“This is my favorite place in the whole entire world,” I murmured to myself.
Admittedly, for then 6-year-old me, the whole entire world consisted of a 150 mile ring around two river confluences of great consequence in my life — the meeting of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers 20 miles upstream from my hometown of Saint Louis, and the junction of the Jacks Fork and Current rivers 10 miles downstream from the campground where my family spent a week or two every summer of my childhood.
Even today, over five decades later, my memory of that whispered thought is as crystal clear as the liquid I was standing in while it skipped like a stone across my synapses. Knee-deep in the chilly (58 to 65°F) Jacks Fork and hinged at the waist, the mid-July sun on my back is hot enough to keep goosebumps at bay. River waves toss solar sparklers into the air like fire jugglers. Moss-covered rocks and minnows, and my own oddly offset legs and washed out feet, glow palely in the refracted light when my gaze sinks below the rippled surface. That elusive riverine aroma of wet animal-vegetable-mineral tickles tributaries deep within my brain, and I can still hear the chuckling, snorting, sputtering water tripping over stones and tumbling down my auditory canal.
Standing upright several minutes later, I admired the crawdad I’d captured… and on my first try, no less! I felt especially proud of this accomplishment because earlier attempts at this stunt had been utterly unsuccessful.
Collecting minnows had been way easier. One year earlier, my father had walked up to the campground’s general store one afternoon for some cigarettes and, while there, he purchased an inexpensive handmade trap composed of a large pickle jar ensnared in a scaffolding of aluminum wire twisted to formed four legs. For some reason, adult supervision in 1964 didn’t include any angst over giving children glass toys for activities in a rock-bottomed watercourse; even my hyper-cautious mother never voiced a single concern, complaint, or caution.
Daddy showed me how to position the thingamajig so it was submerged in a shallower stretch mid-stream, parallel to the current and, counter-intuitively, with the opening downstream. We secured the wire-loop feet with rocks and within 15 or 20 minutes, even without any bait, there were all kinds of fishy specimens to examine inside the jar. I studied my captives through the glass, released them back into the river, and reset the trap, over and over, driven by obsessive curiosity and a thrilling taste of power.
Crawdads are not so easily duped. Armed with pinching claws they can also fight back. As such, I held them in much greater esteem than cute, defenseless baby fish whose bite tickled and who didn’t have enough smarts to stop bumping their noses against the transparent-but-solid barrier. Why didn’t the fish realize the door to their glass prison was wide open? Why not just turn around, swim back out, and be on their way?
The previous year, as a determined but significantly less coordinated 5-year-old, I’d spent hours in this same river trying to find and outsmart feisty invertebrates. Crawdads are classified based on their preferred habitats, including surface streams like the Jacks Fork, which supports 4 of the 330 species of crayfish found in the southeastern region of North America: golden, Hubbs, Ozark, and spothanded* (Faxonius spp., formerly Orconectes). Sharing a lineage with lobsters, crawdads resemble their cousins but in a miniaturized form. Those who live in the Ozarks can expect to grow to an average length of 1 to 4½ in (2-11 cm), depending on the species — pretty puny compare to the span of their saltwater kin. Found off the northeastern coast North America, Maine lobsters measure up to 25 in long (64 cm), far too large to fit in a disposable plastic party cup.
Also referred to as crayfish, crawfish, or mudbugs, these are truly omnivorous creatures who feed on both plants and animals, not caring much whether their meal is living, dead, decomposing, or detritus. They breathe using feathery gills but, unlike fish, can also survive on land —some species are more terrestrial than aquatic. Because few crawdad species can tolerate polluted water, their presence is a positive sign that the stream is safe for people, too.
Crawdads are classified as decapod crustaceans. They have five pairs of legs, and bodies assembled from twenty segments arranged to form two main body parts: the cephalothorax (analogous to the head and chest of a human); and the abdomen (where the digestive tract resides). The foremost pair of limbs are armed with prominent pincers, unless one or both have been lost while molting, defending territory, or assessing the fitness of a potential mate (don’t worry, the claw will regenerate). The other eight legs terminate in a claw as well, albeit much smaller and therefore easier to overlook.
In what was about to become my triumphant sixth summer, while observing my prey through the watery lens of the river surface, I grasped an aspect of crawdad behavior that had eluded me during last year’s vacation. My dear Uncle Glenn, one of many WWII veterans in my extended family, was fond of sharing Winston Churchill’s advice that, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” That memorable adage had stuck with me as an insightful instruction for handling adversity… but watching crawdads scuttle around on the rocky riverbed I realized there’s another, equally effective way to respond to peril.
When encountering an underwater hazard — for example, a ravenous rainbow trout or the sneaker-clad foot of a human adolescent — the crawdad does not keep going. It does not charge imprudently forward to meet the adversary, pincers pinching. The crawdad does not stubbornly stand its aqueous ground, or on principle in a brave but reckless act of defiance. No, when the crawdad senses hell on the horizon it shifts into reverse and jets backwards as far and fast as it can.
This crawdad lesson on the worth of a well-timed about-face saved my own life two decades later while floating on the Current River.
The upper Current is usually a beautiful easy-to-medium Class 1 with occasional Class II sections and, as a young adult, I’d spent many happy hours on the 10 mile stretch from the Akers launch to the Pulltite take-out. Even so, on a hot summer day, basted in tanning oil and searing in a canoe-shaped aluminum pan, I would notice that riding in an inflatable donut looked to be more comfortable and a lot less work. No paddling, no steering other than what can be accomplish by fluttering hands and feet… and being partially immersed for the entire trip definitely circumvents the need to leave one’s craft periodically to cool off. All you need to do is find or rent a seaworthy tire inner tube, into which you’ll wedge your behind, then meander downstream, bobbing on the surface like a fishing float and simply going with the flow for a lazy 5 to 6 hours.
Determined to give this laisser-faire approach a try, I eventually talked my consort at that time into driving from Texas to south-central Missouri to spend a day leisurely drifting downstream.
Following our arrival late the night before, morning dawned to overcast skies and cooler than average temps. Over breakfast in the motel lobby we heard from other guests that the river was running high, fast, and muddy following several days of rain — far from ideal conditions for aquatic recreational pursuits and a perfectly reasonable excuse to back out.
When I called to cancel the reservation, however, the outfitter assured me there was no reason to change plans and I, for one, was keen to follow any advice that would allow me to dodge disappointment. The conspicuous lack of other cars and customers when we pulled into the parking lot should have been cause for concern but good sense had already been silenced by my stubborn determination to press on. We climbed into the van and rode to the Akers put-in. Once we were situated into black rubber personal flotation devices our two-vessel armada set sail.
The downsides of tubing became apparent almost immediately. Without a hot summer sun above the water wasn’t refreshing. It was cold. Then, as we traversed the additional flow entering from swollen Gladden Creek, only a quarter mile into the trip, I recalled with fondness the canoe paddle I’d so blithely forsaken. We proceeded to pinball from one side of the river to the other, pushed aside by the surge of each new tributary.
What must a fish or snail or crawdad experience, buffeted by changes in water flow, temperature, available oxygen, sediment, and visibility with every shower or storm? Certainly, the impact of these atmospheric events on trees alongside the river was apparent, especially on those toppled into the river… several quite recently, by all appearances, as they were still hanging on to a full crown of green leaves, and wet soil clung to roots above the waterline.
Little did I it know then but I was about to get up close and personal with one of those overturned trees.
We were about 3 hours in when we rounded a bend, the river narrowed, and the current suddenly accelerated. My companion, who was closer to the left bank, was borne swiftly but safely downstream.
I was shoved forcefully right by stampeding water into a massive rootwad as my inner tube shot out from under me and spun away.
Pinned against the roots, I was able to lift my nose and mouth high enough above the water to gasp for air, with considerable effort that got harder each time I tried. My body wasn’t going anywhere but my mind was racing…
…too much of the rootwad is above the surface… I can’t go forward and over… if I try to go right I’ll be flung under the limestone overhang on the bank…that’s worse… I won’t be able to get my head above the water… but when I try to go left my my arms and legs get more tangled…
Time began to s l o w w a y d o w n.
Then a memory flashed to life in my mind, like a clip from an 8 mm home movie, of a crawdad backpedaling, lickety-split, from my oncoming Keds®.
Is this what people mean when they say your life flashes before your eyes?
Wait!… there’s another direction I haven’t tried!
I took one more big gulp of air, then dragged my legs and feet through the snarl, up and into position on the large root near my waist. I told myself this was do or die, asked adrenaline to live up to its reputation, and…
BACKWARDS AND LEFT
with all my remaining might…
The same Current that had delivered me into the abducting arms of the rootwad now carried me clear and away. Seconds later I skidded to a stop on the shallow shoal where my partner stood, waiting helplessly, holding an empty inner tube.
I sat on that rocky river bed for quite a while, too weak and shaky to stand.
Bruised and bleeding everywhere I looked… but no broken bones.
Still gasping for breath, now in ankle-deep water, sobbing.
Still alive, somehow.
In that pre-smartphone era there wasn’t any way to call for help. No alternative but to compose myself, get back on the tube, and continue down the river to Pulltite and a waiting van. Quite possibly followed by a trip to the Emergency Room although, honestly, I remember nothing of the rest of that day or night. I don’t even remember what I had for breakfast the next morning.
This I do remember — it was the best thing I had tasted in my whole entire life.
Of course, the crawdad strategy won’t get you out of every jam. It isn’t fool-proof, or even child-proof. Once you learn to place the cup behind the crawdad before approaching from front with a menacing rock or shoe or hand, the odds of capture are in your favor. Plus, backing up doesn’t work as well when the threat comes from above, in the form of a raccoon or a little green heron.
That said, while my uncle and plenty of others consider Winston to have been a great and wise man, when it comes to river guides I’ll choose a crawdad over Churchill, any day.
* Hubbs, Ozark, and spothanded crayfish are are found only in the Ozark Region of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas.
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© 2020 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author. Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Jasper Nance, Jordan Whitt, Charity H., Jayme Frye, Brian Pennington, stacey.d, Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, Waldo Jaquith, Matthew Bellemare, Sabrina McKenzie, and MissTessmacher.