Testing the Waters

by Sara Dykman

An adventure starts well before the big launch, long before the first mile.  An adventure starts when an idea gets calendar space. I am drawn to these beginning moments of the adventure where I pull resources from every direction and watch an idea grow. I enjoy this labyrinth of logistics: maps, emails, html, google docs, to-do lists. The building of the Lego castle.

Part of this pre-launch adventure - a part as important as emailing sponsors and printing maps - is going on small scale adventures. Micro-adventures are weekend adventures that allow me time to think through my plans, let me test the waters, and motivate my planning sessions. Last weekend, the weekend of my thirtieth birthday I set out on a type of micro-adventure new to me: a hybrid bike tour float trip.

Micro-adventures are a great way to test the waters and stay motivated during the beginning tangle of logistics. 
Micro-adventures are a great way to test the waters and stay motivated during the beginning tangle of logistics. 

Since I splurged last month on an Alpaca Raft, an inflatable raft portable enough to pack on my bike when deflated and secure enough to carry my bike when inflated, a new door has opened. It takes car-less adventuring to new levels and the possibilities seem endless! Bike touring will never be the same again.

It took a few tries to find a set up that works, but now that I know the best way to pack I am ready to float...
It took a few tries to find a set up that works, but now that I know the best way to pack I am ready to float...

So last weekend I packed up my bicycle with all the gear and food I would need for a three day trip, plus my packraft, collapsible paddle, and lifejacket. Then I started biking on the dirt roads that lead from my house at the Ozark Natural Science Center to Marshal Ford, a put-in on the beautiful Kings River.  And what a river it is; a dancing line of emerald green, quietly hidden in the Ozark hills.

Since the beginning of the year I have been working just miles from the Kings River at the Ozark Natural Science Center, an outdoor education center in northwest Arkansas. Here surrounded by a quiet buffer of public land, I explore nature with small groups of fifth graders. It is a rewarding job to discover the wonders of nature with kids, fostering respect and understanding for science and the environment. It has been a great learning opportunity for me and a great excuse to explore the Ozarks.

 Being a teacher naturalist at the Ozark Natural Science Center has been a great learning experience and a perfect excuse to explore the Ozarks.

Being a teacher naturalist at the Ozark Natural Science Center has been a great learning experience and a perfect excuse to explore the Ozarks.

And the Ozarks are an exciting place to be, especially as spring shows herself and the forest begins to spread out in color, in an extraordinary freshness.  With the sun on my skin I pedal to the Kings River where the water works day and night carrying signs of spring in the current’s reflections. 

After just half a day of biking I was already unpacking my bike and inflating my raft. By catching air in a bag that attaches to the raft, I can roll the bag and push the air into the boat.  Once inflated, I bungeed my stuff in a large dry bag to the front of the raft and bungee my now-wheel-less bike on top of the stuff sack. After a few squirrely variations of this setup, the boat feels surprisingly solid and roomy as I get in and push off into the current.   

The class I-II river is a peaceful float, and it is easy to simply watch wildlife as I float with my team of water droplets towards the ocean. I watch bald eagles cut across the sky, trailing behind the ghostly pale, leafless limbs of the sycamores. The young bald eagles, not yet ornamented with the striking white and brown plumage hang in the air above me, more curious about the bobbing red in the river than the adults. Kingfishers cackle and dive, like bullets forward. Like the eagles, I wonder if I have seen thirty, or just one leapfrogging downstream with me.

 From the river there is never a shortage of wildlife.

From the river there is never a shortage of wildlife.

 Kingfishers cackle and dive as I pass.

Kingfishers cackle and dive as I pass.

There is no shortage of wildlife, which watches me as I drift silently and unannounced by. A river otter pokes his head out of the water like a buoy drifting down stream. Both surprised to see each other, we seem to ask the same questions as we make eye contact. Beavers rest near their watery escape or slide down muddy shoots to the cold waiting water. Once in the water, they swim upstream without effort or boastfulness.

An otter watches me and I watch him.
An otter watches me and I watch him.

The water pushes me northward, curving bend after curving bend it carries me towards the ocean.  It is a blue green blend that humans could not have imagined without such rivers. In this water, I find my favorite color.

The Kings River is an incredible aqua blue color I can't get enough of.
The Kings River is an incredible aqua blue color I can't get enough of.

At camp I am alone with the river. It is backpacking with out the sore feet. It is bike touring with out the loud roads and trash. I use my life jacket as a pillow and feel like a queen. All night the river’s past and future whisper in the waves, and even in my sleeping bag I feel as if I am still on the river. Still moving like a drop of water.

The perfect campsite: no cars, no trash, and a great shelter in the rain.
The perfect campsite: no cars, no trash, and a great shelter in the rain.

For two days I float with the river. Fourty miles later, back on my bike, my pack raft deflated, folded, and bungeed to my bike, I feel so independent, so self-sufficient. Nothing can stop me. I lift my bike over a fence and am on a county road. I feel free.

Forty river miles later, I am ready to hop on my bike and bike (with my raft) home.
Forty river miles later, I am ready to hop on my bike and bike (with my raft) home.

Away from the river I first notice that my wilderness bubble has popped. The highway seems louder than ever, and lined with so much trash. And the trees are gone, replaced with fields of cows and their eroded murky ponds; replaced with conspicuous houses, fences, roads, chicken factories, and stores. I am amazed that the river felt so wild. The river seemed to hide in such beauty and is beautiful even as so much ugliness threatens it, poisons it.

As I bike home I slog up and coast down the Ozark hills. I let my mind begin to think about building the Lego castle. I think of the teachers I need to find, the sponsors I need to email, this blog I want to write. And I am more excited than ever for On The River, a trip like this weekend stretched into five or six months! I hope you all are excited too, to share in the story of our rivers and become stewards of our water. Until then, I’ll share the stories of logistics and my micro- adventures.

On The River here I come.
On The River here I come.