Monday, March 14, 2011

Exploratory Road Trip

We took a 263 miles road trip today to scout out the upper reaches of the North Canadian River in Oklahoma to determine how much of it would be navigable by canoe. The North Canadian River forms east of Des Moines, Union County, New Mexico, then flows through the Texas Panhandle, and then into the Oklahoma Panhandle near Texoma, southwest of Guymon. It travels southeast across the state before meeting the Arkansas River near Fort Smith, Arkansas. Along with the Cimarron and the main Canadian Rivers, it serves as the drainage basin for most of Oklahoma. Once the North Canadian crosses the Oklahoma state line, it is renamed the Beaver River until it reaches Fort Supply, and then it becomes the North Canadian again. Once it gets to Oklahoma City, it becomes the Oklahoma River until it gets through town, and then it’s the North Canadian again. Don’t ask me why. I would be the very last to be able to explain it.
Beaver River near Laverne, OK.  Notice cribbing to
catch trees before they get hung in the bridge during flood stage.

While a flowing river conjures one mental image, we found quite another. By the time we reached Laverne, which is right where the Oklahoma Panhandle begins, the stream becomes so serpentine and narrow that a 17-ft. canoe or kayak would hit the banks with both bow and stern trying to follow the twists and turns. A check of the water gauge at Beaver indicates the stream is almost right on its 32 year average. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to do the trip with much more water. As I found at Canton, we saw several fields where farmers have run five or six strands of barbed wire across the river. Being washed into a tangle of barbed wire by higher and faster waters could not only be painful and damaging to the boat, but fatal if one got hung in the wire during a freshet.
Notice barbed wire across river.

Once past Fort Supply, the run-off from Fort Supply Lake adds to the volume of the stream, and we began to see sections with promise of wildlife and natural, rarely touched surroundings. The points to keep in mind when running the river is that one must be prepared for anything. The paddler would be in long stretches of open prairie where help would be hard to come by, and where rattlesnakes, moccasins, and quicksand are reportedly not uncommon.

We had a few interesting occurrences during the day. The first was getting stopped by a state trooper who wanted to know what I was doing standing in the middle of the bridge. Pedestrians are not a common sight on the plains, and are bound to attract attention. A bit later, I had walked out onto another bridge on Rt. 50, east of Woodward. Just on the east side of the bridge were a bunch of bridge pilings. They were only the height of the banks, would have been for a narrow, one-lane, and most likely wooden bridge, and were obviously of some antiquity. As soon as we left the bridge we found a historical marker that identified the route as the Fort Dodge (Dodge City, KS), Fort Supply, Fort Reno (near Oklahoma City) Military Road. After the Second Battle of Adobe Walls in June of 1874, the route was established to move troops quickly over the plains to counter larger Indian attacks. The route was commonly used by six-mule-team Army supply wagons, stage coaches, and the Pony Express. Fort Supply had six military roads leading to and from it, and was a major supply depot for military campaigns on the Southern Great Plains. In fact, it was from here that Lt. Col. George A. Custer led the 7th Infantry for the winter campaigns of 1868 and 1869. Anything west of Fort Supply was known as No Man’s Land, and that hasn’t changed much, but if you want a look at the real Southern Great Plains, it runs to the horizon in any direction you look.

Southern Great Plains

While trying to discover some redeeming feature of the Cimarron River as a paddling river after we left the North Canadian, we happened to discover that we were near the point where Nathaniel Boone, son of Daniel Boone, had crossed the Cimarron and camped in 1843 while under orders from Col. Zachery Taylor to explore the plains and find the reported large salt deposits near present-day Mooreland, OK. Forgive me if this sojourn into history appears non-paddling related, but I find exploring a bit of the history of a river adds a lot to the intrigue of paddling it. The waterways were to early America literally what arteries are to the human body. Whether Native Americans, trappers, explorers, settlers, traders, surveyors or cowboys driving herds of cattle, they followed and crisscrossed every waterway. They provided drinking water, food, transportation, trails, protection, crop irrigation, and in every way were the foundation of life in all the new territories. I mentioned the Battle of Adobe Walls. While not directly related to the area of the river we were exploring, it makes for interesting reading at:

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