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BUFFALO RIVER TRIP

Oct. 2001

One of the nations most scenic areas is only a six-hour drive South of Kansas City. It’s a great place to visit for a day, a weekend or a week, any season of the year.  The Buffalo River Area offers something for any budget or taste.  With 140 miles of River and over 100 miles of maintained hiking trails each of the three sections of the park offer many activities and things to see.

My 16 year old son Robert and I just got back to civilization, as we define it, exhausted but happy after three days, three nights and nearly forty miles of camping, kayaking and wondering through the Buffalo National River Area in the Arkansas Ozarks. 

Robert had never been on an overnight kayak trip before.  His interests typically run more to six gourmet meals a day, computers, designing roll playing games, programming, visiting the “city”, or just the enjoying the comforts of home.  

The week we spent in our Travel Trailer at the Disney World Campground, gourmet dining “around-the-world” every night at Epcot, didn’t exactly prepare him for this trip, or my cooking.  Come to think of it, he had never spent a night in a tent before!  So as you might guess, my wife and I were apprehensive as to how the trip would turn out but everything went great. We had a wonderful time and didn’t even get wet above our knees, except for once. (More to follow on that.)

The Buffalo River area, administered by the National Park Service, begins in the Boston Mountains in NW Arkansas and flows about 140 miles East down to the White River. It is a remote, wild, and scenic wilderness area with the distinction of being the country's only "National River".  We keep going back to the Buffalo year after year for its scenic beauty, diversity, friendly people, and convenient location.

The middle and lower sections of the river provide very scenic "family" floating conditions most of the year with some mild but exhilarating rapids separating deep clear slower moving pools.  Average floating speed is about 2 miles per hour.  Paddling you will typically average 3-6 miles per hour depending on how much you like to paddle and how much you stop. The upper section of the river, when the water level is sufficient provides excellent white-water floating.   

The park elevation varies from 375 feet in the Eastern lower section up to 2,385 feet in the Western upper section and is divided into the three sections (lower, middle and upper), all distinctly different. The river and surrounding 95,000 acres of park land are home to sink holes, water falls, hiking trails, springs, caves, abandoned mines and railroad track,  plus many historical and archeological sites. This diverse ecosystem is home to 1500 plant and 59 fish species and all the wildlife you would expect in a wilderness area.  The eagles and otters are two of my favorites. You may even see Elk that were introduced in 1981.  Many of the scenic locations in the park are easily accessible by car, motorcycle, hiking trails, or better yet, from the river itself by Canoe or Kayak.  Trail rides on horseback are great too.  You can bring your own horse or some local outfitters offer organized trail rides with horses provided.

Local outfitters and lodging facilities throughout the area provide as little or as much service and equipment as you need plus ferry service for boaters and hikers. You can set up a trip varying from several hours to a week or more, all at very reasonable prices. Good restaurants, campsites – primitive or full-hookup, cabins, lodges and motels to suit any budget and taste are readily available.

The fishing can be excellent and local guides can be hired if desired.  Missouri and Arkansas Ozark river outfitters have been providing river trips for over 50 years so they know what you need and how to make your trip a success. You’ll be surprised at how professional and inexpensive their services are.

On this trip vivid fall colors remained in spite of the previous weeks rain and wind plus the water was crystal clear.  In the summer, particularly on holiday weekends, many people visit the Buffalo but we didn't pass another canoe, kayak or camper on the river until the third day.  The river was all ours and it was at its best!

The nights were crisp and cool, the days warm, and the skies deep blue with sparkling white clouds. We could see the bottom ten feet below as we floated beside towering multicolored limestone bluffs, some over 400 feet tall, dense woods, and inviting gravel bars. These gravel bars offer excellent and private camp or picnic sites all along the way. 

Just sitting on a gravel bar, watching and listening to the river and wildlife and studying the gravel made up of endless varieties or rocks; limestone, dolomite, sandstone, and even fossils, can provide hours of entertainment and true relaxation for me.

The rocks, worn smooth and round, carried down from the mountains above come in an infinite array of colors, sizes, patterns, and shapes.  It is easy to loose all sense of time and become submerged in nature all around you, only to be jarred back to consciousness by the shriek of an eagle, the slap of a beaver’s tail or maybe a call for dinner. One of the miracles of riverside cooking is that just about anything you fix nearly always taste great.    

Our basic dining plan was inexpensive, easy to fix and clean up, compact and light: different flavors of instant oatmeal with tea for breakfast; jerky, trail-mix, and granola bars for lunch and snacks; and different dehydrated one-pan dishes for dinner.  We supplemented this with bacon that didn't require refrigeration, tuna,  tortillas for bread, edible plates & sandwiches, plus chocolate bars for variety and energy. I also sprinkled a few Kopiko coffee candies provided by a friend of mine from Indonesia in every days lunch package for a special gourmet treat.  

Steve, a backpacker friend of mine showed me how to plan, organize and pack meals for trips like this when we kayaked down the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park and it really works well.  Each meal is prepackaged and combined into another package for each day, all in zip-lock bags, stacked in order in a dry bag under a backpacker style lantern and stove, along with the utensils and condiments.    We take no cans or glass containers.  All trash is either burned or sealed in  a leftover zip-lock bag and carried out, "leaving no trace" as they say.

One of the highlights of our trip was seeing several Bald Eagles along the way.  We were suspended between two foreign worlds by the water; swooping and screeching Bald Eagles above; fish, turtles and aquatic life below - hovering over the ever changing rocks, some the size of rooms, clearly visible, rising up from the river bottom.

At night the woods around us literally roared with a cacophony of animal sounds under clear dark skies. We had no moon so the stars were really bright and dazzling, only a "meteor shower" could have improved the show. 

Perfect cool temperatures made our nightly campfires more than just a gesture. We ate a big dinner each night, later crawling into our sleeping bags as soon as the firewood ran out.  We slept like logs, got up late, drank endless cups of tea, talked, ate breakfast, and then explored the area around our camp site at a leisurely pace before proceeding on down stream

One morning we literally had breakfast with beavers.  Another day we had lunch with an Osprey overhead in a dead tree. One night we even had dinner with the “locals” at an extraordinary restaurant we discovered in the little riverside village of Gilbert, just a hundred yards up the trail from our campsite.

We paddled into Gilbert late on the second afternoon, set up camp on the gravel bar, then made our way up the trail to see what we would find in the village. What we found, to our amazement, was a great restaurant!  Wisely choosing to forget our camp cooking, we stayed for a great dinner, desert and some enjoyable conversation with the locals. 

Gilbert reportedly has the coldest winter temperatures in Arkansas. It was established as a river and railroad port around the turn of the century. Later, in the 1920s, a colony of missionaries located there. They ran a printing operation and shipped their material around the world from tiny Gilbert. The missionaries and the railroad are no longer there but many of the buildings remain and are interesting to see. See "Gilbert a Utopian Experiment": http://www.northark.com/gilbert/History.htm

What remains are the very eclectic Gilbert General Store - celebrating its hundred year of operation, the Riverside Kitchen restaurant, and maybe twenty-five houses and cabins - several of which can be rented year-round. 

The General Store is filled with interesting items, old and new, from the wood floor up to the tin ceiling; old pictures of the area – with background stories provided by the clerk if she has the time, supplies for the passing traveler, a few necessities for the locals, and even rental cabins, canoes and ferry service.  The old railroad bed is now a hiking trail.  Gilbert would be a great place to visit or use as your home base for an extended stay.

The next morning we rolled out early and, you guessed it, headed back for the restaurant for a huge breakfast. Too full to paddle our boats, wanting a nap, we instead decided to take a morning walking tour of the village.  We were joined by several of Gilberts very gregarious dogs.  Arriving back at the general store we loafed around for a while visiting with the storekeeper and customers, looking at old pictures, and getting filled in on local history and current events. Just before lunch we decided we better either buy a house and stay or get back on the river.   Since we left my wife and dogs at home we chose the latter. For more information on the Riverside Kitchen and the Gilbert Store see: http://www.gilbertstore.com/index.html

Fatter and wiser we finally crawled into our kayaks and got on with the trip.  One of our newfound dog friends accompanied us, walking and swimming on down river for a mile or so before finally turning back for home. Gilbert appears to be blessed with friendly dogs and friendly people.  Unfortunately we didn’t get to meet any of the local horses so we can’t comment on them.

The restaurant in Gilbert was a totally unexpected break from our camp cooking and it was a special pleasure to find such great food, reasonable prices, friendly people and nice dogs just 100 yards up the trail from our campsite on the river. The restaurant closes for the season at the end of October but will reopen in March.

The second day on the river we began to notice how diverse the scenery is as you go down stream.  The scenery and fall colors continued to improve as we proceeded.  Probably since most of our energy was still being used to digest all that food we left Gilbert with our progress was slow and our minds were dull.  We stopped a lot and took our time. 

One unplanned stop did occur. The river split into two channels around an island.  Sitting low in a kayak it is sometimes hard to pick the best path in a case like this until you get right up on it.  Robert was hanging back, waiting to follow me through.  I saw that the channel on the right side of the island was best and entered it.  Then I saw we needed to go down the left side of that channel. Assuming Robert would follow me down the right channel, I shouted back telling him to go left as I went on down the long riffle. Half way through I looked back and Robert was nowhere to be seen?  At first, I assumed he got hung up on the rocks at the entrance so I pulled over and started looking and waiting for him. 

I was getting concerned since I could not see Robert but then I started to hear all sorts of shouting on the other side of the island.  Concerned at first, I soon realized his voice was getting closer and sounded angry, not afraid.  Then I heard what sounded like someone dragging a boat over the rocks and through brush. I was totally puzzled until he popped out of the brush, wet above his knees,  ranting: “Why did you tell me to go left! There wasn’t enough water over there. I had to get out and drag my boat down the channel! I went as far as I could go so I had to drag my boat across the island!”  He didn’t have a pleasant expression on his face! Why can’t sons just do what their fathers mean, rather than doing what they say?   

Later, drifting along, half in a daze, we were jarred back to conscious by two shrieking Bald Eagles, just overhead, flying down river, fighting over a fish or just playing with it, as they went past.  I had never been that close to Bald Eagles before and was astonished at how striking they were when seen up close.  It is easy to see why our forefathers chose them as our national symbol and unimaginable that not so long ago they were almost lost to us forever.

On our second day, we were yet to pass another boat or see another camper on the river.  We were on “river time”, never looking at a watch, measuring our days by the sun and the stars, just like the animals! 

Still feeling lazy that afternoon we spotted a nice campsite on a high gravel bar that would be warmed by the rising morning sun.  A steep forested bluff hundreds of feet tall appeared to provide easy access to lots of firewood.  At least that was what I thought until I tried to climb that bluff on all fours!  We gathered dead wood for our evening fire, pitched our tent and settled in for the night.

We ate, drank tea, and talked for hours, savoring the fire and our surroundings. When the wood ran out it got chilly so we crawled into our warm sleeping bags and quickly drifting off to sleep.

On the third day we started earlier, not early, since we wanted to arrive at Buffalo Point, the end of our journey, before dark and didn’t want to have to paddle hard. We were getting lazier, plus a little tired and stiff.  The scenery and fall colors just got more vibrant as we paddled on East down the river. 

The river was perfect for the whole trip, plenty off clear water, even in the wider and therefore shallower places. Good water levels kept us moving along at a nice easy pace even when we didn’t paddle.  The River between Maumee and Buffalo Point gets a little wider and shallower in some places so dragging bottom can sometimes be a problem this time of year due to seasonally lower river levels.   The lower section of the river generally has sufficient water to paddle year round.  Parts of the middle section and more so the upper section generally have water levels too low for paddling certain times of the year. Just check the water levels with National Park Service or one of the local outfitters before you go.  See the NPS Buffalo Home Page:  http://www.nps.gov/buff/  

We “hung up” a couple of times but were able to dislodge our kayaks without even getting out.  Picking a good path through the riffles and rocks is just challenging enough to be fun.  Robert picked paths that were challenging and that tested his abilities. I picked the easy and surer paths, as befits our respective ages. In colder weather this would have been a much more interesting game since we both hate to crawl out of our boats and  get our feet wet when it is cold. 

Speaking of challenges, twice that day I saw Robert temping fate, tormenting his father, standing up in his little nine-foot kayak. At least he only attempted this in calm waters. Boys will be boys!   

On the last day of this trip we finally found out that the river was not reserved just for us.  We passed two other people in a rental canoe, plus one family camping on the bank.  The two fishermen in the canoe were from Oklahoma, fishing the stretch from Maumee to Buffalo Point.  They said the fishing was good. A three-day out-of-state Arkansas fishing license cost about $11.00 but unfortunately we had not purchased one or brought along any tackle. Someday I plan to bring some tackle, get a license, and fish for dinner along the way.  See "Two of the best Smallmouth streams in America are located in the Arkansas Ozarks - Crooked Creek and the Buffalo River. These two streams are currently Arkansas’ only designated Blue Ribbon Smallmouth streams." at : http://www.ozarkmtns.com/fishing/species/smallmou.htm 

The fishing was good for the Ospreys too.  One flew by holding a nice fish in his talons and landing in a tree just in front of us so we pulled in on the opposite bank and joined him for a late lunch. The scenery just got better as we progressed.  About 5:00 PM we passed under the Hwy 14 Bridge and not long after we saw Buffalo Point sticking out into the river, always a beautiful and welcome site after being on the river for a long time.  Our truck was waiting; left by the ferry service, with warm dry clothes.  We loaded the kayaks, threw on our fresh clothes, called home to tell “Roberts Mother” that I hadn’t killed her son and that he hadn’t killed me, and that the two of us were still talking to each other.  Then, we headed for home.  Too late to make it to Lamberts Restaurant for dinner or to stop as BassPro in Springfield but other than that we had another almost perfect trip!   And, it's great to return home and see what is right outside your door too:   

 

Life is good

rgaines@sprintmail.com 

AFTERTHOUGHTS and a CHECKLIST:

Hiking Trips:  If your are interested in hiking here are a few example hikes I have tried or plan to try.  The descriptions of the Lost Valley  and Horseshoe Canyon Trails also give you some feel for what the upper section of the park is like.  When the water levels are up, mostly in the Spring, you can float the river and use the Horseshoe Canyon Trail as side trip.

Upper Buffalo- Lost Valley Trail (2.1 mile loop) This trail begins at Lost Valley Campground. Features along the trail include waterfalls, towering cliffs, a large bluff shelter, a natural bridge, a cave, and an abundance of spring wildflowers. The  cave itself is about 200 feet long and ends in a large room with a 35 foot waterfall. Make certain each person in your group is equipped with a flashlight  if you intend on entering the cave. A trail brochure is available at the trailhead for 50 cents.

 Upper Buffalo - Horseshoe Canyon The waterfall hike is a steep hike dropping over 1000 feet into a Horseshoe Canyon. You'll be looking down on the Buffalo River's bluff-lined path on your way to a spectacular waterfall, which falls over 200 feet onto the rocks below. Once the bluff line is reached, one will also discover a miniature gorge, and a natural swimming hole. This waterfall is the largest in the central United States and there are numerous photographic opportunities here and in the area.  Class Rating: 3; Time 2-4 hours; Distance 2 ˝ miles. 

Lower Buffalo at Buffalo Point CG - Indian Rockhouse Trail (3 mile loop) Begin your journey to the Indian Rockhouse, A bluff shelter once inhabited by Indians, at the trailhead located between the information station and restaurant. The return trail is a strenuous uphill climb (So, go the opposite direction around the loop! rrg). A trail guide is available for 50 cents.  This is a good family hike if you take your time. Take a flashlight and explore the cave at the back of the Rockhouse.  In summer take a bathing suit and cool off on the rock slides in the creek near the Rockhouse.  A beautiful and interesting spot.   rrg

Lower Buffalo - Rush: The trails at the Rush Historic District are located off Rush Road, Rt. 26. A free trail guide is available at Buffalo Point Information Stations. Historic structures and mines are fenced off for your protection.  Morning Star Loop Trail (0.3 mile) This path passes the ruins of the Morning  Star Mine buildings, including the remains of a blacksmith shop, livery barn, and smelter built in 1886. Begin at the Morning Star Trailhead. Rush Hiking Trail (2.2 miles) Begin your hike at either the Morning Star Trailhead or Rush landing. The trail is completed to Clabber Creek. 

Where is it?:

Some other useful links:

  NW Arkansas Weather: http://members.aol.com/weather176/nwa/index.html 

  Buffalo River Trail: http://www.yournet.com/brivertrail.html 

  More detailed Buffalo River Area Information: http://www.ozarkmtns.com/buffalo/bfg.html 

  Wild Bill's Home Page, good map: http://www.ozark-float.com/ 

  Cabins at Buffalo Point: http://www.buffaloriverfun.com/buffpoint.html 

Books you might find helpful:

  "Ozark Whitewater" by Tom Kennon - $14.95 - A Paddler's Guide to the Mountain Streams of Arkansas and Missouri.

  "Buffalo River Hiking Trails"  by Tim Ernst - $16.95 -

My CHECKLIST (compiled and plagiarized from many sources):

Kayak & Camping stuff:

Paddle (with drip rings) (also extra paddle)

PFD personal floatation device - Type III

Bilge pump or bailer (A plastic bottle with bottom cut out is fine.)

Emergency floating line / 50 'rope

Emergency signaling devices

Boat repair materials, duct tape etc.

Compass

First Aid Kit with bandages, Aspirin/IBU Profen/Tylenol, etc.

Personal prescriptions

Matches/lighter (in waterproof container)

Fire starter

Knife (also spare)

Folding Saw

Water purifier

Water bottles - 2 one liters plastic bottles each

Trip plan & maps (leave one w/friend, one to go in a waterproof container)

?GPS

?Barometer

?Analog or dual band cell phone for emergencies in waterproof container.

Binoculars

Camera and film (in small dry bag or waterproof case)

Notebook and pencil (in with maps)

Watch

Dry bags (two 20 & one 30 liter)

Extra eye glasses & safety strap.  Polarized sun glasses are a big plus!

Lantern

Sleeping bag - compact and warm or fleece blanket, in waterproof bag

Sleeping pad

Ground cloth - waterproof

Light tent - backpacker style is ideal

Flashlights & headlamp, small with extra batteries

Stove and fuel ( backpacker style is ideal)       

Cooking & eating utensils - bare essentials

Toiletries, toilet paper, Kleenex, toilet paper

Light pack for hiking (optional) and walks

Aluminum foil for cooking

*Shirts short & long sleeved for sun and brush protection quick drying, synthetics, not cotton

*Shorts, pants & swim suit - quick drying, synthetics, not cotton

*Jacket, poncho, rain-suit  - wind/rain resistant

Change of clothes waiting at take out point

Hiking boots or sneakers for hiking (pair also waiting at take out point?)

Water sport shoes/sandals to get/stay wet plus hiking shoes if needed

Socks & underwear

Hat for sun protection, with strap

Sun Screen with high SPF 

Chap stick with sunscreen

Toothbrush and paste

Insect Repellent concentrates in small bottles works best, i.e. DET

Comb or brush

Biodegradable soap, ivory soap, no fragrance.

Washcloth & towel

Stuff Sack to keep clothes wet/dry separated, i.e. pillow case or plastic bag

Trash Sack

?Fishing gear and permit

Zip-Lock bags in sizes up to Two gallons, handy!

 

FOOD:

 

*Beverages - NO GLASS, one day supply

Extra snacks:  power bars, candy bars, trail mix.

Meals - Jerky, trail mix,  macaroni & cheese, oatmeal, Granola, dehydrated meals, peanut butter, tuna, cheese, tortillas. 

Some useful Internet derived general reference information below: 

"Good food can make the difference between enduring or enjoying a wilderness outing. A little extra food should be carried in case of emergency (even on trips of only a few hours). Consider the calories/weight-volume-cooking issues offered by various foods. Freeze-dried and dehydrated foods have minimum moisture content and preparation is easy thanks to the pre-measured and pre-packaged portions. Because freeze-dried foods are relatively expensive I use dehydrated.  The intensity and amount of activity is the major influence. An active, young person burns food faster than someone who is older or heavier. The outside temperature will also influence food consumption as the body uses energy to keep warm. All these variables make it difficult to recommend precise quantities, but participating in outdoor activities burns in the range of 3,200 to 4,500 calories per day. This is approximately two pounds of food! /DAY                               

WATER IN - Humans can survive for an amazingly long time without food, but must have water regularly. Dehydration can cause heat stroke, hypothermia, frostbite, mountain sickness and death. Drink regularly; even when you don't feel thirsty. In the summer you need at least three or four liters each day. 

WATER OUT - Keep track of urine output: you should urinate at least three times a day. The liquid should be clear or light-colored; a dark yellow color is a sign of dehydration. Soup at the start of a meal can extend the main dish, and, if low in salt, keep you hydrated. In cold weather drink hot soup. Teas are warming and a good way to make water that has been boiled palatable.

 * > Be prepared for the unexpected, particularly with these items.