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  • July 26th, 2019


By Joel M. Vance


Last week I wrote about observing the advent of a new year by getting locked out of my motel room in subfreezing temperatures, wearing only my jockey shorts. This week I’m writing about observing the advent of a new year by shivering in subfreezing temperatures on a gravel bar on Missouri’s incomparable and lovely Current River awaiting the arrival of the baby new year.


A digression: (Donald Trump says he can end the country’s apparently endless war in Afghanistan in 10 days, and he has an undisclosed plan for doing it. I have a suggested plan for him and I’ll share it with everyone — equip him with an AR 15 and a one-way ticket to Afghanistan, parachute him into the middle of a Taliban-occupied section of that Middle Eastern rock pile with the cheery farewell , “Will check back with you in 10 days.”)


Meanwhile, back on the shore of the Current River, the waning old year is silent, save for the almost inaudible burble of the moving water, the occasional mournful questioning of a barred owl, and the incessant and strident chanting of a whippoorwill.


For many years it had been the custom of the members of the Ozark Wilderness Waterways Club, a canoeing group based in Kansas City, to celebrate the end of the old year, the advent of the new year, by canoeing a stretch of the Current, camping out on a gravel bar and chastely partying away the last few moments of the dying year.


As wild parties go, it could not have been more tame. While much of the country was celebrating New Year’s Eve by getting snot-flying drunk, we were brewing tea and hot chocolate over a camp stove, and huddling around a welcome campfire, watching sparks eddy into the star shot sky. At least, I was not locked out of this celebration. Anyone with a canoe and a tolerance for odd celebration was welcome to join the group.


The culmination of the evening, as is true of all New Year’s Eve celebrations, was to welcome the arrival of the new year in some way. In New York City, thousands would be gathered in Times Square waiting for the celebrated ball to drop. More of the country would be gathered in front of a television set watching that same Manhattan ceremony in comfort— or doing what the Vances usually do on New Year’s Eve, watching the inside of our eyelids.


Another digression: (The other night I watched a classic 1950s sci-fi movie “The Blob” with Steve McQueen. The premise was that an alien gelatinous goo somehow got released in a small town where Steve was an unruly teenager, and began gulping town folk and of course no one believed the rowdy kid when he told them there was a monster on the loose. Our hero in this cinematic masterpiece discovered that the blob could be frozen by spraying it with the contents of a CO2 fire extinguisher. Finally he rallied the townsfolk and all the fire extinguishers available and flash froze the Jell-O gone wild. Considering that CO2 emissions are considered largely responsible for today’s global warming, the town’s wholesale spewing of it into the atmosphere was an ominous sign 60 years before we recognized the danger. The Air Force swooped in and lifted the frozen blob and flew it to the Arctic and dumped it there on the ice, presumably rendering it harmless in an eternal cocoon of ice. But, prophetically, McQueen wryly mumbled the eerie final line of the movie, “We’re okay as long as the Arctic stays cold.”)


Back on the Current River, I watched as the canoe group prepared for the penultimate moment of celebration. One paddler, garbed as the old year, tottered to a canoe, imitating an arthritic elder on the verge of life’s end, clambered into the canoe and drifted downstream, feebly waving farewell. Then, from the upstream darkness appeared a second canoe occupied by the baby new year— a spectacle which has lived in my memory for many years and never will fade.


Baby New Year was none other than Nancy Jack who had last worn a diaper decades before. There is no adequate way to describe Nancy, a legend among Missouri canoe drivers. A veteran newspaper reporter, she was a fierce environmentalist, an inveterate chain smoker, with skin the approximate texture of worn-out cowboy chaps.  Nancy was a beautiful person buried in a homely exterior. You were likely to run into her anywhere south of the Missouri River, but most likely deep in the Ozarks, and almost always either on or coming from or heading to a river to explore.


Despite her ferocious cigarette addiction, Nancy lived 80 years, all of them lively and fully realized. We greeted this small, homely legend representing the next 365 days with a cheer and hopes that those days would be as optimistic and fun filled as Nancy herself.


There, on the shore of the nation’s first National Scenic Riverway, I celebrated a frosty New Year’s Eve and I can testify that it not only was it the most memorable of any I’ve experienced but it was light years more preferable watching Nancy Jack in swaddling clothes than spending New Year’s Eve locked out of my motel room in my underwear.


A digression: (Donald Trump’s southern border storm troopers propose to employ Fort Sill, Oklahoma as a concentration camp for some 1200 asylum seeking children. In 1955 I spent six weeks at Fort Sill learning to shoot an M1 rifle, live in a squad tent with strangers and fully comprehend the meaning of misery.  And I wasn’t fleeing homeland wretchedness in search of a better life in the United States of America. I was ostensibly learning to be a second lieutenant in the Army. Since it began in 1869, the military base has served as a concentration camp for Geronimo’s Apache tribe, a concentration camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II, and as a concentration camp for Lieutenants Fuzz, hoping to become shavetail officers in the artillery. Neither me, Geronimo, or the Asian Americans had much fun there and I doubt that those poor kids interned by the immigration Nazis will either.)


My wife, Marty, and I spent an anniversary canoe floating on Huzzah Creek, a gem tributary of the Meramec River.  Other rivers have threaded through our family life since there was a family. Our daughter, Amy, will testify without much prompting that canoeing for her is a mixed blessing. She went on her first canoe trip in utero on the North Fork River about two months before she officially became Amy, and then seven years later on that same river she and I capsized in a rapids and tumbled downstream, me holding her out of the water while my back scraped along the rocks and I shouted “it’s all right, Amy!”  Even though it was painfully obvious to both of us that it wasn’t.


We survived that outrage with no more than a bent canoe and a declaration by Amy that she would never go canoeing again. Of course, that was not going to happen in the Vance clan, and a few years later she found herself in a canoe on the Current River attacked by a colony of ants which had taken up residence in the floatation chamber under her seat. She bailed out of the canoe, squalling that she was being assaulted by insects. We submerged the canoe until the ants floated free and drifted downstream inspiring a ferocious rise of feeding fish.


On gravel bar campsites, the family gathers around the fire pit and tells stories of past canoeing experiences, anniversary floats, New Year’s Eve celebrations, while Amy is waiting her chance to air her litany of canoe trauma.  I tell her the various indignities she has suffered are the inevitable result of having been the least ‘ un in a family of five kids and two adults who’ve never quite grown up.


Beyond ants, unforgiving rapids, and exotic holiday celebrations, our experiences on Ozark rivers (mine anyway) have occasionally had unnerving moments.  I remember a float on the Niagara River. We had left one vehicle at the take out landing and I volunteered to stay with our canoes while everyone else went back to the put in and picked up our other vehicle. I was basking in the sunshine of a cloudless day on the gravel bar beside the Niangua when a person emerged from the vegetation behind me.


If you have seen the movie “Field of Dreams” where the 1919 Black Sox materialize from Ray Kinsella’s Iowa cornfield, you can gain some idea of what I began to think when this guy appeared. I wouldn’t say he skulked but he did not inspire me to sociability. And he didn’t look as if he wanted to play baseball. Instead of a fielder’s glove he was carrying a pistol of a type and caliber last seen when Dirty Harry cleared the streets of San Francisco of bad guys. I studiously avoided eye contact, the way you’re supposed to do when a grizzly bear appears out of the brush. Do I hear faint banjo music? I thought, remembering what happened to four guys on a cinematic canoe trip down the Cahulawassee River.


The guy prowled the river’s edge as if looking for targets and I remembered a bit of wisdom from another movie “Jurassic Park” where the advice when threatened by a Tyrannosaurus rex is “Don’t move!”


After a couple of eons of anxious moments, the strange man with the hog leg shootin’ iron apparently decided there was nothing worth killing that day and, as eerily as he had appeared, he faded back into the brush. When the rest of our canoeing party appeared they perhaps wondered why I was singing the old folk song “Cotton Eye Joe”: “Where did he come from?/where did he go?” But I refrained from breaking out my guitar and strumming the opening chords of “Dueling Banjo.”


Just in case.


A final digression: (The Titanic sank in 1912 and it was 72 years before famed explorer Bob Ballard found it. Now 80 years after the 1937 disappearance of Amelia Earhart, he is mounting an expedition to find her airplane and whatever remains of her. It’s probably beyond the expertise of Ballard or any other intrepid explorer, but I’d like to see someone mount an expedition to find Donald Trump’s soul. We know the Titanic went down and we know that Amelia Earhart ran out of gas somewhere over; the Pacific Ocean.  But all evidence indicates that Donald Trump possesses no soul.)



Rivers of memory, rivers of the heart, rivers of the mind—they flow down the streambed of time. Perhaps some icy New Year’s Eve a ghostly canoe will drift down the dark shadows of the Current River with a silent paddler representing the incoming year. Very possibly this aquatic specter will be smoking a cigarette. Let’s just hope this visitation from the past is not instead brandishing a single action Colt 45 caliber revolver looking for streamside targets.



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