Run a River Like Huck Finn

Mississippi rivers in southeastern Arkansas

Special outdoor adventures deserve to be called by special names. We call ours "The Survival Trip." It began in 1996. I wanted to plan an unforgettable outing with my sons Matt, Shaun, Jared and Zach. I considered many options and decided on one that seemed perfect: a 60-mile float down the lower Arkansas and Mississippi rivers in southeastern Arkansas. Three friends joined us-"Uncle Bill" Hailey and Lewis Peeler and his son Justin.

Rain poured as we left the ramp below Wilbur Mills Dam-five boys and three men in a canoe and two johnboats. Game Boys, radios and all other modern conveniences were banned. Camping gear we had, but other than sandwich fixings, our food had to come from the river-no fish, no supper.

Rules were banned as well. The boys could run wild.

The sun soon returned. We swam, fished and explored. Civilization disappeared. No roads, no homes, no signs of people-only the river and the wilderness around it. The boys were eager to be on their own, so we made camp at noon and said goodbye. Justin soon returned with a nice bass. The other boys wrestled in a shallow pool, getting caked in mud. Leaves were added for camouflage. They were river rats, for sure.

We feasted that night on Justin's catch, then retired to the tents. Our adventure had just begun.

On day two I rose to find our boats were gone. The river had risen six feet. I woke the others and cast off on an air mattress. "What if you don't find them, Dad?" the boys asked. "Then pick me up in New Orleans."

I found the boats a short way downstream. We rounded them up and broke camp. Lewis, Justin and Bill floated ahead. The boys and I followed on a raft of air mattresses.

White sandbars stretched to the horizon. We stopped now and then to swim and fish, but mostly we floated, watching the scenery unfold. None of us had ever felt so far from civilization.

We camped at the mouth of the Arkansas. As the boys fished for catfish in the first currents of the Mississippi, I told tales of early explorers. When DeSoto and his men landed here in 1542, Shakespeare had not yet been born. In 1673, Marquette and Joliet feasted here with local Indians. LaSalle, in 1682, set up a huge cross and took possession of the country for his king. Mark Twain was here, and so was Audubon. Some of the most memorable events connected with the exploration of the Mississippi River occurred in the place where we dreamt that night.

On day three the Mississippi swallowed us. "It's huge!" said Matt. "It's gigantic!" exclaimed Shaun. Then civilization rejoined us. We saw homes, roads, barges and litter-no more wilderness. Unfortunately, all good things must end. The Survival Trip was over.

We survived it. And each year since, we've gone back to do it again.

Contact: Arkansas Game & Fish Commission (800-364-4263; www.agfc.com).
Keith Sutton