Come on Parnell. Lighten up a bit. You’re too much of an optimist to dwell on the bottom. Particularly in this season of celebration. Let’s have some fun to start the new year with!
So, here’s another one you might ask about. What does this have to do with water quality and environmental stewardship? How about nothing? Or maybe something?
There is a cultural component to the Ozarks which is difficult to quantify, yet at risk to the same degradation as her waters. I’ll stand on that in recycling a piece I contributed to Missouri State’s Elder Mountain, Journal of Ozarks Studies in 2013. It’s a true story.
Be it resolved that this writ
be the official
LAST MAN PACT
in memory of our many years floating
together on the old Buff; our trials and
tribulations, our love and our grievances;
but all with the common end of a greater
love of nature and our fellow man –
to whom this pact is dedicated.
We hereby swear that the final survivor
of this group will hang this plaque on the
landmark Elephant’s Head; in memory of
his departed brethren who have floated that
Signed: Arch Lowe, Jr., Pres.
William Snead, Vice Pres.
Fred Caller, Treas.
Bill Park, Sect.
MARCH 11, 1966
(from the lid of a toilet seat)
I was touched by an angel today –amazingly, unexpectedly, emotionally touched. Dr. Arch Lowe Jr. is neither an angel nor a toucher, but his shaking deep voice carried vibes from beyond.
It was Monday, April 11, 2005, and we had just returned from a Rush to Buffalo City float on a high, fast, spring Buffalo River. Dr. Lowe had identified a need, and a swarthy group of adventurers, led by his grandson Arch Watson, stepped up to fulfill it. This just three months after we had put his lifelong friend and fishing guide Burl Cox to rest, and thirty nine years after “The Last Man Pact”was executed.
In January, Arch, another friend Dr. Peter D’Houbler, and I had driven to Yellville for Burl’s interment in Walnut Hill Cemetery, Cotter, Arkansas. Dr. Lowe was too ill to join us.
It was an occasion befitting of the man. Many showed up in the country chapel to say goodbye to Burl. The one concession to technology, a perpetual slide show of Burl in various reposes of hunting and fishing, told a story of bigger deer, taller turkeys, monster smallmouth, and a man much larger than his humble upbringing. Many attended, most smiled, and several followed the casket, replete with smallmouth bass handles, to the hearse and cemetery. “The woods were his office, the river his way home,”intoned Brother Jack Gilliland as we laid him torest. Burl had died tending his cattle on a cool winter morning, between deer and spring turkey season. Son Ben wrote of Burl in a High School essay, “People in these parts say Burl’s the most memorable man they have ever met, and I would proudly agree.” His life, and love for it, touched many of us.
Dr. Lowe’s connection to the Buffalo River, and Burl Cox, went back over fifty years. His was one of those small groups of friends who chose to commemorate their friendship communing with the Buffalo over extended life times. I know of many who have found solace and continuity in this bond, but none who practiced it longer or more religiously than Dr. Lowe and his doctor friends, Dr. William Snead, Dr. Fred Caller, and Dr. Bill Park. Consider the personal pact each signed, in blood or scotch, depending on which story stands. It was in writing, and called for the last soul living, “last man standing”as it were, to place a toilet seat on Elephant Head Rock. All lived long lives with many Buffalo floats, but in the end, Dr. Lowe, the last one standing, was too infirm to deliver the goods.
Moved by the gravity of his pledge to dear friends, and his reputation as a man of his word, Dr. Lowe sought a solution compatible with his promise. Enter grandson Arch Watson, and his band of merry misfits. We love the Buffalo as well, without the seasoned passion of the “last one standing”, but deep enough to know this was an obligation for the ages, that a toilet seat needed to be placed atop the lower Buffalo iconic bluff, or circles would fall short of full. And, if you believe in God, Mother Buffalo, and Smallmouth bass, full circles abound and intersect throughout life’s course. Philosophical discourse aside, Dr. Lowe needed bold action, and he needed it soon.
“Tuesday, March 15, 2005, 9:19 AM
Subject: Last Man Standing
Float is on for 9thand 10thof April for the Last Man Standing Memorial. I have been visiting with my grandfather about the trip and he is excited about the number of guys going (10). He has shown some concern about us staying warm and I assured him that the tent heaters, Budweiser, and Johnny Walker will take care of that. He acknowledged, with a grin, that we should be just fine.
We will be putting in at Rush around 10AM and floating 16 miles to High Burr Bluff where we will make camp. Then Sunday, we will float 2.5 miles to Elephant Head to deposit the Last Man Standing Memorial. From there we will have only 5 miles to our takeout at Buffalo City.
Dinner will be provided Saturday night by Chef Manzardo and breakfast Sunday morning by whomever can stumble of out their tent and start a fire.
Grandson Arch clearly had matters in hand. The date was set. We had to go early spring or the underbrush would be too thick to reach the rock face. None of us had ever climbed up to the rock. Photos from all river angles were distributed and studied. Looked like we would have to settle for the sunken eyes on the big pachyderm head, as to venture higher would require technical climbing skills. It also appeared we could scale the left facing side. Really wouldn’t know for sure until we got there. We cast a wary eye on water and weather. This was sounding crazier and loonier by the day, but who could let down Dr. Lowe? Names were added and dropped from the roster. Dr. Snead’s son, Steve, was a prize addition.
The next challenge was the toilet seat. The one the men had signed was a real one. Straight up American Standard. While none of us were environmentally pure, the thought of leaving an old toilet seat on a bluff in the middle of the Buffalo National River watershed, seemed crass if not downright sinful, regardless of story line. Arch resolved to make a replica. Something biodegradable? How about papier-mache? We could add their oath and names, and lay it to wrest to crinkle into dust like us all. We would fulfill the promise and protect the object of their affection –The Buffalo River. Dr. Lowe agreed.
“Monday, April 4, 2005, 9:50 AM
Subject: Last Man Standing
Things are looking good. I have two items I need help with. I don’t know how to make a papier-mache toilet seat. Can you help me out with that one? Also my grandfather has requested that we say a prayer when we hang the pact. My gut tells me you would be the man for this job. Can I count on you for that one?
I couldn’t help much with the paper toilet seat, but who could say no to the prayer?
The weekend dawned warm and wet. Not sure we would have proceeded with cold and wet. Water was high, very high, and clearing –barely below flood stage. The folks at Wild Bill’s Canoe Rental just south of Yellville reluctantly rented us a couple of canoes, based solely on our fabricated claims of experience and expertise, and somewhat hesitantly put us in. Several of us brought our own canoes. Chef Manzardo had a big honkin’outboard mounted on the back of his square stern canoe. I had my little 14’6”Mad River. Others paired off.
Things would likely be okay if we made it through Clabber Creek Shoal just below put-in. The boys at Wild Bill’s warned “you’ve got to get to the left or the haystacks will sink you.” They knew of what they spoke.
Picture this: a big dogleg left then right. Clabber Creek comes in just below Rush and the so-named rapid requires a center entry as water, particularly at high tide, tends to push right toward big rocks. It is not difficult to draw left of the rocks, but as the chute channels left then back right haystacks rise like mountains, and must be crossed early to get back to the relative calm of the left bank. Straight, left, right, cross –sounds simple enough.
Arch and Steve Cox went first. No problem. This is what I remember next. I hit the hole about right, pulled left to cross, and found myself unable to do anything but point her downstream and hold on for dear life. Guess I had drifted too far right to begin with. My canoe bobbed up and down over the stacks like a cork in the ocean. Water poured over the bow at each dip. Mercifully I was soon through, limping to the left gravel bar to dump my heavy load. About then, Chef Manzardo and his big-A motor came roaring and bouncing cross current. At full throttle and with no weight in the front, he was virtually airborne over the first major haystack, and each thereafter. If he had flapped his arms like a goose, he surely would have taken flight. Instead, his death grip on the motor handle and verbal exhortations, which included the “S”word in multiple regressions, brought to mind a skipped flat stone that sailed amidst the epithets of its hurler. When he landed, it was hard. Huntsman went through backwards, as if by plan.
And then there was TEAM Fielder. Thankfully someone took a picture for I could never recreate from memory the apparition that emerged last in the long line of canoes. Bryan sat poised in the bow, waist deep in water, paddle cocked, ready for the next challenge. Deep in the stern only a head and life jacket showed. Between the two floated coolers and gear. Something was obviously missing. The Canoe. There was no canoe to be seen in this sea of tranquility. It was there, just floating along in a submerged state, neither totally sunk nor afloat, ferrying cargo impeccably down the swollen river. Neither occupant seemed overly concerned and actually seemed to be enjoying the ride. It was finally suggested that they may wish to pull over, dump the water, refloat the boat, and carry on. Fielder casually agreed, and soon all canoes were present and accounted for. Someone even caught a Smallmouth in the beige water. Macallan scotch, large steaks, and a magnificent campsite beneath High Burr carried the evening as we began deep mental preparations for the momentous task to come next morning.
All awoke in a state of intense anticipation and frozen breath. We staggered to canoes to resume our quest. It really wasn’t that bad, and we were all pretty pumped.
Sun shone, water glistened, and we paddled intently, throwing a stray cast or two along the way. There was a mission to be accomplished, a story to be finished, a promise to be fulfilled.
Soon, Elephant Head Rock loomed ahead. We pulled in and began the ascent. All except TEAM Fielder, remarkably still afloat, which sacrificed the moment to record it on film for history. We clambered up through thorns and bushes and finally landed on a ledge resting at elephant eye level. None of us had ever been there before. The heirs to the legend, Arch and Steve, spoke emotionally of their predecessors. Then it was time for a quick prayer from Reverend Parnell. Six foot eight inch tall Steve Cox hoisted the biodegradable toilet seat to a crevice along the left eye socket. Then, believe it or not, four low flying F something-or-other fighter planes roared up the river. One peeled off directly over Elephant Head Rock with an accompanying sonic boom –on cue, in honor, saintly salute –whatever. I couldn’t make this up.
There was magic on the mountain that high noon in early April. This circle was unbroken.
It was 10:20 on Monday April 11 when Dr. Lowe got to me on his second try. His rich, deep, 85 year old voice trembled slightly. “Wanted to talk to you in person. Thank you very much for going with Little Arch yesterday. I think your prayer added a proper touch to it. Bye son.” The Last Man Standing passed on to join his floatin’friends less than a year later.
“A greater love of nature and our fellow man –to whom this pact is dedicated.” Wow. It had been an emotional voyage. I once again felt part of the history of this stunning valley.
Coming Next, January 15, 2019 – A FLOAT TRIP