THE OLD MAN AND THE RIVER

At 81, Artist Thomas Hart Benton, one of the founders of the Midwest Regionalist School of painting, still carries on his long love affair with the roily Buffalo River in the Ozarks
August 09, 1970

There is something about flowing water that makes for easy views. Down the river is freedom from consequence. All one has to do is jump in a skiff at night and by the morrow be beyond the reach of trouble.... This is an old and beloved sport of the country."

Thomas Hart Benton wrote those words in his autobiography, An Artist in America, nearly half a century ago during a float trip down the Buffalo River in Arkansas. A lot has happened to both man and river since. Benton went on to achieve fame, along with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, as a founder of the Midwest Regionalist School of painting. Wood and Curry are long dead, but Benton at 81 is still painting, although as far as the art critics are concerned he is something of a living fossil. The Buffalo River, which in the old logging days of the Ozark Mountains used to carry gigantic rafts of timber—cedar logs for the pencil industry, white oak for railroad ties and whiskey barrels—is now threatened by damming. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would like to add the Buffalo to its "beaver complex"—that spreading network of dams that has already drowned eight Ozark rivers. A bill that would make the Buffalo a "national river" has passed in the Senate, but an equivalent House bill is gathering dust in the Interior Subcommittee. Meanwhile, the corps waits: sooner or later the river lovers will give up and then the river-straighteners will go to work.

Thus time is working against both Tom Benton and the Buffalo River. Every spring, when the weather has warmed enough for his ancient bones, Benton and a group of his Kansas City cronies rendezvous on the Buffalo for an exercise in freedom from consequence. The "old and beloved sport of the country"—floating down a river—has been modernized somewhat. Benton and his pals run the river not in skiffs but in sturdy aluminum canoes. When they camp out, there are folding chairs and canvas cots, iceboxes a-slosh with Glueks beer, hard ham and fresh-baked bread and clumps of crisp radishes. And there's plenty of bourbon, though when the jug is passed Benton as often as not declines with a sorrowful nod. He suffered a coronary in 1966 and his ration is four weak ones a day.

This year the confluence of Benton and the Buffalo occurred at Ponca, Ark., on a sunny spring morning with the river just falling from flood. Benton looked like an ad for dirty old men: unshaved, ruddy-eyed, with a drooping mustache stained tan at the lower edges from the Days Work tobacco he has chewed since the age of 14 (he also chews Parodi cigars when he can get them). Mottled and wattled, he studied the river in silence. A hard rain during the weekend had driven the Buffalo over the low-water bridge on State Highway 74 just above Ponca, and by Tuesday, when Benton's band was ready to put in, the level had fallen to a swift but floatable three inches of daylight under the concrete slab. Benton's guide, Harold Hedges, an expert canoeman, had run the upper Buffalo only once with the water this high. "In a way it's easier at this level," said Hedges as the group scanned the first chute prior to putting in. "With lower water the river becomes more of a slalom course—you have to dodge gingerly to get through the boulders. There ought to be enough water today to give us a clear ride—but watch it if you upset. With this weight of water, you're going to be rolled like an empty barrel."

Hedges is a character in his own right. A retired Kansas City livestock feed executive, he had discovered the Buffalo's charms in the early 1950s, and the river promptly changed his life. With his wife Margaret and three sons. Hedges began spending every available weekend on the Buffalo, canoeing, bird watching, learning to read the vees of the white water with one lens of his consciousness while another was analyzing wildlife signs. He is one of those rare canoeists who can call out in the midst of roaring haystacks, the boils of water that form over boulders, "Listen to the wood thrush!" Hedges took early retirement at the age of 55 and now, at 57, he is tall, spare, crew cut—and looks 10 years younger. He and his wife ransacked a dozen old barns to procure the weathered beams and siding that make their house on the upper Buffalo one of the loveliest in the Ozarks. (If the Buffalo becomes a national river, as Hedges hopes, his house may be torn down. He accepts that.) Margaret Hedges, 52, is nearly as competent a canoeist as her husband—and much nicer to look at. Lithe, shapely and compellingly feminine despite her outdoor prowess, she led one member of the party to comment: "If every chick were like Margaret Hedges, there'd be no need for Women's Lib."

Canoe pairings for the day's run were the first order of business—and crucial, as it proved. Benton and Hedges were matched in one 17-foot aluminum Grumman, with the heavier, stronger Harold in the stern and Tom in the bow. That was both safe and sane, as was the match-up of Fred McCraw, 38, a river-wise Kansas City computer executive, and John Callison, 35, a husky stockbroker ("I'll take the Buffalo over the market any day," he said after a particularly rough run. "The river's gradient isn't near as steep"). Two other teams were well-matched, but the last canoe—well, you know the phrase that ends "and Tyler, too."

Sternman in the tippy canoe was Bernie Hoffman, a gravelly voiced, 61-year-old Missouri chain-store magnate who is also a superbly fit outdoorsman with experience on white water from the Wisconsin Dells to the Ozarks. His bowman, however, not only outweighed Hoffman by 40 pounds (thus giving the canoe a bad trim forward), but had never been in a canoe before in his life. Sammie Feeback, 56, is an ex-wrestler, a peerless raconteur, a splendid camp cook and reputedly the best movie cameraman in Kansas City. Also the worst canoeist. Massive and gnarled, with an upper body like one of those white-oak whiskey barrels, Sammie is built all wrong for white water: his center of gravity seems to lie somewhere in the vicinity of his Adam's apple, and it moves just as erratically. The B & S Show, as it came to be called for its stars, Bernie and Sammie, previewed a few seconds after the put-in.

When the river is lower the water just below the bridge is a gentle riffle, but at this level it was a fast chute bulging with small haystacks. B & S had barely shot clear of the first willow stubs along the bank when they spun out of shape: the canoe whirled clockwise, twice, then wobbled down the river backward with Sammie digging manfully toward Ponca as if that were the way he'd wanted to go all the time. "Whoops," said Benton as he watched from the bridge. "Well, maybe the bodies will wash up down by Pruitt."

Half a mile or so downstream the river bent 90 degrees to the right under the first of the bluffs—a black and cream forehead that seemed to frown with puzzlement as B & S winked past—then plunged over a chute called the Big Drop. Normally it is a swift but straightforward run. "the first little thrill on the river," as Hedges calls it. Today it was impressive: haystacks high as a house on the right-hand side, a concave slick as viscid as oil down the skinny side to the left. As Benton approached the Big Drop, with the B & S canoe already out of sight, a shrill cry came from the willows along the left bank. It was Margaret, wading upstream and screaming to her husband, "Go back, go back! Bernie and Sammie spilled twice coming through. We don't have any business taking an 80-year-old man through water like this."

Harold held the canoe against the bank with his left hand and stroked his chin with his right. The top joints on the first two fingers of his right hand were slashed off years ago by a saw, and the maimed gesture was powerful. "Well," he finally said to Tom, "I think we can handle the skinny side. Don't you?" Benton nodded and they dug in.

Down below the Big Drop, while Bernie and Sammie emptied their canoe and examined their soaked cigars, cigarettes and billfolds. Benton fixed Margaret with his baleful brown eyes. "See, I told you it was nothing," he said. Then he cackled and scratched his stomach.

Still, if the usually benign Big Drop was this tough, what would it be like downstream, say at Wreckin' Rock? The smooth stretch of river leading to that obstacle passed without remark (low bluffs, birdsong, the insectlike click of dripping water from the pour-offs). The tension eased when Wreckin' Rock hove into sight. Harold was right: the river was so high that many of the impassable shoals were fully covered, and the canoes could run Wreckin' Rock to the left, missing it completely.

Now the party relaxed and began exchanging lore about the bluffs as they drifted past. To the right was Bee Bluff, thus named in 1916, when a couple of local boys discovered a buzzing megalopolis in the cliff. They scaled the bluff from the river, burned out the bees with rags soaked in sulphur and then dynamited the crevice that guarded the honey. More than 400 pounds of honey and wax were collected, but the climbers themselves got little or none of it. By the time they got down, after lowering the spoils by bucket, their comrades had made off with—or eaten—most of the goodies. Bee Bluff was also the scene of a Faulknerian tragedy: around the turn of the century the last bear in Newton County was done in here. "For a week they chased him with horses and hounds," Hedges related. "Finally they cornered him on the bluff, and the bear went over. A heck of a comedown, but bears have returned since then. So have deer, beaver and bobcats. Some say there are even some red wolves again, though I haven't seen their sign."

Roark Bluff slid past on the left, half a mile of imaginative physiognomy and utter silence. To the urban ear, such quiet is in itself disquieting—no jets overhead, no reassuring rip of tires on concrete, not even the hum of electricity as background noise. It takes a few hours for the ear to adjust, and then the natural sounds begin to fill in with a random background noise of their own: a grumble of rapids ahead, a quick slash of wood-duck wings, the enormous clashing rattle of an elephant (or was it a rabbit?) in the bankside brush. Benton worked his bow paddle and studied the bluffs in silence, looking like an aged Einstein with his rumpled white hair and untrimmed mustache. Then he shattered the image with a squirt of tobacco juice into the clear water.

On a gravel bar across the river from Big Bluff the canoes beached for lunch. Big Bluff is the highest cliff in the Ozarks, rising 750 feet above the riser in a convex double bulge. Along the seams of the bulges runs the Goat Trail, a tricky but beautiful vantage point which canoeists sometimes scale—half a sweaty hour each way—simply for the view of rolling green hills and snaking blue river below. While Margaret built ham-and-cheese sandwiches on slabs of her home-baked whole-wheat bread, John Callison searched for arrowheads. The region had been a favorite hunting and tool making ground of the Osage Indians, and the early French explorers called it Aux Arcs (of the bows), which was later corrupted to Ozark.

Bernie and Sammie dried their clothes and their tobacco, blissfully unaware of what would happen to them downstream, where the water got tough again. Benton studied the riffles: perhaps they reminded him, in their bright whorls of random color, of the later work of one of his students, Jackson Pollock. Then he munched a handful of watercress that Margaret had picked the previous evening. Watercress is not native to the Ozarks, Margaret explained. "I picked this batch from Nellie Villines' ditch in Boxley. There used to be a tomato cannery there, and the immigrant French girls who worked in it often had watercress in their lunch pails. They dumped their leftovers in the ditch, and now we have fresh watercress year-round. One of the few instances where littering paid."

Homely little touches of history like that are one of the dividends that accrue on the Buffalo. "There's an oral history here that's fading fast with each old farmer's passing." says Harold Hedges. The best of the local historians is Mrs. Orphea Duty, a birdlike little woman who until recently was the postmistress of Boxley. Orphy, as everyone calls her. is also the best cook around. Two tables, replete with fresh-cut flowers in season, are always set at Orphy's for anyone who drops in hungry for fried chicken, cherry tarts and Buffalo lore.

After lunch Benton took a nap on a mattress of life jackets—"nooning." he called it, "just like the quail do"—and then the party moved on. Just below Big Bluff, after a squiggle or two, the river forked around a wooded island. To the right: shoals and willow stubs, leaving the left-hand channel as the only alternative. With the river high, the chute was deceptive. Most of the snags were invisible, hinted at only by a few bulging hummocks of water, and the banks were thick with brush—sinuous willow as whippy as an Osage bow. "We'll have to run it between the rock and the hard place," said Hedges. "The trick is to keep to the middle, but the current doesn't like you to do that. It prefers to keep you to the left."

It kept B & S there. The bow of their canoe hit a willow stub with a thump that made Margaret—who was out of sight upstream—look up for the plane that had caused the sonic boom. Sammie catapulted skyward—all 228 pounds of him, eyes a-goggle, arms and paddle flailing—while Bernie did a slow roll to the right and disappeared with a rueful grin under the waves. Benton saw it all. His static old face cracked with laughter—"GAW damnit! Gaw DAMN! I never saw so nice a dive in my life!" he told Sammie when he finally washed up a couple of hundred yards below on a gravel bar. "From now on you're the River Diver. Son of a gun, I wish I'd had my sketchbook out. I wish I'd had an automatic sketchbook. Hey, Sammie. why don't you go back up there and do it over again?" Sammie coughed river water and belched blearily. Bernie's shirt went floating past underwater—a ghostly flash followed shortly by suntanned Bernie himself, spluttering and laughing.

"We've got to give that chute a name," said Margaret later. "How about Feeback's Fling?" Sammie would have laughed if he could have.

By now it was hot, Arkansas hot, with a thick stand of second-growth timber blocking the breeze. Fresh hatches of gnats buzzed in the swelter, and snakes rustled in the weeds. The party pulled in at Jim Bluff, a cool, long cave on the left-hand side where someone, years ago, had swung a cable from a ringbolt in the overhanging rock roof. "Swimmin' hole." said Benton. "Here's your gen-yoo-wine, oldtime, mythical swimmin' hole." Some of the group played Tarzan—whooping out on the cable to drop into the 60° water—while the others rested and looked for animal signs in the mud.

At Sneed Creek, Hedges pulled in to refill his canteen from a rill on the left bank. The Buffalo water is drinkable most of the year, but during periods of high water it carries a lot of gunk. Now the talk was growing apprehensive: Gray Rock was yet to be run, and it had dumped more people than any other rapids on the Buffalo's 125-mile journey to the White River. Margaret I ledges could talk of nothing else—every riffle, chute or dogleg on the river brought forth comparative images, and Gray Rock loomed larger and meaner in the imagination each time she spoke.

But anticipation breeds inattention. Just above Hemmed-In Hollow, a wooded, tight little valley on the left side of the river, the Buffalo turned tricky. Its heavy current threw a sidearm curveball at Bernie and Sammie, spilled them for the fourth time and wedged the bow of their canoe under a half-submerged willow tree. Looking back to enjoy the scene, Fred McCraw and John Callison slammed a stub and were also swamped. Once again Benton roared with laughter, but Hedges was unsmiling. "This is the kind of water that can kill you," he said as he worked the jammed canoe free. "That's why I never tie anything down in a canoe—not spare paddles or bailers or packs. You get a foot tangled in rope under a canoe that's being held down by tons of water, and you're not going to get out easily."

Next obstacle was Toilet Paper, so named because Harold and Margaret once marked it with strips of tissue for some laggard canoes that had never run the Buffalo before. In moderate water. Toilet Paper looks like a wet. warped staircase, dropping off at such an angle that it must be run from right to left at 45 degrees with lots of quick draw-and prystrokes to keep the canoe from hanging up. Today it was completely covered, and though every one of the party's canoes brushed briefly on the shoals, all came through without mishap. Just below, everybody stopped to look at Bear Cave Hollow, a narrow, wooded draw down which runs a clear, icy creek. The feeder stream spills over ledges of limestone that look like steps, and the Hedges have dubbed it Coors Creek, in honor of the beer. A can or two of the real thing might have been in order, what with the heat of the day and Gray Rock just ahead.

With all that anticipation—and five spills already racked up—Gray Rock was bound to be impressive. The roar of the rapids was audible half a mile upstream, and if that weren't enough a giant bluff guarded the left turn into the approach. Hedges beached the canoes for a reconnaissance. Benton looked up at the guard bluff and studied the contours. "Sho'," he said, "another face." And there it was—the guardian of Gray Rock, a warped head rising out of the shoulders of the bluff, gray and gritty, its eyes sealed in shadowy folds of stone. "He's glaring at us," said Benton. "He don't like these canoes breaking up his view of the rapids." The old man hitched at his crotch and spat to leeward. A few drops hit on his stained yellow shirt and spread slowly.

While Benton waited in his canoe the rest of the party scouted the rapids. It was not an anticlimax. Just below the turn under the glowering face a chute dropped for a third of a mile in a series of interlocked haystacks. Willow stubs lined both sides of the river. At the end of the chute the rock from which the rapids took its name seemed to block the river completely—a low, striated spur of black and gray that projected from the left bank and disappeared into frothy brush on the right. "Just before you reach the rock, if you get that far, you have to start drawing to the right," said Hedges. "The river makes a hard dogleg in that direction, and then it whips around hard left past the rock. The current will put you on the rock if it can." Then he ran his arms through a series of strokes, far clearer than his words, which told how to make the turns.

Hedges went back to the canoe while the others argued strategy and tactics, their voices rising in response to the river's noise. "I don't understand what they're doing," Benton complained. "What're they talking about so much? They'll have to do it. Why don't they just do it?" Hedges nodded and shoved off. The others followed.

Four of the five canoes made it safely, though all shipped water through the approach run, and one actually brushed Gray Rock without capsizing. Bernie and Sammie—their energy up and their coordination for once nearly perfect—slammed through the haystacks, made the tough, right-hand turn neatly (Sammie's wrestler's muscles drew the canoe half a foot to the right with each stroke), and then spilled spectacularly through the hard-left turn to wash ingloriously half a mile downstream to the next gravel bar. Gray Rock had been had, so to speak.

So had Sammie. As the party approached A Bluff (so named for a perfect capital A etched naturally near its crest), the B & S Show performed its last number—a wicked spill at the top of a quick chute that left Bernie clinging to a tree trunk and Sammie rolling down a 200-yard reach of boulders and white water. He emerged in mild shock. "I'm gonna walk out," he said. "Just point me in the right direction." He stumbled off into the growing dusk, with the river cackling behind him.

In camp that night the freedom from consequence Benton had described so many years ago became a reality for the party. The tents were up, taut and cool and canvas-smelling. Bobwhite quail whistled back and forth in the dusk. Slabs of cedar split from the ancient stumps left by the Eagle Pencil Company's loggers spluttered on the campfire, filling the air with pungent smoke. Sammie poked at steaks and fried potatoes with an enormous bowie knife and told wry stories about his days as a professional wrestler. The others laughed and sipped bourbon, content in knowing that dinner would be ready soon and there still would be four more days on the river. The time scale had shifted—four days could be a lifetime if you let it.

Benton sat apart from the group, watching the river flow past in silence. Then he shuffled back to the fire and poured himself the last of the day's bourbons. "I hope the hell they can keep the engineers away from this river," he said. "We've gotten so damned serious with our technology. Americans used to play with their rivers—Mike Fink and the keelboatmen, that kind of thing. Joyful work it was. If every American could run the Buffalo just once, the way we did today, then I think our rivers would be beyond the reach of trouble." He looked over at Sammie Feeback and dropped a little gravel into his voice. "Well, when do we eat, you gaw-damn old river diver, you?"

TWO PHOTOSSTEPHEN GREEN-ARMYTAGEBENTON savors a touch of bourbon after a rough day's run during which he had been bowman for another river lover, Harold Hedges. PHOTOSTEPHEN GREEN-ARMYTAGECANOES move lazily on a quiet stretch of the river beneath Big Bluff, 750 feet above. PHOTOSTEPHEN GREEN-ARMYTAGEFRED McCRAW, WHO TURNED TO WATCH THE B & S SHOW AT HEMMED-IN HOLLOW, CAPSIZED AND TOOK A CHILLY SPILL HIMSELF TWO PHOTOSSTEPHEN GREEN-ARMYTAGETHE BUFFALO ran high, and the smoother sections (below) were a welcome change from the wild water rushing among trees and rocks.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)