“An adventure is just misfortune rightly considered.”-Unknown
This post is available for your listening pleasure on the Boose on the Loose podcast, streaming now on Spotify.
The Buffalo River in Northwest Arkansas is one of the most spectacular places on the planet. It earned the world’s first National Scenic River designation, in part because of my friend JJ’s father who was an activist in the 70’s. You’ll see a mix of people out on the Buffalo, from serious backcountry paddlers to partiers shotgunning beers. The river has some decent beginner white water – just enough to be fun, but not usually dangerous. That being said, there is always a way for things to go wrong. And when you’re outdoors, danger is just around the corner.
In 2017 my friend JJ and I rented a canoe and headed out with our camping gear for a girls’ river trip. In the middle of the night I woke up to find a herd of razorbacks sniffing around our campsite! I watched in fascination, safely above them in my hammock, until they wandered off.
The next morning we awoke unexpectedly to the sound of raindrops. We were pretty close to the next put-out so decided to try and make it out before the storm got worse. We paddled furiously through first rain and then thunder. We were making pretty good time until we came to some rapids which had gotten pretty fierce. I pointed toward shore, and we walked around the danger, carrying the canoe.
I made the safe decision then, but someone else hadn’t. On the other side of the bend, we saw a canoe tipped up against a tree, with someone huddled beneath it. I approached, asking if everything was ok. The woman said no, and moved out of the way so I could see behind her. There was a man sitting on the ground, moaning and clutching his leg. There was also a little girl with them.
The woman explained that the prior night they had been canoeing in the dark, the sunset having caught up with them. They didn’t have any camping or first aid gear, since they’d only planned on a casual afternoon float trip. The canoe had tipped over in the rapids and the man’s leg got sliced open on a sharp rock. They had spent the whole night on the shore, huddled up beneath the canoe. We were the first people they had seen since then.
The man’s leg was looking pretty bad. The gash was much bigger than I really knew what to do with; he obviously needed stitches and had lost a lot of blood. I pulled out my first aid kit and gave the woman anything that might help – including an Ace bandage to use as a tourniquet. Then my friend and I promised to get help and jumped back in our canoe.
Luckily there was a ranger waiting at the put-out. We immediately told him about the stranded family and gave him their location and he headed out to assist.
I returned the next year with my boyfriend Ethan and 2 dogs. This time I brought my new inflatable canoe. My inflatable is really fun on white water because you don’t have to be as cautious about steering. The boat is flexible so it can curve over small-mid size rocks in the water – similar to a white water raft.
The dogs were sporting their cute new costume life vests: Tchaikovsky in a pink mermaid and Niko in a blue shark. Both dogs love the water and were elated to be out there. They are super athletic and great swimmers. Tchaikovsky loves to hang over the side of the boat, tail wagging wildly, snapping at anything that moves in the water – from bubbles to sticks to fish.
The dogs had been jumping in and out of the water all day. Niko was balancing on the side of the canoe just as we hit a bump, and fell off the side. I called his name so he could swim back to us. The river is lined with cliffs, and unfortunately my voice echoed off the cliffs. Niko thought I was calling from the opposite direction. He swam to shore and then began to run upstream.
We pulled the canoe to the side and Ethan desperately ran through the underbrush in the direction Niko had gone, calling the dog’s name. Meanwhile I stayed with Tchaikovsky and the boat and waved down every paddler that passed, asking if they had seen my dog. Each said the same thing: they’d seen Niko running upstream and called to him, but couldn’t coax him into their boats. Everyone out there was so kind and really tried to be helpful.
An hour later, Ethan returned… without the dog. I immediately felt so guilty that I thought I would faint. But I knew if I panicked it wouldn’t help anything.
“Okay,” I said. “It’s okay. Let’s just set up camp as close to here as possible so that if he comes back then he can find us.”
I tried to talk to Tchaikovsky, the other dog. I told her to stay awake and keep an eye out for Niko, and bark if he came near so he could find us. In response she wagged her tail a little too excitedly – as if this was the most fun she’d ever had. I prayed that Niko would be smart enough to stay by the river and not just run further into the wilderness.
Sadly, the next morning there was still no sight of Niko. So I made an executive decision. We would ride the canoe to the next put-out and then re-raft the same portion of the river we’d done the day before. He had to be upstream somewhere along that route.
We beached at the parking lot a couple hours later. While Ethan deflated the canoe and packed everything up, I reported the missing dog to a ranger and then found a stranger who was willing to give us a ride back to Ponca. Thank God for wonderful kind outdoorsmen like that.
Back at Ponca, Ethan re-inflated the canoe while I reported the missing dog to more people. I was trying to put out as many feelers as possible, in a desperate hope that someone might have already found him. It was embarrassing admitting over and over that I’d lost my dog, but it was so much more important to get him back.
We got back on the river and paddled slowly this time, scanning the shore for any sign of Niko. I alternated between blowing a whistle and calling out his name. The whole time my heart was in the pit of my stomach and I was on the verge of simultaneously throwing up and crying. Around sunset, we arrived at the same cliffs where Niko had fallen off the previous day. We were getting close to the put-out and still hadn’t found him.
Then I saw a flash of blue out of the corner of my eye. I turned my head and there was a blue shark at the top of a hill.
“NIKO!!!” I screamed. I jumped out of the canoe and waded to shore. He was sitting in between two trees at the top of a hill. The only reason I’d found him – my saving grace – was that he was still wearing his blue shark life vest.
He was clearly traumatized. He didn’t get up or wag his tail or walk toward me. He just lied there staring at me, until I reached him and carried him back down to the river. I cried and hugged him. He was shaking and didn’t want to get back in the canoe.
I’ll never know what happened to him that night on the Buffalo – what he saw or heard that scared him so much. If he believed we’d purposely abandoned him or if he had faith that we would find him. It took him a couple days to get over the trauma and return to his normal spunky personality. I am so incredibly lucky that he survived out there.
Years later, Niko is happy and healthy. Though I haven’t returned to the Buffalo River, I’ve taken the dogs on other paddle trips since then. At first Niko was nervous to get back on the boat, but his excitement overcame his fear. I will never forget the fear and nausea I felt at losing him. I now make sure to always keep both dogs in eyesight and around water they always wear their life vests.