Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Quest for Water

We were driving through towns only heard about during severe weather coverage on television (okay, I mean the radio, since I haven't owned a TV in many years).  The kayaks were strapped firmly to the roof and were buckling as the heat made their plastic frames pliable.  Folks in towns like Custer City and Thomas stared and shook their heads, as if they had just seen a car with surfboards driving through Oklahoma.  Our likelihood of finding water to wet the boats was looking as grim as surfers seeking to catch their next wave on the inland seas. 

The current drought is going on two years.

Today's plan was just to paddle around at American Horse Lake.  On the way there, I mentioned that the last time I had visited, the water had dropped a good three feet in a matter of two weeks.  That was probably two or three months ago - before the mercury hit the hundred-teens. 

An hour's drive later, I make the last slight left to the lake and meet a new gate with a bright orange sign announcing "DANGER - RESTRICTED ACCESS" and forbidding entrance.  We got out and walked the last few hundred yards to what used to be the water's edge.  There was no lake.  There were hills of red dirt and shale.  Beer bottles from years past and entombed plastic tubs that held bait in a past life.  When we finally found water, it was a stagnant, green puddle.  There was no sign of the clear waters that had stolen my heart the first time I discovered this lake.  We would later learn that the lake was being drained for more work on the dam that was damaged during flooding several years earlier.  For now, we were rejected.  All we could do is return to the car and vow to come back without boats and armed with trash bags, so we could clean up my playground in anticipation of rains that will revive her and make her beautiful once again.
American Horse...Lake?
GPS, maps, and the Oklahoma Water Atlas are consulted and we redirect to Canton Lake.  All that I knew of Canton, was that this was the source that fills Overholser, Stinchcomb, the North Canadian River (oh, I mean the Oklahoma River), Lake Hefner, and my water bottle.  The backroads take us through dry farmland and past many unmarked dirt and gravel roads.  I'm always excited to drive on an Oklahoma road that I haven't ever seen before.  As my traveling companion says, "when plans fail, the journey begins".  Little did he know at the time that the plans would fail more than once on this day.

"ROAD CLOSED TO THRU TRAFFIC" the sign read, just past the sign that pointed the way to Canton Lake.  Well, we had been debating whether to go to Canton Lake or Foss Reservoir, so the next choice was obvious. Besides, the map shows that we would be crossing the South Canadian River, so we could always just stop there and slide the boats down the side of the bridge and launch into the sandy riverbed. We recalculated our route.

The wide bridge announced the South Canadian River crossing, but we peered over the sides and couldn't see any water in either direction.  Not a puddle, not a ribbon of stream, not a drop.  I was beginning to think that the townfolk in their pick-up trucks were right about our deteriorated mental condition.  What were we thinking when we loaded boats and set out to go kayaking today?
South Canadian "River" to the East

South Canadian "River" to the West

I crossed my fingers and questioned my loyalty to the sun gods.  We need clouds and rain, too.  Why hadn't I realized this before today?  Oh, what have I done?!?  I search for upbeat tunes and continue speeding across dusty towns with more people in the cemetery than the last census.  One town boasts that it is storm-ready and I wonder what that means.  Union Pacific trains stretch for miles in their stillness, with just enough gaps to keep from blocking the numbered county roads.  I wonder if there will be another gate, another roadblock, or another dry patch of land awaiting.  There was no Plan E.

Blinding sun reflected off whitecaps and sparkling white boats bouncing skiers.  The three-mile earthen dam (one of the largest earthen dams in the world) wasn't doing a "dam" bit of good, since the water had receded several feet from the foundation.  But, there was water, and lots of it.  Probably not 63 miles of shoreline, as the Oklahoma Water Atlas boasted, but there was still plenty to share. 
No big boats launching here!
I already had the launch site picked out on the map - the furthest boat ramp from the dam, and the one bordering the Washita National Wildlife Refuge.  There was only one other boater in this part of the lake, and they were anchoring for a walk on the sand and a dip in the inviting water.  Our kayaks splashed their way across the lake against the wind.  The drips of water blown from the paddle blades were welcomed on hot skin.  This was nothing like the quiet little pond that we were originally trying to reach.  Good thing that we are Oklahomans and are resilient, stubborn, and still able to evolve.  We will make it work, and we are going to enjoy this journey, wherever it takes us. 

These people are Oklahoma-ready!

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