Sunday, September 14, 2008
At a flow rate of one thousand cubic feet per second, the Cossatot River in western Arkansas becomes a Class V stream for kayakers and canoeists. The name Cossatot was conferred on the stream by west Arkansas Indians way back when. In the Indian language, the word literally means “skullcrusher” — and after you see Cossatot Falls for the first time, it does not take a long stretch of your imagination to see why the name fits perfectly.
Rocks as big as a small house or a large pickup truck jut up from the stream bed, threatening to wreak destruction and havoc on those foolhardy enough to ply the swollen waters. There exists, however, a hardy group of special people, who, while harboring an enormous respect for the river, relish the thought of throwing themselves and their small craft at the very worst ol’ Miz Cossatot can conjure up. These few hardy souls are Class V qualified kayakers. They make it look easy.
Hurricane Gustav in early September dumped a deluge on Arkansas. The real estate around the Cossatot was no exception. In fact, on September 2, it went from around two feet to about twelve feet in less than a day’s time, the day in 2008 when Gustav really hammered the region. Having watched the river’s level from a distance via the Internet, my heart rate picked up when I saw the latest results.
“In a couple of days,” I mused to Self, “the river should be perfect for the really, sho-nuff bad-boy kayakers.” And I wanted to see them squarely in my viewfinder.
With this in mind, I made reservations at the hostelry nearest to the remote Cossatot — in Glenwood, Arkansas, still some forty miles from the river. Camping out, for me, has lost its glamour. I favor more commodious accommodations. Decadent, yes. But there’s something to be said in favor of comfort.
I arrived at the Cossatot to be pleasantly taken aback by the presence of my friend hisself, the intrepid Chuck Haralson, one of the finest outdoor photographers ever to draw breath. He was unloading his gear with a mind akin to my own. Chuck is — and has been for years — the photo guru of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. If it is cool, and if it is in Arkansas, believe me, Chuck has shot it, and shot it well.
His work is seen and admired globally.
Turns out, Chuck had made arrangements with three of the finest Class V kayakers around to run the rapids and serve as targets for his Nikon. Pumped and eager, Tommy Wingard and Jason and Sabrina Mellor were rarin’ to float the roaring, turbuent skullcrusher.
These three Class V pros are truly amazing athletes. As cool as a cucumber, they push their tiny craft into the jaws of certain disaster, only to emerge unscathed and grinning from ear-to-ear. They calmly paddle around the turbid waters above the falls, plotting their next path as nonchalantly as you and I cruise a parking lot looking for a space to in which to temporarily abandon a vehicle.
It is a humbling experience to stand in the midst of a visible power so much greater than oneself. It defies adequate description. And as if that’s not enough, to watch people throw themselves into the midst of that power and masterfully dodge the bullet with calmness and skill. What a pleasant way to be put in one’s place.
N O T E S:
Most of the time, there is more to the Photo of the Week story than can be told in an essay. And most of the time there are more pictures to be seen. Presuming that some folk will enjoy being privy to this trove of information, I have created a blog, “Weekly Grist for the Eyes and Mind,” where I am showing and telling “the rest of the story." There are also some blatantly commercial mentions of some of the things we do to earn our beans and taters. Click on the Weekly Grist logo and go to the blog. — J. D.