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Middle of nowhere brings history lessons, repeated happinessOriginally Published June 30, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated June 28, 2013 at 11:52 a.m.
It began with a single thought: What adventure can I share with my young sons this summer that they will remember all their lives?
I had no father with whom to share adventures when I was growing up. My life lacked something because of that. I don’t want my sons to feel the same way when they reach adulthood. I want to do things with them — unforgettable things — they will remember fondly long after I’m gone.
So it was we planned our first wilderness junket: a three-day floating/camping adventure that would carry me, my best friend Lewis and his 15-year-old son Justin, our retired game warden buddy “Uncle Bill” Hailey and my sons Matt, 12; Shaun, 11; and Jared, 10, through 60 miles of remote backcountry on the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers in southeastern Arkansas. We would float by day in two johnboats and a canoe, and camp at night on river sandbars in wild territory teeming with black bears, alligators and other wildlife.
Lewis and I planned to pack a few rations, but the boys did not know this. We told them they had to catch what they ate. No fish, no supper. Hand-held games, cellphones and other modern conveniences were banned.
When the boys heard our plans, they joyously dubbed our adventure The Survival Trip. I did not know it then, but that moniker would contain a bit more truth that I intended.
We launched below Wilbur Mills Dam on the Arkansas River early on Aug. 11, 1996. Immediately, a downpour began. Rain fell in torrents. Everyone got drenched, but none of us cared. The adventure had begun.
We stopped now and then to swim, fish or explore. But that first day, the young’uns were eager to make camp and start their fun. After a float of 15 miles, we pitched our tents on a high sandbar and let the boys run wild.
Justin fished and caught a nice bass, dinner for two. The other boys grabbed their poles, too, and soon caught several catfish. We cleaned their catch and fried the fish for dinner. Everyone stuffed themselves, and when the mosquitoes started buzzing, we retired to our tents for the night.
I arose at dawn. The boats were gone! Swollen by the morning rains, the river had risen 6 feet.
I awakened the others, and we pondered what to do. The nearest habitation was more than 20 miles away. And we hadn’t seen a boat since leaving the dam.
I remembered then the air mattress I’d brought to sleep on.
“I need to get on it and see if I can find the boats,” I said.
“But what if you don’t find them, Dad?” the boys asked.
“Then I’ll see you in New Orleans next week.”
I found the canoe a few miles downstream. The johnboats were farther on. With sighs of relief, we rounded them up and broke camp.
Lewis, Justin and Bill took the boats downstream. The boys and I followed on a raft of air mattresses. We watched as a peregrine falcon flashed across the river. A deer stood fearlessly as we floated past. We glimpsed a black bear lumbering into cover. Abundant wildlife constantly reminded us of the wild country we were in.
By noon, we were motoring downstream again. White sandbars stretched to the horizon, cleaner and prettier than Florida beaches. We stopped now and then to swim and fish, but mostly we floated, watching as the scenery unfolded. We agreed that none of us ever felt so far from civilization as we did that day. What a wonderful feeling it was.
Lewis and I caught some crappie in a small oxbow. We ate them that evening beneath a painted sky at the river’s mouth. A rain shower drenched us as we made camp, but the clouds soon broke, and as the sun set, it bathed distant thunderheads in salmon-colored light. The boys waded out to swim and fish in the first currents of the Mississippi.
When we cast off the next morning, the Father of Waters swallowed us. “It’s huge!” Matt said. “It’s gigantic!” Shaun shouted. Indeed, we felt small on the mighty Mississippi.
“Imagine what it must have been like a long time ago,” I told Shaun and Jared as we motored downstream. “Have you heard of Hernando DeSoto?”
“Yes,” the boys said. They learned of him in school.
“He landed at the place where we camped last night in 1542.”
“Wow!” the boys said.
“How ’bout Marquette and Joliet? And La Salle? Have you heard of them, too?
“Yes,” they responded.
“They camped there, too, with a tribe of Indians, way back in the 1600s. La Salle and his men built a great cross and raised it there. He claimed these lands for the king of France. Mark Twain came by here many times, and John James Audubon, the great painter.”
They turned and looked at each other with eyes opened wide. History was never so fun.
We floated several hours, absorbing the river’s majesty. All of us felt exhilarated. No one wanted to see the takeout.
Unfortunately, all good things must end. At 4 that afternoon, The Survival Trip ended.
The first Survival Trip was so much fun, we did it again and again. And each year we floated and camped together, more memories filled our souls.
Things unforgettable happened each time — like the day a Civil Air Patrol helicopter crew looked down while searching for marijuana plots and spied instead four nearly naked young boys in the middle of nowhere covered head to toe with a thick coat of mud and leaves. I still wonder what those men must have thought.
One morning, we awoke to find bear tracks meandering through our sandbar camp. Thankfully, nothing was amiss. But the thought of a bruin nosing around just outside our tents while we slept was a bit disconcerting — to the grownups, but not the boys.
As the boys grew, their adventures grew, too. They disappeared for hours on end, running wild in the wilds as young men should.
Long after I am dead and buried, I am sure my sons will still talk about our Survival Trips. And so, I accomplished what I intended. My sons got a taste of adventure none will ever forget. And I am forever grateful that is so.
None Keith Sutton can be reached at .