Battling The Buffalo
Paddle for Polio sends one man down the Buffalo National River
By Nate Jordon Photos Courtesy Of Chelsea Jordan And Nate Jordan
By the fourth day on the Buffalo River I was getting buggy. I hadn’t seen but three other people on the river and hadn’t said a word to anyone, not even to myself. Then I paddled past two fellows, one in a canoe, the other in a kayak, not far from The Nars and Skull Bluff near St. Joe. One of them asked me what I thought was the most absurd question I’d ever heard.
KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS?
Time? I thought. I looked at my watch and saw the numbers. Then I realized I had forgotten how to maneuver words out of my mouth.
“It’s, uh…half to toop.” I heard the words and saw their furrowed brows and quickly corrected myself. “I mean, it’s almost noon.”
This started a conversation about what we were doing on the Buffalo. When I told them I was paddling the whole river by myself, they looked at me like I was nuts. Maybe I was.
I was new to the sport and had never paddled the Buffalo past Woolum, which isn’t even halfway. I knew I’d be paddling blind from that point on, but I was confident—perhaps cavalier—in my abilities to handle the river and any obstacles it could throw at me. Besides, it was for a good cause.
"I wasn’t underwater long, but when my head popped up I was shocked at how far the river had taken me."
It all started at the February 2015 board meeting for the Rotary Club of Harrison. I had been reading in The Rotarian about several members who were doing awesome outdoor adventures for fundraisers. I told the board I was planning to paddle the entire Buffalo National River in April and said it would be a good fundraising opportunity. The board was enthusiastic—and Paddle for Polio was christened.
I knew I wanted to float the entire river on April 19, 2014, my first time on the Buffalo. It was also my first time piloting a canoe. Before I reached majestic Roark Bluff a couple miles from where I put in at Ponca I experienced something mystical. Or maybe I heard a banjo.
Little did I know a year later I’d be paddling through those turquoise waters in a used, beaten-up Buffalo canoe with a twenty-dollar paddle, minimal camping gear and enough granola bars and beef jerky to make a billy goat sick.
The craziness really started on day one, when I put in at Boxley Bridge. I had never done the Boxley Run before, and because this was the first day of my adventure, I convinced my girlfriend, Chelsea, to come with me. It was only her third time in a canoe, but I figured she wouldn’t have to do much other than maintain her balance and enjoy the scenery.
I’d been paddling for about an hour when we came around a bend and I heard what sounded like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The current was charging straight into a log jam. Rather than eddy out, I tried to shoot around. Before I could blink, we were slammed sideways into it. The canoe tipped and almost instantly submerged.
I wasn’t underwater long, but when my head popped up I was shocked at how far the river had taken me. I turned around and saw Chelsea hanging onto the side of the canoe with her legs pinned in the current.
Before I could reach her, she somehow pulled herself out. She sat on top of the log jam and, to my surprise, had both of our paddles in her hands. When I did get to her, she pointed out the bleeding gash on my left palm, the cuts on my left ear and the bloody scratch on my left leg from ankle to groin.
We hiked out and made our way to Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca. I had recently started working there as a Boat Ape, and a discussion with president and general manager Austin Albers convinced me we could rescue the canoe. He and I hiked down to the wreck site, he winched out my canoe and we paddled on.
That was the first two miles. The following 133 weren’t so bad if you don’t count the tornado warnings, thunderstorms, river flooding, gnats biting, fighting off a troop of pillaging raccoons the size of chimpanzees, 50 yards of haystack waves at Clabber Creek Shoals…and so on.
When I reached the confluence of the Buffalo and White rivers on day nine, I felt like Rocky Balboa. Did I conquer the river? No. I survived. But I raised thousands of dollars for Rotary International’s effort to eradicate polio around the world—and would you believe it, Chelsea and I are now engaged. And I’m going for round two in April.
For more information about the Paddle for Polio, visit gofundme.com/HarrisonArRotary.