KEVIN TATE: River trip becomes a tour longer than expected

By Kevin Tate/Outdoors Writer

The ride was supposed to last about four hours, five at the most, but as mid-day stretched on into the afternoon we began to have doubts about when we’d ever see civilization again.
A canoeing trip on Tennessee’s Buffalo River was planned for the scouts of Troop 80, so the leadership decided it would be a good idea to pre-check the route before the full membership hit the water. As I recall, the party for the pre-scout scout included two adults and two youngsters, of whom I was one of the latter. All of us were boat-worthy but none of us had done this sort of excursion before.
Arriving early in the day at the river supply-bait shop-taxidermist-quickie tax service-all night videotape rental place that was outfitting our trip, we stirred management grudgingly to life long enough to be issued two canoes, four paddles and a life jacket each. Our instruction consisted of being told not to ram one canoe into the other, and that we’d be met in four hours at the pick-up spot. We’d know it by the fact there’d be a van hitched to a multi-rack canoe hauler nearby.
“Can’t miss it,” the guy said, sealing our fate.
We were told how long, but not how far. Most clients of this service, it turns out, only use the paddles to splash one another and occasionally push off from the side of the river. The water in this stretch meanders to the southeast at about two miles per hour and, with the pickup ramp eight miles away, that makes for a four-hour trip. For most people.
Having not been told otherwise, we laid into the paddles like the galley slaves in “Ben Hur” with orders to make ramming speed. We breezed through the occasional small rapid, then held the pace by the sweat of our brow the rest of the time, keeping the canoes more or less continually on plane. Just over an hour after setting off we approached a big, slow bend of the river. A gravel road led away from it up the bank, but there were no signs, no vans, no canoe haulers and no anything else.
“That must be some other company’s landing,” we decided, and paddled on. Soon, the river’s path bent more steadily to the south, straightened a bit and made haste for the forest primeval. Rapids began to occur with more force and frequency as the steep foothills on either side grew taller. Presently a small creek emptied into the main run and brought with it another float party, one that appeared ready to tackle the canyon reaches of Colorado’s Snake River. High-tech racing kayaks, helmets, gloves, elbow pads, polarized sunglasses, wet suits and serious looks etched into their faces. Sitting high on bench seats, we looked over our blaze orange lifejackets and shot by them like UPS trucks passing a Tour de France peloton.
In the hours that followed we first paddled hard to make our pickup time then, realizing we’d missed the ramp, paddled hard simply to meet fate and get it over with. The rapids we found weren’t meant for canoes but, in all, we never took a spill. I think the river was so amazed at our arrival it didn’t know what to do with its sudden good fortune.
Exploding from a gorge, we wheeled into another outfitter’s pickup site and made quick introductions, to which they could only say, “You came down here from there in that?”
Eventually returning to base, our outfitter seemed amazed we were both back and alive.
“We passed your pickup ramp so early we didn’t know it was yours,” we told him. “We paddled hard all the way.”
“Why?” he asked.
As it turns out, I’m still pondering that one myself.
Kevin Tate is V.P. of Media Productions for Mossy Oak in West Point.