Death, Puppies, Rivers
Buffalo, Cossatot are couple’s liquid therapy

By Claire Cripps

Claire Cripps and her Lab, Ernie, cruise along the Buffalo River.

Claire Cripps and her Lab, Ernie, cruise along the Buffalo River.

 

It was serendipitous that we discovered the supreme whitewater of Arkansas. We had planned on being in the Pacific Northwest, sights set on paddling rivers that would run through winter and into the spring. However, plans shifted upon hearing that Braden’s dad, Ernest, was not doing well. Duty called, and we ventured off to a tiny town in western Arkansas where we would spend our unforeseeable future.

The lifestyle we knew transformed overnight from one of freedom, with our most crucial decision being the next river to float, to one of palpable uncertainty. Impending death has a way of blurring everything around you—clouds appeared more menacing, the nights felt cold and unfriendly. It hurt to even breathe sometimes.

One December night, I stumbled upon a man with newborn Lab puppies. He had sold all but one and he sent me a photo of “Still Available.” Without much thought, I paid a deposit, halfheartedly knowing losing $50 wouldn’t be a huge deal should I change my mind. 

Braden’s role of delivering orange juice every morning at 2 a.m. halted Dec. 31, just minutes before 2019 arrived. He drove home from the hospital after his dad passed and we rang in an exhausting, melancholy start to the new year. 

Cripps navigates the rocks on Richland Creek.

Cripps navigates the rocks on Richland Creek.

Standing in the kitchen the next morning, forcing down pancakes, Still Available’s photo surfaced. It was an impulse reaction, like many of the decisions we make in life. Later that day, a potbelly, napaholic puppy grunted on our laps. 

Ernie the Pup was named after Braden’s dad and he was the spark that thawed our iciness after months of grief. He inspired us to do what anyone should probably do when he or she is sad—get outside and get back to the activities we loved, no matter what. 

I knew little about Arkansas rivers—I had heard of the Buffalo, the first nationally designated river in the country. I assumed a mellow float down it would probably constitute the extent of our paddling. I found a kayak rolling class, and we attended. It felt liberating to paddle, even if it was only in a swimming pool.

Our new friends at the roll session led us to discover what local paddlers already knew: Up in the hills, between limestone cliffs and swaths of grand forest, a multitude of whitewater beckons. Ranging from mellow, classic stream runs to multi-day, self-supported wilderness creeks, Arkansas hosts over 210 miles of designated Wild and Scenic waterways.

I became mesmerized by the Arkansas paddler community, a tight-knit circle that lives for the next torrential downpour, boats loaded on vehicles sometimes days before a storm. Forecasted rain is discussed in the same fashion skiers discuss powder days: they are never to be unacknowledged. If you want to boat in this area, you better be ready to chase a storm. We joined the chase. 

We caught the Cossatot first, a Wild and Scenic river whose name literally means “skullcrusher.” A staircase of drops called Cossatot Falls is strikingly unique; you can camp next to a section of five technical drops over the course of a quarter-mile and easily hike back up to lap them. 

It was a fabulous setup, Ernie could be left at the campground with plenty of onlookers more than happy to pupsit, Southern hospitality at its finest. We shared a campfire with local boaters for a couple of nights, laughing until our stomachs ached over Ernie stealing camp chairs and high water stories of carnage I’ve dubbed Cossatot Tall Tales. 

The next storm cycle had us itching to run Wild and Scenic Richland Creek, a granite boulder-laden stream in the “most rugged and beautiful waterfall area” in Arkansas, per some locals. Richland Creek Wilderness is an amazing gem with narrow, twisting waterways carving through an eroded plateau. The wilderness experience compared to some of our favorite untamed rivers in Idaho. 

Braden Gunem rides a gnarly stretch.

Braden Gunem rides a gnarly stretch.

Ernie the Pup complicated plans, as this area was far away from our campsite babysitting option on the Cossatot. We strategically planned to hike up and boat down as far as we could in a day, coming back to car camp with the pup. We ran Lower Screw Up, the last significant rapids just after dusk, and it was the most alert I had felt in months. We made it back to our budding river dog just in time for his late-night swim and a hot freeze-dried meal. 

A proper boating experience in the Ozarks wouldn’t have been complete without a trip down the classic Buffalo River. It boasted every quality you could imagine in a mythical tale—sheer limestone cliffs with overhanging ferns, rope swings scattered along the way, a 200-foot-tall waterfall, tropical temperatures, green-yet-clear water for swimming. We spent a week on the Buffalo waking up to Ernie’s morning swims and stick-fetching sessions, staying up late listening to frogs and crickets chirp. This was the place where we reflected most on our past few months.

Our Ozark boating period also included running our backyard creek, one we observed for months from our living room, thinking it would never go. One glorious morning, it did. Braden hopped in a boat and I grabbed a camera in the nick of time, because an hour and a half later, it was merely a trickle again. 

Whitewater in Arkansas is alive and kicking, a secret far better than anything we could have imagined. Our departure from the Ozark wilds was bittersweet, as we left behind many other rivers to explore and vast memories for which we will be forever grateful. For a moment there, it seemed life had given us lemons. Ultimately, we had no choice than to turn them into lemonade, in the form of rainstorms, swelling rivers and yellow lab puppy licks.