As our 27th wedding anniversary approaches, my mind wanders back to the early days of our courtship and how unlikely a pair my husband and I were. Nowhere was that assessment more evident than on the face of my husband’s father when he helped us launch our float trip on a local river near the small town where my husband’s family then lived. To call it a small town seemed generous by my city girl standards. Houses were hollows apart and spread randomly across the countryside, following nature’s tracks instead of a developer’s.
It was, I think, my very first trip to the country, having in my young life travelled only to other cities, and the distance by geography and culture felt much further than the 6-hour drive from my hometown, a Midwestern city on the other side of the state. Much of our drive had been at night, so I didn’t quite grasp his family’s incessant curiosity about how I made the trip until the drive back home during daylight hours left me begging for Dramamine.
The circuitous two-lane roads wound up and down through the Ozark hills as they simultaneously snaked through dense woodlands. My home on the plains had not prepared me for such intense and lush landscape.
When my husband first proposed the trip, I was game to go with little persuasion required, even though my camping experiences at that point were limited to childhood overnights at local Girl Scout campsites. Adding the river element made me slightly anxious, but many college friends had floated this river on weekends since it wasn’t too far from the state university we attended. Honestly, when I thought river, I imagined rivers I had actually seen, something along the lines of the Missouri or the Mississippi, rivers that were crossed via miles of steel-framed suspension bridges.
Naturally then, I could not contain my shock when I got to this river’s edge where we were to put in our canoes and found the water only knee-deep. I was even more astonished that I could see my toes on the gravelly river bottom right through the clear, cold water. The only body of water I’d ever seen this clear was in a chlorinated swimming pool. I turned to my husband and asked, “Is this it?” This is the moment when my future father-in-law politely tried to mask his bewilderment but his near wincing and the wariness in his eyes gave him away entirely.
He, after all, had grown up on this river and its nuances were second nature to him. I, on the other hand, was exposing myself to be, in the most painfully obvious way, an outdoor illiterate, knowing next to nothing about rivers and gravel bars and fire building and camp cooking. What he fully realized and I later learned was that his son was an expert in all of these areas. That would have been the only way the man could have wittingly pulled his pickup away from the low point of the river after unloading our canoes and gear.
My husband had spent childhood summers in this region mentored by his uncle, a high school science teacher and former river guide. In the 1950s, Life magazine ran a several-page photo essay documenting a noted writer’s river journey with my husband’s uncle serving as fishing guide. As a young teenager, my husband moved there each summer from the city to help his aunt and uncle tend a lodge restaurant on the river, and, while pursuing a college degree to become a park ranger, he summered there as an intern with the National Park Service.
There was no turning back as we set our gear in the canoe and walked it to deeper water. By now, it seemed to me a great adventure and I was just naive enough not to realize how dangerous it could be if you didn’t know what you were doing. Fortunately, I was also smart enough to know when I didn’t know something and I intently followed my husband’s instructions exactly: paddle slowly, lift the paddle, duck when we come to low-hanging tree limbs, cover your knees so they don’t get sunburned, gather sticks, apply bug spray.
Once I got the feel of the movement of the canoe, I could sense the rhythm of paddling my husband established. I could also appreciate the expansive stretches of river where the current slowed enough so that we floated rather than sped through the water and I could gaze up at the towering limestone bluffs rife with green bushes and trees.
As an amateur photographer and budding naturalist, my husband had a keen eye for spotting and identifying the flora and fauna as we passed it. I was pretty focused on the paddling and missed the mink he could see running along the shore. Who knew mink were native to these parts? I doubt I had the coordination or the eyes to see the birds he called out—wood ducks, kingfishers, great blue herons–but I was definitely awed by the sheer volume of wildlife packed into every square inch of this locale.
We were actually travelling with another couple, a friend of my husband’s and his girlfriend, neither of whom I’d met before but both of whom were experienced floaters. As the novice of the group, I gladly deferred to any decisions they made about where and when to eat or camp. We spent our first night on a substantial gravel bar after paddling the better part of the day.
We set up tents and prepared the campfire for our meal. After dinner and as dusk cast its twilight glow on the water, we sat by the fire, watching the waves wash over the sandy edge of the bar as the river grew quiet and the insects grew loud. I studied the giant bluff directly across the river from us and pointed out to my husband how erosion had sculpted the profile of a face into the rock, a face which I thought resembled that of an Indian chief wearing a feather headdress. My husband looked across the river and nodded silently, accepting this errant aesthetic observation without question.
We stopped further down the river the next day in order to visit a local park ranger’s quarters my husband knew of, a magnificent wood bungalow perched on the edge of a bluff. The house overlooked the water but could not be viewed from the river, hence its name: Seldom Seen. It had been in its earliest incarnation in the 1930s a summer getaway for the governor, and one of several buildings in the area constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corp.
We probably climbed a thousand steps to reach the hilltop and the house where we were greeted by the ranger. After introductions, he asked where we had spent the night. My husband described the gravel bar in detail and its proximity to other landmarks. The park ranger smiled and said, “Why, it sounds like you all camped at Indian Head Bluff.” I may well have been a stranger in a strange land, but I proved to be one with some decent intuitive powers.
Proudly, I didn’t cause us to tip over once on that trip or any subsequent trips we took after we were married. In my early years of college teaching, we made an annual float trip on this river every May when school got out. I would spend the first two days sobbing, lamenting that I would never see my students again and because I had deeply enjoyed teaching them about literature and writing and they had always achieved so much by semester’s end. Gradually I would succumb to the scenic contours of the river, soak in the warmth of the late spring sunlight, and bask in the unique beauty of this corner of the world. There could be no better way to grieve.
I look back on these trips now and see the makings of the powerful partnership that has marked our marriage. Our interests and talents remain as radically different as the perspectives we’ve often brought to bear on all that has happened in our lives, and yet I think we have struck a good balance somehow and one that I believe has greatly benefitted our children, both of whom, by the way, are avid campers who love to canoe, most especially on that very same river.