A Short Story on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

The Red Canoe 
by Gordon Eskridge (Jul 2009)

The trip down the Illinois River is made by hundreds of canoeists each year, and it is a fun trip for all who have a good basic training and pay attention to what they are doing. Each year there is at least one person’s life that ends because they fail to follow safe canoeing rules. Number one is - wear a life jacket. Second is - no “playing around.”  Canoeing is fun on its own and living out the rest of your life is worth doing.

The Illinois River Canoeing area is located in Eastern Oklahoma and runs from Twin Falls near Watts south down Highway 10 to Highway 62 just northeast of Tahlequah. It has been used as a canoe float-trip river for many years. It is primarily a slow moving, shallow river of clear water. The river ranges in depth from a few inches to three or four feet deep, and it is a few yards wide to ten yards in a few areas. There are several canoe and rafting outfitters along the river and several group campsites and public camping areas.

I have been on the river several times with my wife and children and have been a chaperone for canoe float-trips when my children became older and their church or school groups went on a float-trip.

One summer Rosemary and I were having a cookout at a farm with some friends of ours, Bud and Kay Myers. We went to the same church, and Rosemary and I had helped build their home at the farm. I was talking about a recent canoe trip on the Illinois River, and Bud said that he would like to float the Illinois River, also. He said that he would like to do some fishing on the river. I told him that sounded like fun. So we asked our wives what they thought of that, and they said that it was a great idea.

We made plans to go on the next weekend. We would camp out at the public camping area where the canoes were taken from the river and returned up stream by the river rafting and canoe companies.

My old canvas-over-wood canoe needed a fresh coat of red paint. So I turned it bottom side up on a pair of saw horses. My two daughters, Samantha the red-headed eight-year old and Jennifer the six-year old brunette, just had to help me paint. We gave the canvas cover a new coat of barn red, outdoor enamel paint. When it dried, I recoated the wood trim with marine spar varnish, and the canoe looked like new.

Our third daughter, Jeanna, another brunette of two years, was helping Rosemary make lunch in the kitchen. The cooks had the healthy lunch of tuna fish sandwiches, tossed salad and ice cold lemonade ready for the painters right on time.

Thursday night, Rosemary and I put the canoe on the canoe rack on top of the red 1968 Volkswagen bug. We then strapped the paddles, ice chest, life vests, tent and other camping gear over, under, and around the canoe and tied them all down. The fishing gear was under the canoe. The next morning we were up early. We packed the kids, clothes, and food, and at six a.m. we were on our way to Tahlequah and Riverside Park, 195 miles away, to meet the Myers Family and set up our camp.

At ten-thirty a.m. we met the Myers family and set up our combined campsite. The girls had made plans to swim and read books and maybe shop in nearby Tahlequah. Rosemary said that she would drop us off at Comb’s Bridge at mile marker thirty-four-point-six on the Illinois River, and we would float down to Riverside Park mile marker fifty-eight-point-eight, by late that afternoon, a distance of about twenty-two miles by the river or ten miles by road.

The Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission has conveniently placed mileage markers at strategic points along the river with large brown signs with white lettering to identify where you are along the river. We drove north on Highway 10 to Comb’s Bridge Public Access point to unload the canoe and the supplies that we were taking in the canoe.

We took our watches and billfolds and lunch and put them into a water-tight container and tied it to the canoe thwart. We then tied our tackle boxes to the canoe and put on our life jackets and stored our fishing rods. I kissed Rosemary and told her that I would see her that afternoon. We boarded the canoe and our adventure had begun.

The first part of the river was about three feet deep and very clear. We could see the bottom very well and often saw small mouth bass swimming from the bank out to catch bugs on the surface and then diving back to the shadows near the bank. Bud and I practiced paddling and steering the canoe in this fairly straight and slow moving part of the river. The river moves at a medium walking pace most of the time of three to four miles per hour. So we should reach camp by seven that evening.

At mile marker thirty-seven, we came to the first curve in the trip and everything was going swell. At the bend, we found two girls with an overturned canoe. We beached our canoe to help them. The girls were from the collage at Tahlequah. We emptied out the water from their canoe and gathered their things and got them started again. They waved to us and said, “Thanks again,” as they headed downstream.

Around the next bend in the river was a five-mile straight stretch. So Bud and I got out our fishing gear and started fishing for bass. As we fished our way down the river, several canoes of people passed us. One was a large family with Dad and three children in one and Mom and two children in the other. They were laughing and splashing each other and having a great time.

When we passed No Head Hollow Public Access Point, Bud’s rod bent double. I thought he had snagged his hook on something, but I soon changed my mind as the fish leaped from the water and started up stream. Bud had hooked onto a large smallmouth bass, and the fight was on. Because Bud was in the bow of the canoe, I could steer us into the beach where he jumped out of the canoe and started up stream following the fish. Bud soon had the fish under control and netted. We put the fish on the stringer and decided to have lunch on the beach.

The two girls we had met earlier were just finishing their lunch nearby, and they came over and gave us some cookies they had brought with them. They said they were having a good time and had to go so they jumped into their canoe and were off again.

After lunch Bud checked his fish, and we boarded our canoe and set off again. Soon we were on the Sparrow Hawk Loop that goes around Sparrow Hawk Mountain. The first thing we saw was Elephant Rock, which does look a little like an Elephant. Sparrow Hawk Loop is a little over twelve miles around but by the road it is only two miles.

Bud and I caught several smallmouth bass and were having a great time until we passed Todd’s Landing. The river bent sharply to the right and the current sped up a lot as the river narrowed to a few feet. It became a downhill slide. Bud and I were paddling in reverse, but it was doing no good. The rocks were flashing by at a high rate of speed on one side, and the bank on the other just a few feet away was just a blur. We dropped over a small falls and just felt out of control. We came to another sharp bend in the river and another drop. At the bottom of this drop, there was a snag in the middle of the river. It was a tree with most of its limbs broken off and the sharp ends pointing up at us. As we flew towards it with no way to stop or turn, there was a hard jolt and the sound of tearing fabric and splintering wood along with the rushing sound of the river falling over the rocks and rushing by the canoe. We were impaled on the snag, just missing Bud. We soon found ourselves fighting to get out of the canoe and the high-speed water and onto shore through the trees limbs.

After several minutes of breathing hard, we dried ourselves off as best we could. The adrenalin had slowed down, and the sound of blood pumping in our ears had stopped. We started planning on how to recover our equipment and retrieve the canoe. Some of the fishing gear had been swept downstream. The tree had snagged one of the canoe paddles; I had made it to shore with the other. Once we had recovered most of our equipment, we rested for a short time.

Bud climbed out on the tree and started pushing the impaled canoe upstream, and I pulled it with the stern tie-down rope from the shore. We struggled, pushed, pulled and strained against the fast moving river. When we had the canoe off the snag, I tied the rope to a tree and waited until Bud could get back off the tree snag. We pulled the canoe out of the river and let our fish go. We loaded our equipment into the canoe. We checked the river map as to our location and decided to go over the mountain one mile to the road instead of six miles carrying the canoe and our equipment down the river to Echota River Access Point.

I am still not sure that this was the best idea. Although it was only half a mile up and then half a mile down, it was not in a straight line. Through the trees, over and around the rocks, up and over bushes, and slipping and sliding while carrying a sixteen-foot canoe is not what I had pictured in my mind.

About an hour later, with many scrapes and scratches and tired everything, we reached the road. We flagged down a car. Bud rode into town and to the Riverside Camp Ground while I stayed with the canoe and equipment.

Soon the little red bug arrived with screeching brakes and flying gravel. My favorite girlfriend and wife Rosemary, all five-foot-two and eyes of blue, one hundred and five pounds of energy and a brain to go with it, bails out of the car with her reddish brown hair flying. In her Texas twang, she calls out to me, “Are you all right? You really scared me!” I jumped into her waiting arms, held her close and told her that everything was all right and held her until we both stopped trembling. Bud and I loaded the canoe, and we called it a day.

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