Two weekends ago NWA experienced an unprecedented winter flood. While most of us took this as an opportunity for hibernation, others, like Jake Newcomb and his troop of thrill seekers, hurried out to the Buffalo to give their kayaking skills a true test.
They arrived in the Boxley Valley, rain pouring in sheets, with hopes set on a Beech Creek run.
“Boxley was unlike anything I’d ever seen before,” Newcomb said. “The bluff-lined mountains on either side of the valley were all spouting waterfalls where I’d never known waterfalls to be.”
“A quick look at Beech and we determined that it was already so high that it topped our skill level,” said Newcomb. “We began tossing around the idea of running The Hailstone instead.”
The Hailstone, a 15-mile stretch of rapids, fills the canyon within the 12,000-acre upper Buffalo Wilderness Area. With no viable roads or hike-out options, the area was a secret for years, to keep would-be paddlers from its then-perceived danger.
Newcomb said that today’s technology has changed things. “While the Hailstone is certainly no cakewalk, it definitely shouldn’t remain hidden, as it is truly a whitewater and wilderness gem,” he said.
Though the group had completed the Hailstone run in the past, once they set off they found the ever-rising waters had submerged visible route markers (like house-sized boulders) and that they would certainly be in for an adventure.
“That day, Arkansas was offering up the type of whitewater one would typically need to drive halfway across the country to find,” he said. “Ten-foot standing waves were recurrent.”
As the river began to flash, the water became unpredictable and unstable.
“It was like the water didn’t know what to do with itself,” Newcomb said. “A giant wave that was there one second, might be completely gone and turned into a giant boil the next.”
The kayakers witnessed hundreds of waterfalls alongside the canyon walls, all adding to the inconsistent flow of the waters. The downstream water gauge topped out around 12,000 CFS, the same flow that the Grand Canyon typically carries.
Such conditions pose a challenge in the case that a kayaker becomes a boat-less “swimmer.” Swift rapids make it unlikely that fellow boaters will be able to find a closeby “eddy,” or calm spot to rest and wait up, leaving the swimmer in a precarious position. In best case situations, swimmers will be able to make it to the bank, to begin hiking to find their group and (hopefully) abandoned boat.
About mid-way through, Jake Newcomb ran into such trouble.
“I was caught off guard by a large curler wave and thrown upside down into the current,” he said. “At this point in the day, large swathes of debris and even entire trees were beginning to come down the river. As I was attempting to roll myself back over, I was struck by some of this debris… I lost the boat but retained my paddle, and the rest of the group set off after my boat.”
Given that they were in one of the steepest parts of the canyon, Jake’s hike back to his group was significantly more heinous that any of the paddling he had done thus far. Each step through the slippery mud had to be calculated as the canyon walls promised a long fall into the swift waters below.
“I guess I wasn’t treading carefully enough,” said Newcomb, “because at one point a chunk of earth and rocks the size of a small car fell out from under me, and I fell with it. After about 15 feet of sliding I was able to grab a small tree with my right hand and stop my momentum, but I hurt my shoulder pretty badly in the process.”
Jake pressed onward, back to the trail where he eventually heard a shout back from a member of his crew who was waiting with his saved boat. With an injured shoulder and darkness starting to set in, paddling became a far greater challenge. A quick GPS check informed the group they had gone 14.5 miles so far, and they began to make a mad dash for the takeout.
A sudden blind curve split the group in half, leaving Jake and three others slowing in efforts to wait for the remainder of their group.
“As soon as we see the first guy make the turn, he’s yelling, and next, a boat… without a boater in it,” he said. “By this time it really almost is dark.”
Quickly the swimmer found land and another member of their group got out several hundred yards ahead to help the swimmer hike back to the takeout. Without much choice, the rest of the team continued onward.
The elements weren’t through with Jake’s crew quite yet, though. As they approached the Boxley Bridge, the river was cresting into it and about to go over.
“Bridges like this are notorious deathtraps,” said Newcomb. “It was full on dark at this point, and as I tried to eddy out toward the wood line about 30-40 yards above the bridge, I was washed into trees and again flipped over. Knowing my proximity to the bridge, I immediately opted to remove myself from the boat. As I tried grabbing it, I was briefly pulled into the main current again, and ditched the boat without a second thought. As I pulled myself out of the water, I saw the boat go under the bridge.”
Several hours later the group was all reunited at the takeout, all without serious injuries. However, three boats were missing one of which was Jake’s, the home of his dry bag which held a compact DSLR camera and telephoto lens. Jake and two friends returned a couple days later after a tip that hikers had seen “kayaks in the trees.”
“I knew that the five mile section below where I’d lost my kayak was extremely narrow and choked with forest, and thought my boat had a good chance of being stuck within that section.”
The water now much calmer, Jake was able to rerun to the the section just past where he’d lost his boat days before and camp out for a couple of days. Luckily he found his boat tangled in a massive log jam about three miles downstream from the bridge where he had lost it.
“Almost more importantly, my camera bag was still in it, still sealed, and all my gadgets were in working order,” he said. “All’s well that ends well.”
Big water in a little canyon | Video by Jake Newcomb
No one should set off on any rivers in flood stage without years of training. While our group mostly had the experience necessary to take on the river that day, it’s clear from our story that the conditions that occur during these floods can and will throw the unseen at you. If lost overnight, the threat of hypothermia is very real, and very deadly. Know your group, weather condition, and be honest about your skill-level. When paddling in the winter, ALWAYS have items packed with you necessary to combat hypothermia.