Thursday, May 5, 2011
Late on the night of Easter Sunday, while in the midst of area-wide flooding, dispatch received a report of two overdue kayakers on the Class III-IV headwaters section of the Buffalo River, commonly known as the Hailstone, which begins in the Ozark National Forest portion of the Upper Buffalo Wilderness and ends in the Buffalo National River’s portion of the same wilderness. The reporting party advised that her 67-year-old husband and 17-year-old grandson had put in for their 15-mile float between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. and that they had not yet returned. Search efforts were launched on both land and the river at daybreak the following morning, with Newton County sheriff Keith Slape as the incident commander. Upwards of three dozen people from BUFFSAR, the park’s SAR team, the Newton County Sheriff’s Office (NCSO), the Forest Service, the Arkansas Canoe Club, several local volunteer fire departments, the missing youth’s Boy Scout Troop, and local horseback riding clubs joined the search on Monday. Searchers faced grueling conditions as severe thunderstorms swept the area unceasingly, producing steady, heavy rain throughout the operational period, several tornado warnings, unseasonably cold temperatures, and extreme high water in the main river and all tributaries. At about 10 a.m. on Monday, searchers located the grandfather and sped him to an ambulance. He was mildly hypothermic, but declined medical treatment. He reported to searchers that he and his grandson had made it downriver several miles, capsized, swam to opposite sides of the river, and began hiking out separately. The search was suspended at sunset on Monday due to the hazards of searching in existing conditions after nightfall. Tuesday morning, the search resumed under the unified command, with FMO Fenn Wimberly from the NPS and NCSO SAR/BUFFSAR team member Glenn Wheeler serving as ICs. Efforts focused on both land and the river, with two NPS personnel and two volunteers launching a raft at the same put-in used by the subjects and ground teams combing the drainages downstream of the point last seen. Tuesday morning broke with clear skies, and the unified command moved swiftly to launch an Arkansas State Police helicopter, which located the grandson at about 11 a.m., standing in a flooded field and waving his arms. The NPS raft continued downstream, picked up the kayaker, determined he was mildly hypothermic but otherwise uninjured, and transported him to the take-out at Boxley Bridge. The young man, who is close to attaining the rank of Eagle Scout, reported that he’d spent the two nights huddled under his boat and stayed warm during the day by hiking, estimating that he’d covered a total of about 18 miles. Shortly after arriving at the take-out, grandson and a very grateful grandfather were reunited.