Outing Club braves floods during break

By Matt Day

A steady rain was falling as a group of Macalester students bedded down in tents on the banks of the Buffalo River in Arkansas on March 18. When they looked out the next morning, the downpour had turned into a flood.The riverbank where they were camped was now an island surrounded by a rapidly rising river. Their escape route, a steep mountainside across a small stream, was no longer an option. The stream had deepened and was now linked with the main channel of the river.

As the rain continued to fall their only option was to put canoes into the water and ride out the worst flood to hit the river since 1913.

The Outing Club’s Spring Break canoe trip had begun three days earlier, under much less life-threatening circumstances. Eight Macalester students, led by Frederik Flagstad ’08 and Justin Lee ’08, drove nearly 700 miles to Arkansas in a college-owned van the first Saturday of spring break.

Flagstad and Lee, who had canoed the Buffalo River Spring Break 2007 with the Outing Club, had wanted to go to Texas this year. When planning fell through, the familiar Arkansas river became the obvious option.

The plan was for the group to canoe at a leisurely pace for three days, camping along the river as they went. They would meet Tuesday afternoon with their outfitter, who would take them back to their van.

The group was to spend their last three days hiking.

The forecast called for rain, but only enough to increase the river level by one inch, Lee said.

“We were on the river last year,” Lee said. “We knew it could rise. But we didn’t know it could rise that much.”

The Buffalo River, which runs for 135 miles through the limestone bluffs of the Ozark Mountains, is one of the few remaining rivers in the continental United States without a dam.

The group put their four canoes into the water at Pruitt Landing Sunday and paddled without incident, stopping in the early evening to camp.

Monday went less smoothly. The river level, already high because of unusual runoff from snowmelt, left low trees and shrubs hanging over the banks of the river. Those banks and the rocks in the channel proved difficult to navigate for one canoe’s crew.

Abe Levine ’11, steering for the first time Monday, met with mixed success. His canoe flipped on rocks twice. A third time, he was not able to avoid a low hanging tree that knocked his partner, Julia Tyler ’10, out of the canoe. The tree left Tyler dazed in the water, Levine hanging from a branch, and the canoe floating peacefully downstream without its occupants.

With the help of Flagstad, Levine and Tyler found their lost canoe beached a mile downstream. They met with the rest of the group and camped for the night on a sandy peninsula.

After dinner it started raining. As the night went on the rain intensified and was joined by thunder.

“At about 8:30 a.m., Adam Bidwell [’11] stuck his head out of the tent and said ‘um, guys?'” Flagstad said.

The river, 60-70 feet wide the night before, was twice that size. The water, which had changed color from green to brown, was flowing faster, and it was still raining.

“It was like being in the middle of Gladiator, you saw all these dead things floating by in the water,” Levine said.

“We knew the island we were on was going to be underwater soon,” Lee said. “The river was definitely in flood stage. We’d joked that if there was a time when something went wrong, we’d say ‘Move!’ and everybody would spring into action.”

Something had gone wrong, and after being waked by the shouts of Flagstad and Lee, the crew packed up and was in the water in less than half an hour.

“I was in the lead canoe, Justin in the last,” Flagstad said. “And we just paddled and prayed to god that none of us flip.”

With the four most experienced paddlers steering, the team tried to keep their canoes in the center of the channel to avoid submerged trees and rocks. After about half an hour of looking for a place to get out of the river, they were waved to the shore by a volunteer park ranger.

“We were just happy to be warm,” Flagstad said.

By the time the rain stopped Wednesday, the Buffalo River had risen by 15 feet. The flooding was widespread, and continues to affect areas of Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, and Texas. Seventeen deaths have been linked to the disaster, two of which occurred on the Buffalo.

Lee called Director of Security Terry Gorman at Macalester as soon as they were out of the river and had cell phone reception.

“Terry was in his stress mode.he was worried that he hadn’t heard from us,” Lee said. “I called him, told him we were OK.”

The group salvaged what they could of the trip, staying overnight in a hotel and spending the rest of the week hiking on higher ground.

“It was a good experience,” Flagstad said. “I know we’d all do it again. But preferably under safer circumstances.