Friday, March 1, 2019

Mrs. Helton's Martin Box- A Story

This has nothing to do with cycling, a little to do with boating, and a little more to do with a way of life in the Arkansas Ozarks. This is a true story of the sort that my closest of friends are likely tired of hearing and none of the names have been changed because there are no guilty parties here. I hope you enjoy it.


Mrs. Helton’s Martin Box                                                       2/28/19                                 John Ford Barton



I have told this story many times over the years, and I have set about writing it a time or two without ever getting it right enough to finish. It is a worthy tale of a simple moment in the life of Mrs. Helton, a familiar character to all of us who floated Big Piney Creek in Pope County, Arkansas, back in the day. Opal and Delmar Helton lived on their small farm along the Big Piney, where, as best I could tell, they scratched out a living from their garden and raising a few cows to supplement anything they might have gotten in the way of Social Security or retirement. I likely would never have even heard of them but for the fact that their place lay on a ford of the Piney that had become an access point for floating the creek down to Long Pool.



Some background on my history with the Big Piney

My first trip to the Big Piney took place in about 1977 when my brother Frank Barton invited me along for a “cleanup float” with a group of folks that were to become some of the premier players of Arkansas’ growing whitewater community. Folks like Frank, Mike Beard, Paul Means, Robert and John Booth, Kenny Holmes, and others had started making epic trips east to the Chattooga, Ocoee, Tellico and more.

Beard’s house served as the meeting place and boatyard for this crew, so we had gathered there. Mike loaded up the absent Terry Keefe’s black Blue Hole OC canoe for me to use, along with Keefe’s fine wooden Mitchell paddle. I didn’t know Keefe very well at the time, but I knew how much these boys valued their boats.

 “Will Keefe mind?” I asked.” “He won’t know,” Mike answered. Enough said.

On our way out of town, Mike Galbraith and I stopped by the Terminal Hotel and CafĂ© at the corner of Second and Victory in Little Rock, in which he was a partner, to load up sufficient beer. He didn’t have his keys, so we pulled down a fire escape and entered through a second story window. After rousing his partner, Paul Black, from his bed in one of the rooms, we loaded up a bunch of longnecks from the bar and hit the road.

Frank had told me that we were headed to Helton’s farm at Treat to launch, a remote place at a dead end off of the Treat Road. I’ve roamed those hills quite a bit over the years hence, but at that time it was all pretty mysterious to me.  By this time, Delmar Helton had taken to charging $1.00 per boat to launch from his pasture. As I recall, he’d started off just letting folks put in for free, but after having to gather his cattle a few times too many as a result of his gate being left open, he saw a chance to get paid for his trouble.

 It was also to be my first solo canoe experience, and I soon found myself with a load of litter, a half of a shattered Budweiser fiberglass canoe tied over the bow, several beers in my belly, and having a whole lot of fun. I somehow got behind the group, as we were stopping here and there to gather trash and debris, and at some point I turned over. By the time I gathered the boat and re-secured the broken canoe and trash I had spilled, I discovered I had lost the precious borrowed paddle. I paddled that 16’ 90-pound Blue Hole with my hands through the next few rapids, wearing my arms raw on the rough gunnels, and hoping for a glimpse of my companions up ahead, all the while wondering how I was going to come up with $30.00 to pay Keefe for that paddle. That was a couple of weeks of grocery money for me at the time. Soon enough, I came to Surfing Rapid, which I managed to run successfully, to find Frank waiting below in his kayak holding the recovered paddle. Needless to say, I was really glad to see my brother.

That trip was my first of many days boating with these pioneers of the Arkansas paddling scene, and it changed my life. My love for rivers has led me all over the country and beyond, and the shared passion for boating forged my most enduring friendships.

Over the next couple of years, Frank got into the business of selling whitewater boats, and I saved up for my first canoe, a 16’ Perception Chattooga. The Big Piney became my weekend destination from fall through spring whenever there was water in the creek, camping at Long Pool and honing my skills in the canoe before moving to kayaks.

At times when the creek was up, the Heltons would sit on their front porch, rock, and collect those dollars. Floating the Piney was becoming a pretty big thing, as the paddling community in Arkansas was growing rapidly and the Big Piney was seen as a step up in difficulty from the popular Buffalo River. With some supplemental income, Delmar soon replaced the pasture gate with a cattle guard, and would ride a four-wheeler down to check on his cows rather than walking.

On big weekends, well over a hundred boats would launch, and area families like that of Bobby Ledford got into the business of running shuttles. Bobby lived in the first house up the gravel road from Long Pool, along with a couple of his boys and his father, Andrew Jackson “AJ” Ledford. We mostly hoped to get Bobby to drive, as his boys were a little wild and, well, AJ’s nickname among boaters was Stinky. These were hill people and we respected them, but the fact is, I don’t think AJ was real fond of the bath.   Somewhere in there, Kerry and Debbie Moore had opened Moore Outdoors, making canoe rentals and commercial shuttles available, and the Forest Service got involved enforcing vendor rules. The Forest Service rules effectively put the Ledfords out of the shuttle business, but there are still some good stories about them told around dying campfires.

As usual, my lead-in is likely longer than my story, but some things just need to be told in order to set the scene.



Back to the story….

I’m guessing this was sometime in the mid-80’s. I have to admit that the years and the stories pile up and overlap as time sends them further back in my memory. In the company of my red-haired galpals Robin Booth (now-Fuhrman) and Mary Orsini, I had headed out to paddle Richland Creek. These women were among the badass boaters of the day and a hell of a lot of fun, to boot. There had been a lot of rain, but it was expected to stop and make for a good day on the river. As we headed to Richland, one storm after the other pounded the area, and we started to rethink our plan. We were counting on meeting other folks at the creek, but the internet was a thing of the future and that was not assured. We decided that rather than risking being caught on Richland in a flood, we would head on over to the Big Piney.

The storms just kept coming, with the sky near black and water running big in the ditches as we drove the Treat Road down to Page Hollow and turned up over the hill and down to the Helton place. The first thing we noticed when we pulled in was Mrs. Helton standing in the bed of their pickup under the martin box on a tall pole in the yard.

 I can still see the picture in my mind today—the slate dark sky, the boiling clouds, the lighting flashing like a bad fluorescent light, and the thunder booming like cannon shots around the valley. “Cataclysmic” is the word that always comes to mind to describe the scene.

At the center of that was Mrs. Helton, grey hair soaked and streaming across her face, wearing some kind of bright plaid polyester pants with a mismatched plaid flannel shirt, and in her hand she had a cane pole with what looked like a Lucky 13 bass bait on a swivel at the end. Delmar was sitting calmly on the porch, watching the action. Mrs. Helton appeared to be reaming out that martin box with the Lucky 13 on the end of the cane pole.  I think Mary had gotten out of our truck to pay, joining Delmar on the porch as Robin and I sat enthralled with the scene. As we tried to figure out what was happening, a big black rat snake started emerging from the bird box, its head stretched a foot or so out into the air as Mrs. Helton whacked away with her unwieldy weapon.  It dawned on us-- that snake was eating her purple martins and she was having no part of it. As we watched the scene unfold, a shot rang out at about the same moment the snake fell to the ground. Looking back to the porch, we saw that Delmar had picked up a single-shot .22 and had popped off a round at the snake. As he hustled back into the house for another cartridge, Mrs. Helton hopped down from the bed of the truck and started trying to beat that snake into submission with her pole. As this was going on, their son Glenn was pulling up in his own truck. He quickly assessed the scene, walked over to the nearby shed and picked up a garden hoe with which he dispatched the snake.

Farm folks are usually glad to have a big rat snake around, but even a good snake can wear out his welcome by dining in the chicken house or the martin box.



I only wish that I could have accompanied this story with lightening and rolling thunder, but I’ll have to leave that to your imagination.

The weather did clear and, as best as I remember, we had a good day on the creek, but what has stuck in my mind over these intervening years is the story of Mrs. Helton and her martin box.



Delmar Helton died in 1994, and Opal Meadows Helton died in 2012 at the age of 97. After Delmar’s death, Mrs. Helton continued to sit on the porch in her old chair, greeting paddlers and collecting the fee of a few dollars. I haven’t been up there in a few years but I understand Glenn tries to be there when the creek is up. If you put in at Helton’s be sure and pay what’s due. I’ve been told that you can pay at Moore Outdoors now. It is hard to scratch a living out of these hills and the Heltons have managed to do so for several generations. *









Thursday, January 3, 2019

You Can Do It In the Rain-Alternatives

Happy New Year! 
A positive thought that is often followed by grumbling from Arkansas cyclists, especially when the weather forecast looks something like this:



Darkness comes early and winter temperatures are a deal killer for a lot of riders. Add a cold rain and most of us just ain't gonna get on the bike. Bummer.
Many folks find satisfactory respite by droning away on their trainer or by joining a popular local spin class, where they can at least enjoy some company. That just doesn't do it for me. While I value the fitness that comes from hours on the bike, the real draw for me is being outside and the satisfaction of self-propelled motion.

Alternative Plans- Take A Hike, Climb a Mountain, Play In A Boat. 
The good news for those of us here in central Arkansas is that there are many things to do that don't require anything more than a pair of hiking shoes or boots, some decent outdoor clothing, and some direction. Most riders have a good collection of synthetic base layers, which is a good start.

Last summer, I was looking for ways to meet some new people and get out of that old rut in which  that many of us find comfort. I had enjoyed a lot of walking the trails at Camp Robinson while rehabbing from shoulder surgery and Cassie Wells of the Little Hikers Meetup group did a little presentation at a CATA meeting. I joined them for a couple of hikes up around the Buffalo River and I was reminded of the many wonders found just off the road. There is a reason that Arkansas was known as the Wonder State from 1923-1953.

Winter is the best time to hike in Arkansas for the same reasons many of us consider it the best time to mountain bike; the snakes, chiggers and ticks are gone, terrain is more visible with the leaves off the trees, and creeks and waterfalls flow.

Some places are surprisingly easy to get to. Petit Jean State Park is an hour away and offers a range of easy to medium difficulty hikes. The Heber Springs area offers several quality, easy-to-get-to destinations. Both are about an hour of easy driving from Little Rock and the Heber Springs sites are only ten minutes from my home on the Little Red.

Cedar Falls at Petit Jean. The hike is about 2 miles round trip. 

Bridal Veil Falls at Heber Springs is about 1/2 mile off of Highway 5. The viewing platform is just about 50 yards from parking, but there are trails and another waterfall in the small canyon area. 
https://www.arkansas.com/articles/sugarloaf-mountain-heber-springsSugarloaf Mountain at Heber Springs is a short, fairly steep hike followed by a little chimney climb to reach the top, and the views are  outstanding.

The Ozarks

The Buffalo National River features many popular trails. While often crowded in the spring and fall, winter allows you to enjoy the beauty without feeling like you're on a bus tour. You can be at Ponca in about 2-1/2 hours from Little Rock. 

 Some Buffalo River trails are overwhelmed during the peak seasons. Winter is a great time to enjoy them. 

My New Year's Holiday Weekend-No Ride But Plenty Of Outdoors At Richland
Many Central Arkansas cyclists have become familiar with Witts Springs and the Richland Creek Wilderness through their participation in the Pinnacle Rocks 40 and Lick Fork Gravel Grind. Two hours away from Little Rock, the area is rich in natural beauty, and it is where I spent most of the New Year holiday boating and hiking. As a wilderness area, there are no developed marked trails, but the most popular of many horse trails are easy to follow. If you are not following a creek or a clear trail, a GPS is a good idea. Cell service is scant. Camping is primitive but pleasant, though I took advantage of the offer of a friend's remote cabin. The outhouse was chilly, but the wood stove and satellite dish provided warmth and Netflix. 

Richland Creek boating
OK, winter whitewater boating isn't accessible for everyone, given the required skill level and specialized gear, but it is part of my lifestyle. Rain, especially in winter, means the creeks are up. Friday was cold and sunny. New Year's Day was just cold, but Richland has magic in the foggy drizzle of these days. When I envision the river it is always a scene of mist and waterfalls.
 Low winter sun is still better than no sun at all.

 The high falls above Richland Falls are in the background. I'm guessing it drops over 100' before cascading into the creek. It's just one of many waterfalls in the area. 
Richland Falls

Steep creeks drop fast  but more rain over the weekend meant a return to Richland on New Year's Day. 34 degrees, foggy, and a great day on the river. 

In between boating days, I struck out with adventure dogs Willie and Ivy to find some waterfalls. Tim Ernst has helped make this a popular activity among hikers with his Arkansas Waterfalls Guidebook. I had these on my list before I recently bought Tim's book. Now I have about 200 more falls to seek out. 

 Lower Horsetail Falls requires about a 2-mile RT hike and some medium bushwhacking. Well worth it. 
Upper Horsetail Falls and my trail team.

 In winter, I always carry a headlamp, an extra layer of clothing, and a way to make a fire. Clothes go on and off with stops and climbs and the rest is insurance against the unforeseen. 
Falling Water Falls is a roadside attraction. 


All of the places mentioned here can be done in day trips from Little Rock, and they are just a handful of the hundreds of similar possible destinations available to us. There are several Meetup Groups in the area if you are interested in trying something new and enjoy starting out with some more experienced folks. Download the app and search by area and interest. 
Another very good hiking site/ app is Alltrails. It is also free in its basic form and you can find hikes for every area. It provides detailed directions, along with reviews, photos, and insight from folks who have hiked the trails. 

Don't let the crappy riding weather lock you in the house. Relief can be as simple as lacing up your boots and heading out the door. 


TBT: December 2012 Super-Prestige Cyclocross


Fortunately, it was more muddy than cold for this traditionally cold and muddy event.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Cyclocross: 2012 Arkansas Super-Prestige

Cyclocross is a wintertime cycling sport that is closely associated with cold, mud, beer, cowbells, and rowdy crowds. 'Cross is growing in popularity in Arkansas and this season's race series culminated with the Super-Prestige championship races at Burns Park. The promised rains fell Saturday night, but Sunday was rain free, cloudy and still unseasonably warm, making for perfectly atrocious course conditions that delivered a full dose of mud but none of the cold that we might of expected.
You can find results here, and I will not attempt to provide a narrative of the racing except to say that it was damn fun to watch and the open class was decided at the finish line as Seth Rider of Germantown, TN, threw up his arms to celebrate victory just in time to be pipped by Gerald Drummond of Springdale. Hell, yeah, that's racing!

 
Staying close. The leaders fought it out until the dramatic finish.As you can see, conditions were textbook cyclocross other than the balmy temperatures.
 
Lakefront race village.
 
Yes, there was a little mud on the course. Above, participants from the earlier races were embracing conditions as they rinsed the top few layers of grime off of bikes and bodies.
 
Those with the skills hopped these uphill barriers.
Maintaining speed and bike control was a challenge and many riders resigned themselves to running this section and others.
Thank goodness for warm weather.
There were many small rewards for riders. Addie Teo was handing out dollar bills to riders coming out of the pit, though I think she suffered from a few bites.
Yes, cyclocross riders are a thoughtful and rational bunch.
There seemed to be no good line in axle deep creek flowing across the course, but it was a wide place and tempted racers to pass. Few riders successfully stayed mounted and most just ran for it!
Chad Cragle redefines the line. The few riders who stayed mounted here late in the race did so by hugging the ribbons and staying out of the deepest mud.
Cowbells clanged and the crowd shouted words of encouragement as local favorite Zack LaVergne gracefully loped by with his shouldered bike. No, Zack, I don't know who yelled, "You run like a girl.", but it made you look!
CHAD CRAGLE! I'm not sure what the top finisher won, but Chad was a big winner in the sock prime category, coming away with three pair. I'm thinking he probably threw away the ones he raced in.
 
 
This kind of racing makes for great photos, and I took a couple of hundred in 45 minutes or so, but this is all that I have the energy to write captions for! This race drew a good crowd, but more is always better. Keep an eye out for 'cross races near you and I'll try to keep you posted here.