Oklahoma, and I from Memphis, to meet for the trip. It was deer season, and pickup trucks spilling guns and men in orange vests were everywhere.

Our starting point was easy to find—an intersection of two state roads, with a bridge over the river. Dad pulled off the road and we hauled his inflatable canoe onto the sandy riverbank. My mother waited for us to launch before driving to our meeting place downstream.

My father’s love for river rafting had begun the year all of his children had graduated: my older brother from law school, my younger brother from high school, and I from college. To celebrate, he treated us to rafting trip through the Grand Canyon … and he was hooked. Hoping for more frequent but less expensive excursions, he bought an inflatable canoe which he christened The Ducky. He was ready whenever anyone could be persuaded to go with him.

This was my first excursion with The Ducky, and I was surprised to find she maneuvered not like a truck, but like a tank. She had no keel, and she rolled from side to side like a log. But it was autumn, and the Jacks Fork was not a fearsome torrent, so we set out expecting a peaceful ride. The only sounds that broke the woodland quiet were occasional gunshots.

I sat in the bow, so my job was to watch for large rocks and snags. We had been on the river no more than a half-hour when I called out, “Rock ahead!” I paddled furiously on one side, but it was too late. We hit the rock dead center, tearing a hole in the The Ducky’s bilge. The rip was not large, but enough to allow a steady leak. “Just our luck!” Dad lamented.

Every thirty minutes, we pulled to shore to bail in order to stay afloat. The stops were slowing us down, and there was still enough water in the canoe to make us wet and cold. Dad studied the river map, a soggy mess disintegrating in his hands. But he wasn’t worrying, so why should I?

Meanwhile, my mother was puzzling over which road to take to the river. She finally asked a group of hunters, guns in hand and leaning against their trucks, for directions. They gestured toward the dirt road. She turned down the road, bumping downhill. The road narrowed to a track before she saw the water. She parked on the bank and settled back with a book. When one of the hunters camping nearby approached her, she rolled down her window. He invited her to join them for coffee, but she politely declined, explaining that she was waiting for her husband and daughter to arrive.

Dusk came and there was no sign of us. She tossed her book aside, too worried to read, and started the car, inching closer to the river so the headlights pointed upstream. The tires sank into the sandy soil—she was stuck.

The hunter approached again. “Sure you don’t want some coffee, ma’am?”

Again, my mother refused, but this time her desperation tumbled out. Between the car being stuck and her family not arriving, she was frantic.  

Somewhere on the water, in the cold and dark, I was losing patience with my father’s reassurances. Then, through the trees, a campfire glowed. “Dad, there’s a camp!” Without waiting for permission or agreement, I dug my paddle in and pulled for shore with all my might. My father had no choice but to follow.

As we emerged into the firelight, I let my father do the talking. He offered the hunters all the money in his pocket, maybe twenty dollars, to drive us along the river in search of our car, which, he assured, couldn’t be far. When one of the men agreed, we threw The Ducky into his pickup and crammed into the cab.

Dad was right: Less than a mile from our rescuer’s camp, we spotted the top of the Chrysler just below the riverbank. We shouted for the hunter to stop, and piled out. We now faced the problem of getting the car unstuck from the riverbank. The friendly, coffee-bearing hunters came to our aid, attaching a chain and pulling the car onto solid ground.

With a night’s rest, we were ready to analyze the previous day’s incidents over breakfast. We reviewed each mistake, each unfortunate incident with good humor and hindsight: If only we’d gotten an earlier start or missed hitting that rock. “And thank heavens for the hospitable hunters!” I allowed.

“Yes, that was fortunate. But we really were pretty close,” Dad said. I rolled my eyes.

Back in Oklahoma City, he patched the rip in The Ducky and she went on to float again, although never with as much drama.

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