A view of the Big Piney River photographed by one of the three men who were the focus of a water rescue operation last Saturday near Houston. Some of their gear is in the foreground.

Jimmie Lee Ridge and two cohorts put in at 10:15 a.m. Friday at Dogs Bluff for a float trip.

The conditions were good.

“The water was a little dingy, but it was fine and we were floating good,” Ridge said.

They floated some distance and made camp around 4:15 p.m.

“It started raining, and rained for three hours and the water started rising,” said Ridge, of Ladue. “We moved twice, and it kept coming up. We ended up moving four times, but the water was rising so fast it wasn’t enough.”

Not being a local resident, Ridge said he wasn’t aware how close to safety his group was when they made camp at Horseshoe Bend just after 4 a.m.

“I didn’t know we were only 15 minutes from Mineral Springs,” Ridge said. “It looked like a good place to camp, and then we got surrounded. I’ve never seen a river rise like that.”

The men took turns watching in shifts as their mates attempted to rest. Ridge described the island the stranded trio were on was about the size of two pickup trucks.

“It was very dangerous,” Ridge said. “Every critter that could crawled up on that little island we were on. It was wild.”

As the three were hunkered down — with hypothermia beginning to set in and the water relentless in its fury — action became necessary. Ridge called for help.

“I said ‘We’ve got only one bar on the phone signal, but we’ve got to call 911,'” he said. “I called and said, ‘We’re surrounded by water.’

“They hooked me up with the sheriff’s department, and they were able to track where we were.”

Ridge said he has floated the Big Piney before, but hadn’t experienced it acting like this. As help was on its way, he and his friends were no longer on dry ground.

“We’re sitting on totes in water a few inches deep,” Ridge said. “There was water running by very near us with big logs in it. I’ve never seen the Piney running like that.”

Ridge lighted the only flare the group had and hung a red tent cover on a tree to catch the attention of search crews.

“They saw the flare,” Ridge said, “and they finally saw us and yelled, ‘Hang on, the boat’s getting in the water as we speak.’ The response time was great; if it wasn’t for the actions these people took, we would definitely have been in trouble.”

Ridge said his group’s stay at the Lazy L boosted their spirits.

“We were kind of beat up, and really, really cold,” he said. “Kudos to the owners and everyone at that motel. They washed our clothes, got us food and treated us very, very well.”

Ridge and others returned to Texas County on Sunday. They hiked to where their gear had been left and retrieved the two kayaks, the canoe and much of their camping equipment. He said he plans to return to Houston for a float trip on the Big Piney River and stay at the Lazy L.

“But it won’t be raining this time,” Ridge said.

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