It’s mid-March, and some friends and I make a 280-mile drive from central Illinois to the Saint Francis River. We pull into the Silver Mines Recreation Area late on a Friday night and find a pleasant wooded campsite. Saturday dawns crisp and clear. Excitement is in the air as we say hello to boaters from Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and as far away as Kansas and Iowa. Pushed along by an increasing gradient, our party of five is swept into Tiemann Shut-in, a miniature gorge with salmon-colored granite walls where the river drops approximately 40 feet in less than a mile over three distinct drops that rate Class III in medium to high water.
Four of us leapfrog down from eddy to eddy. But a newcomer among us misses the last (and crucial) eddy and heads down the Cat’s Paw rapid-backward. Near the edge of the final drop, he valiantly spins his canoe around, only to get it pinned broadside against a partly submerged, pyramid-shaped rock. He bails and swims, but his Dagger Impulse is securely stuck and slowly beginning to wrap in horseshoe fashion.
Without saying a word, a half-dozen kayakers playing above the rapid jump in to aid us. One takes his squirt boat up to the pinned canoe and attaches a rescue rope around the bow; another deftly does the same at the stern. In minutes, with all of us tugging and pulling, the boat is free. Never have I paddled a river where the boaters are as friendly or willing to assist a stranger.
Finally, the low-water D bridge take-out comes into view. Just upstream on river left, the parking lot is humming with activity. A casual examination of license plates reveals vehicles from seven states, testimony to the Saint’s appeal.
For more information, log on to www.americanwhitewater.org/rivers/ id/3003 or pick up a copy of Ozark Whitewater: A Paddler’s Guide to the Mountain Streams of Arkansas and Missouri, by Tom Kennon (Menasha Ridge Press, 1997).