The view from our canoes on the Buffalo River was stunning. No wonder this was one of the Ozarks’ premier destinations. Massive bluffs towered over the water on either side—nothing but the calming blue heavens above. But soon into our float trip, the rapids whipped up unexpectedly. My gnawing unease returned with a vengeance.
At 28, I was plenty adventurous and a strong swimmer. Still, I felt there was danger waiting on the river. I’d been dreading this outing almost from the moment my husband, Larry, had made reservations for us and his Uncle Ronnie and Aunt Edna—a two-day, 10.6-mile float trip from St. Joe to Gilbert, Arkansas.
The outfitters had ferried us to the drop-off point with rental equipment and had taken our truck to the endpoint, where we’d return the gear before heading home. We’d brought tents and camping equipment, and would pick a location along the riverbank to put in for the night.
Ronnie and Edna paddled in the canoe ahead of Larry and me. The four of us were strong and capable outdoors people, but I’d had a premonition of sorts. Sitting in the yard one day, weeks earlier, while the kids cooled down with the hose, a powerful feeling about this trip had come over me. Not just nerves, more like a wordless message to be prepared. I went inside to get my Bible and was drawn to Psalm 121: “I will lift mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help…” Throughout the day I read the psalm over and over, until I’d memorized all eight verses.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about the float trip,” I told Larry when he got home from work. I told him about my premonition, but he wasn’t convinced it meant anything.
“You’re just nervous about leaving the kids with your mom,” he said. “You’ll feel better once we’re out on the river.”
Now, here we were, wearing life jackets that no longer seemed nearly protective enough. The relaxing pleasure trip we’d signed on for had turned into a challenge. The water level was up, the current faster than usual, the rapids active. Nothing like what we had expected.
When I noticed several other paddlers setting up camp along the riverbank in the late afternoon, I called out to Larry. “Let’s call it a day soon!” I turned my head to glance upstream. “I will lift mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” A bird swooped down to grab a snake from the rocks.
Dear God, please watch over us. The water roiled again just up ahead. I held my breath as Ronnie and Edna made it through unscathed. Our turn. The canoe entered the torrent. I paddled hard trying to keep the boat upright, but it was no use. The canoe spun and tossed us into the frothy water. My paddle flew from my hands. The canoe overturned and escaped our reach. Everything inside was lost in a flash.
The water pushed Larry and me onto a gravel bar, where Ronnie and Edna had landed safely in their canoe. Ours was trapped in some branches, partially submerged, across the roaring river. Edna and I waited while our husbands pushed through the rapids to reach it. Ronnie pulled at the canoe, and suddenly, propelled by the water, it shot straight up, hitting him hard in the face. He fell forward into the water, but Larry managed to get ahold of him. “He’s hurt,” Larry yelled over the current. “We have to get help.”
But how? We couldn’t get upstream. No one was in earshot. We didn’t even have a first aid kit. There was nothing I could do but put my trust in God. I’d claimed the psalmist’s verse for weeks, but now I had to put my faith into practice, and truly believe that we were being watched over, just as the psalmist had been. I gazed up at the sky above the cliffs.
“I will lift mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”
I kept praying the psalm, believing. For what seemed like forever I saw nothing but the gathering darkness. Then, in the distance, I saw a faint light. I imagined it came from campers on the riverbank, but the light grew brighter. Coming closer. Two men in a canoe with a lantern. We called out as loud as we could, waving our arms.
The men pulled smoothly up to Larry and Ronnie and took them into their canoe. They crossed the rapids without a hitch to reach Edna and me. At some point in all the hubbub the men introduced themselves as a doctor and a Marine. When God sends help he doesn’t mess around, I thought.
After the doctor tended to Ronnie’s injuries, he loaded Ronnie and Larry into the rescue canoe. The Marine took Edna and me in the one canoe we had left. The canoe Larry and I had rented was long gone.
We reached the endpoint on the river in a little more than an hour. Even if we’d gone much farther than we intended on the first day of our trip, it seemed a miracle we’d reached our destination so quickly. The men transferred Ronnie to our truck bed. Larry got in with him. While I helped Edna stow our remaining canoe and gear in the outfitter’s pickup area, the rescuers who’d arrived like angels disappeared as such. No sound of another truck leaving. No light from their lantern if they’d gotten back in their canoe.
There was no time to ponder our blessing. I climbed behind the wheel, with Edna in the passenger seat, and then drove as fast as I dared to the hospital. Ronnie needed many reconstructive surgeries, but he enjoyed a full recovery.
Our more adventurous days are behind us, but more than 40 years later, I hold the lesson of our Buffalo River angels close. Driving through the beautiful hills of the Ozarks, I lift my eyes to take in their grandeur and the reassurance that whatever help I need is never far away.
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