There they lay on the riverbank, at the mouth of a wide, drying riverbed that cut a path through the tall trees and hanging vines. In dappled sunlight, hundreds of body parts, but no heads or trunks. Those had been cleanly severed. Family members visited but could make no sense of the scene.
It was a scene straight from Stephen King, and on the Buffalo River to boot. It was witnessed by 11 women, munching on pretzels and oranges and, though reeking of river water, not quite as strange as the sight they beheld.
Hundreds of black forewings, scalloped with white dots, and hundreds of swallow-tailed hindwings, marked with silvery blue crescents and orange-red dots. Perfect wings, not bitten, not mouthed, just stuck there in the sandy bank by the hundreds. Spicebush swallowtail, we guessed, with one tiger swallowtail set of wings in the mix. Living spicebush swallowtails danced around their kin’s remains. If they knew what had happened, they gave no indication of it.
Back home, we talked to a bug guy. He said bats do that with moths — they grab them with the little claws on their wings and chow down on the thorax, leaving the non-nutritious wings behind in a pile outside their caves. But bats fly at night, butterflies by day; they don’t share the same sandbar.
Birds, someone else suggested. But are birds nimble enough with their claws to nibble the butterflies while leaving the butterfly wings unmolested?
We’re seeking answers.
Floating the Buffalo River may not seem like a big deal to the more daring out there, but for the weak-willed, the ’fraidy cats who’re just sure they’re going to swamp the first canoe they meet, it’s a feather in the cap to paddle and live to talk about it.
The Observer is one of those people who’ve been shortchanged in the adventurous department. Who never does anything more risky than cross the street at Markham and Cumberland, and that’s more foolish than daring.
No, to spend a couple of nights on the Buffalo and be able in a casual, offhand way to mention to friends that we’d maneuvered from Gilbert to Buffalo Point and slept on gravel bars, we had to rely on the kindness of, not strangers exactly, but friends of an old friend.
The old friend has always been quick where we were slow, adventuresome where we were skittish. As children, she hung from trees while we stayed earthbound, lying in the grass in her backyard, usually eating peanuts out of can and reading Pogo. She has hiked since she could walk. She can lean over the side of a canoe far enough to take a sip of water without falling out. She can roll a kayak. She hung a swing from a 35-foot rafter over her dining room when her child was little so he could launch from a second floor landing and fly over our heads. With her sweet, high-pitched but soft voice, she’d suggest we’d send our child flying too and watch the color drain from our face.
On the river, she is liable to pull over beneath a bluff a couple of hundred feet above her head and set out to climb it. She’s not showing off.
She just wants to see what she can see.
Amazingly, she has many friends who are just like her. There is something in the water in Clarksville. They think absolutely nothing of loading seven canoes onto a trailer and loading a truck full of cookware, from chic little camping stoves to Dutch ovens, and chairs and tables and tents and food, and setting out on the river for several nights in a row. Of preparing curried rice and bean dishes with cucumber and yogurt salad on the side and cherry cobbler for dessert after paddling 11 miles, unloading the canoes and setting up their tents. These women notice the otters and the beaver and the dark Ozark bass and the carp and the gar and the bass and the sunfish. They see dens in the sandy banks, and like to ride the rapids on their backs for fun. They never lack for anything. Their arms are lean and strong.
And we think, here is this river, the first river singled out by the nation for park status, with rapids and pools and bluffs and cold streams feeding into it and springs and a view of the night sky, a 135-mile-long water road through the Ozarks, and there are wimps like The Observer who’ve lived in Arkansas all their lives and never tried it out. Everybody’s got a brave friend. Find the one who climbed trees while you fed your face, and tell him he’s taking you to the Buffalo.