During breakfast, in a hotel overlooking Norfork Lake in the Arkansas Ozarks, vets and volunteers sipped coffee and munched bagels while conversations filled the room. Near the door, a circle of folks laughed about the "carnage" at last year’s Paddlefest, when one day on the Buffalo River saw a dozen flips.
"I’ve been swimming laps at my local pool to prepare," joked a retired Green Beret.
Nearby, some vets pondered the last time they’d seen a common friend. "Just before the fall of Saigon," offered Army veteran Ron Mentel.
Soon, our six vehicle caravan, from the St Louis chapter of Team River Runner, zoomed along a rolling highway toward Mt Hersey. Since 2004, TRR has offered adaptive paddling trips as recreational therapy for the many wounded veterans of the U.S. Armed Services. The goal is putting veterans on the "river to recovery" by sharing the social, physical, and emotional benefits of nature while tackling whitewater rapids or paddling peaceful flat-water. In 2013, TRR helped Navy veteran Lonnie Bedwell become the first blind kayaker to descend 225 miles on the Grand Canyon. By summer 2016, there were 60+ chapters operating in 30 states, including two chapters near the Ozarks—Tulsa and St Louis.
I’d wanted to volunteer with TRR for years. But I never made it happen. I was always busy with writing and teaching obligations or away on a trip. While writing Paddling the Ozarks, I decided to stay local all summer to gather research and photos. On a trip to the Current River, a friend suggested I combine field work with Paddlefest. Truth is, I felt oddly reluctant, perhaps ashamed I’d put off participating for years until it coincided with my own project. But my guiding philosophy is saying yes to new experiences. Joining the St Louis chapter for their annual adventure was an opportunity to not just "step out" but to help a worthy cause.
At the put-in, we did our impression of a derailed circus train spilling valuables. Kayaks, paddles, skirts, and helmets littered the gravel bar as everyone hustled to organize chaos. The access point owned an interesting history, as recorded by Ken Smith in the Buffalo River Handbook. In 1827, Mt Hersey became one of the first white settlements on the Buffalo, due to a nearby spring and discovery of zinc ore in adjacent hills. Over many years, settlers built a gristmill, sawmill, store, post office, and school. But no viable deposit was ever found, so the population disbanded and the town vanished. This is a common story throughout the Buffalo watershed, which explains how the region remained sparsely populated until 1972 when the river was protected as a National Park.
An hour later, our group attempted something similar to the settlement. Leaving behind an empty gravel bar, our 30-paddler flotilla headed downstream. The 151-mile Buffalo is the Ozark’s best spring-time float stream. It offers the most dramatic geology, including 500-foot tall limestone bluffs. With the largest combined wilderness lands in the Midwest, plus occasional Class II rapids, the Buffalo keeps it sporty.
Approaching the first riffle, I sensed apprehension among safety boaters. Last year, an upstream section had induced the carnage. But this being most team members’ second Paddlefest—with a year of paddling events under their belts—hopes were high. I positioned myself on a mid-river island, safety-rope in reach. Approaching single file, the members entered the rapid. A few adventurous folks centered a fast wave train on right, while most opted for navigating submerged rocks river left. Toward the rear came a kayaker in a boat affixed with adaptive outriggers. Ron Roark lost a lower limb, and the outriggers supply balance needed for a single kayak. Ron squared the drop and powered through squirrely water.
All paddlers came through perfectly. And not just that rapid. At Cave Creek Shoal, the team zipped down fine. After lunch, all passed Rollover Rock without losing an edge. We cleaned the shoals at the Nars, a narrow fin of bedrock separating the Buffalo from tributary Richland Creek. Spirits were high at Skull Bluff—a pair of remarkable limestone formations resembling eye sockets—so a few navigated into the orifices. The final bluff-splatting C-turn above take-out? Non-issue. Biggest challenge of the day? Us volunteers trying to remember how we rigged all the gear.
The next morning, we gathered at breakfast before heading to the Spring River, an Arkansas classic to discuss another time. Ron Mentel, the most boisterous member, took it upon himself to rectify a situation. Since our trip down the Buffalo hadn’t offered enough terror, perhaps Ron might provide some with a war-time tale?
Ron was on a C-130 heading out of country when a particularly brave or reckless crewman–depending on perspective–opened the rear cargo door. Mid-flight. To relieve himself. Task complete, he zipped up and faced the others. Clouds whipped past as the crewman hollered, "Does anyone else need to go?"
"No thanks," shouted Ron. "I’ll just piss myself right here."
I was still cracking up while setting the group photo. When the fellas gave me shit for my questionable jogging style, which someone labeled a "civilian sandal shuffle," I considered saluting but worried I’d deck myself in the eye. I was still cracking up during our trip down the Spring. And the drive back. And the BBQ dinner served by Robert Wake, CEO of the Wake Foundation, which graciously funds Paddlefest. But after dinner, while sitting in the lobby chatting, the levity halted.
Ron Roark rolled his wheelchair out from his room with an ashen face. He was bleeding from his arm and had that far-away look seen on paddlers after a rough swim. Ron—who just yesterday styled the Buffalo in outrigger kayak—had slipped and fallen in the bathroom. Hard. Hit his head on the tub. Cut himself on the sink.
Suddenly, I realized why I’d felt reluctant to join Paddlefest. Why I’d felt ashamed for not volunteering all those years. For civilians, it can be very hard to confront the realities facing our military and veterans. While I’m off paddling and exploring cool parts of the world, folks like Ron are struggling to use a shower. It’s uncomfortable. Unsettling. What do I say? How do I act? Is it even possible to help?
Paddlefest soon came to an end. I spent the summer finishing my guidebook. Later that fall, I heard from a TRR volunteer that Ron was still struggling. He’d fallen many times at home. He’d dropped out of TRR due to transportation challenges. Ron was facing dark times—the type that sometimes lead to people standing awkwardly around a casket, wondering if they might have done something.
To Ron’s credit, he’s facing his challenges head on. Ron has a GoFundMe page devoted to remodeling his bathroom and making it wheelchair accessible. I’ve included the link here, so if any reader feels so inclined, please consider a donation to help Ron in a practical way.
And let all our vets know, figuratively, they don’t go down the river alone.
— Read C&K editor-in-chief Dave Shively’s digital feature on veterans, PTSD, and paddling: HEALING WATERS
— To learn more about Team River Runner, including donating, volunteering, or pioneering a chapter in your area, visit www.teamriverrunner.org
— Read more by Mike Bezemek, including past entries from Regular Paddler, Remarkable Waters.