By Jennifer Land, Special to the Press-Tribune
In the spring of 1806, an expedition left Natchez, Mississippi to survey the Red River westward at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson. The Freeman-Custis Expedition was intended to map the Red River and document any natural resources along the way. Jeff Lynn, Professor of History at Bossier Parish Community College and his 16-year-old son McClain Lynn decided to canoe the Red River and retrace the journey of Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis. The surveyor and naturalist were the lesser known frontier explorers to follow Lewis and Clark. “The Great Raft spoiled their journey,” said Lynn. “At the time, they thought the Red River went all the way to California.”
Rather than working upstream on flatboats, Lynn has broken up the trip into segments working downstream by canoe. “The first Americans to come through here in 1806, they came up-river. We are not, because we are sane.” Freeman and Custis were turned around by the Spanish Army who did not appreciate an expedition into their territory. Fortunately, Lewis and Clarke’s journey up the Missouri River was not thwarted by a foreign power. American history would have a far different narrative. Lynn and son began their trek down the Red River in the summer of 2017 at Doddridge, Louisiana and made it the 46 miles to the Stoner Boat Launch in Shreveport over the course of several days. “The goal is 740 miles of Red River.”
They hope to have completed the final leg of the trip by the time McClain reaches the age of 18. McClain Lynn is excited to finish the trip with his dad and then maybe map out other rivers. Mr. Lynn says of McClain, “…This has made us closer, we camp together…” Along the way, Lynn says of McClain, “He was constantly checking the map and I told him to look around, enjoy the scenery, we’ll get there when we get there.”
“Going through Arkansas we did not see another living soul.” But, during one trek they launched at New Boston and several locals were concerned they would try to battle the current back to where they launched. The young men were incredulous to discover that the Lynns planned to paddle their way downstream to Texarkana which was an approximate 80 miles away.
The dangerous conditions of the Red River are always a concern. Lynn is an experienced outdoorsman but there are dangers that one cannot prepare for, snakes, floating debris and alligators. According to McClain Lynn, “We were in Arkansas and I was really hot. I wanted to swim at the next sandbar. There were so many alligators sliding into the water that I changed my mind.” Most of the alligators we saw were around Fulton, Arkansas. “I don’t advise swimming around there.” “There was an 11 footer that rushed down to the water there.” “It is serious business once we are on the river, there is no cell service.” “The nights before our trips I get intense anxiety but once I get on the river I have no anxiety at all.” “My wife said, don’t come back without him.”
The two have had some significant finds along the way in the form of fossils and Native American artifacts. “We’ve found Indian points and pots, bison bones and a thousands-year-old horse jaw bone.”
Due to flooding, the Red River has been inaccessible to the Lynns and slowed the completion of the trip. In addition, they have encountered two sets of rapids, one between Dekalb and New Boston and the rapids south of Texarkana were their first. They have visited all the states so far that were on the original expedition, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and the eastern edge of Oklahoma. “We have spent 14 days on the river total.” “We have maybe 3 more trips in Texas.” Their final destination will be near Simsport, which is south of Alexandria. “We want the last leg to be in Louisiana.”
Jeff’s father, Jasper Lynn passed away March 18 of this year. Jasper helped them launch their kayaks on their maiden voyage and supported them by picking them up at the end of their voyages. Since then they have used canoes to support the amount of gear it would take for a three day trip. “Dad was sick, we thought we might want to pull out around Fulton which would have been half way mark.” A local who was familiar with the hazards of the river dismissed any idea of rafting the Red River much less with Lynn’s son in tow and discouraged him from making such a dangerous journey. The Lynn’s have certainly proven they are more than capable of completing their trip.
Jeff plans to write a “paddlers guide” to the Red River, which would be the only one in existence and obviously for experts only. The dangerous currents, wildlife and debris in the Red River would prohibit anyone without serious rafting skills from attempting to paddle the waterway. Mr. Lynn believes his canoeing guidebook will have crossover appeal for history lovers as well.
Mr. Lynn hopes that this journey is bringing history to life for his son and may inspire others to get out on the Red River and become modern day explorers.