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Down the Buffalo River Without a Kayak

July 2002

 

 

I have been trying to get off on a river trip since spring. In March I hoped to go back to the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park, TX to see the desert in bloom and spend several days kayaking up the Santa Elena Canyon and then slowly drifting back down to my car, camping along the way.  I was too busy and the TX weather was uncooperative this year so I shifted my focus to the Buffalo River In Arkansas or maybe the Current River in Missouri.  Something always came up - summer was passing by.  

So one Sunday I said “That’s it!” and decided to leave for the Buffalo River the following Wednesday after work.   I had three days to get organized, plan my trip, get packed, and figure out how to mount my kayak on top of my old Subaru.  The important thing was, at last, I was committed to leave at 4 PM the following Wednesday.  That gave me time to spare, I thought! 

Things came up all week and on Wednesday afternoon  I still was not packed and hadn't come up with a satisfactory way to mount my kayak on the car!  What the heck, I didn't want to drag my Folbot across the rocks anyway.  So I grabbed my sons little plastic kayak, tied it on with bungee cords, got loaded, and finally got off at 8 PM.  No big deal, I was in no hurry.  By the time I reached South Missouri I would have a trip plan worked out in my head and I could stop at a 24-hour Wal-Mart along the way to get the additional food and supplies I needed.  Everything went nicely according to my new “plan D”. 

100 miles down the road I decided to camp for the night near Noel Missouri on the Elk River.  My son and I made a couple of day trips down some SW MO rivers a few years ago and I liked what we saw.  I wanted to check out the area again for a possible future paddling & camping trip. 

 I stopped at the Wal-Mart in Carthage MO.  That took an hour to get my food supplies picked out and purchased. I could have done it in 20 minutes but I had to examine all the camping, camera, and boating equipment too.  By then I was hungry, probably a result of looking at all that food, so I had to stop at Burger King for a midnight Whopper on the way out of town. The Noel plan still was looking good – Only 40-50 miles to go for the night.  Noel was about 20 miles off the track but I had the time and freedom to wonder.

 Up oh! – A problem!  The highway turnoff to Noel was “CLOSED” and the detour looked too far out of the way so I pulled over, checked my map, and came up with “Plan E”.  I decided to go on south to Withrow State Park in N. Arkansas. 

Storms were threatening when I got to the campground so I  sleep in the back rather than mess with a wet tent the next morning.  In my mind, my old ’86 Subaru is actually a tiny austere “Micro-ATV-Motorhome” disguised as an old rusty station wagon.  By 2:00 AM I was tucked away in the back, cozy, out of the rain, and falling asleep.

 Something went “thump in the night”, shaking my car, suddenly waking me up. It was 5:00 AM!   Moments later I spotted a marauding coon checking out the adjacent campsite.  Evidently he had been climbing around on my car trying to get at the food inside.  I still was half awake when the birds started chirping at 5:30.  It was still dark but I was raring to go so I got up.  I took a shower, fixed breakfast, made some strong coffee, and set out to explore little Withrow State Park at sunrise before heading on southeast through the Boston Mountains to the far western end of the Buffalo River.   The Boston Mountains are very scenic so I didn’t want to miss them by driving on through the night before in the dark.

Before I even got out of the park I spotted a dirt road that looked interesting.  When I came to a junction I turned on to another dirt road that looked like it might be a "path less traveled" on to the highway.  I decided to follow it for a while and see.  When the road turned south toward the highway I was feeling smug about guessing right so I just kept on going enjoying scenery.  

After a few miles later the road came to a low water crossing on the War Eagle River.  Unfortunately the river was up from the rain so I had to backtrack to the park and exit on the paved road like normal people do.  That was fine.  The scenery down and back to the War Eagle River was well worth the trouble and I had discovered another potential river to float someday.  A beautiful mist covered the hills in the sunrise, wild flowers were in bloom, and the cattle and chicken farms I passed along the way were very picturesque.

Early RisersWhops! Another Dead End

            - Early Risers -                                            - Dead Ended at War Eagle River -  

 

Flowers along the Road to Nowhere

 

More Flowers along the Road to Nowhere

 

Sunrise at Withrow State Park in N. Arkansas

 

My latest plan “E”, which had crystallized about 1 AM the night before, was to enter the Western end of the Buffalo River Area and work my way east exploring the interesting places and sights along the way.  Usually this time of year it is hot and dry in Northern Arkansas but this year it was very pleasant after all the rain. As I wandered on southeast into the Boston Mountains they were shrouded in mist, storm clouds and rain, lush vegetation and changing wild flowers varied as I went up and down from the valleys to the mountains tops.   The fog and mist clinging to the mountains made them look very much like the Smokey Mountains back east where I grew up.  

The trip through the Boston Mountains was absolutely beautiful.  I was in and out of intermittent dark violent turbulent storms and brilliant sunlight. The road was often like a roller coaster track, up, down, and around the mountains and the valleys - in and out of the fog, mist, and rain, brilliant beams of sunlight radiating like golden spokes through gaps in the clouds, illuminating the valleys below or the clouds and mountains above like golden floodlights. Sometimes, riding along on the mountaintops I could see for miles, sometimes I could barely see the road in front of me.  As I drove I  passed through dense fog, sheets of rain, dark gray and black storm clouds, lightning flashing - pulsating inside the clouds, tremendous claps of thunder resonating off the mountain sides, turbulent blast of wind, mist, then brilliant sunlight puncturing the clouds making cottony white wisp of fog clinging to the blue-green mountains glow iridescently. The scenery was fantastic!  Mountain storms are magnificent.

                                                             - Mountain Flowers -

 

- Flowers in the Dark of the Storm -                          - Ancient Fossil Travelers -

                                 - Natures Response to a Scratch in the Earth -

 

I was almost to Boxley and the Buffalo River when I spotted another dirt road that I was compelled to investigate.  It looked like it might lead to some nice views of the upper river and bluffs below.  The mountaintops in this area are above 1000’ above the river so I thought I better give this road a try.  

(See my other Buffalo River Web page for a better description and more information on this area - http://www.angelfire.com/mo3/rrgaines/ )

 This road turned out to be mostly another road to nowhere for me. But again, the scenery was nice.  Unfortunately the intermittent storms turned into a steady down poor.  Problem # 3 – My windshield wipers stopped working! This gravel road was about wide enough for a car and a half and went around and around and up and down, with lots of sharp blind curves.  The road was covered with leaves, twigs, and sticks ripped off by the violent blast of the storm.  I could hardly see where I was going.  The wind, rain and lightning just got worse.  I passed an old cemetery and kept going thinking this road had to go somewhere interesting eventually. After several miles I passed through an area with some houses. They appeared to be the purpose for this road - Probably an old logging or mining community.  So, I gave up, turned around, and headed back for the cemetery hoping to find a piece of wire that I could attach to my wiper arm so I could wipe the windshield by rolling down the window and pulling the wire back and forth.  For the rest of the trip that was how I managed to see when I was driving in the rain.  Crude and wet, but it worked.

 After returning to the highway I proceeded on to explore the Boxley, Ponca, the Steel Creek Campground (Beautiful quiet spot.) and the surrounding sights in the west end of the park. At this point I really appreciated that brigand coon that got me off to such an early start that morning. There was a lot to see and having use of all the daylight hours was good.

 

  

                                        - Boxley & Ponca Area on the Upper Buffalo-

 

              - Steel Creek Campground -                                              - Elk Dinner? - 

 

There were three things that I particularly wanted to see in the west end of the park:  

·        Elk reintroduced in 1981.  

·        Lost Valley Trail is about a 2-mile loop originating at Lost Valley Campground and passing waterfalls, cliffs, a bluff shelter, a natural bridge, and wildflowers. The highlight is a 200 feet cave ending in a large room with a 35-foot waterfall. Flashlights required if you intend on entering the cave.   

·        Horseshoe Canyon features a steep 2.5-mile hike that drops 1000 feet down into the canyon. Along the way you will see overlooks of the Buffalo River, a miniature gorge, a natural swimming hole and a 200’ waterfall (the largest in the central United States).  Then you get to climb back out!  

 That evening I found an elk herd grazing in a field beside the river – just where a local told me they would be. I want to get back in August/September someday to hear the Elk’s bugle calls echoing off the bluffs and mountains. The last time I was in Yellowstone during the elk mating season I got too close to a hormonal Elk. I was trying to get “that perfect picture” when the elk lost patience. I had to retreat to a tree before the elk went on his way. I had a similar experience with a Bull Buffalo out in the Black Hills years ago. Never crowd Elk or Buffalo, especially in the mating season!  Guess those Park Service warnings are true, Duh!

 Unfortunately the two “waterfalls hikes” didn’t pan out on this trip. This time of year the water table drops and the falls go dry. When I arrived that evening at Lost Valley campground, Clark Creek below the falls was dry.  Another camper told me that the falls at Lost Valley and at Horseshoe Canyon were dry. I knew that was normal for this time of year but I had hopped that the rain would briefly activate the falls.  Guess not!  No problem, I usually find that the “trip” can be as good or better than the panned “destinations”.

 Just as I began unpacking my camping equipment to make dinner for the night at Lost Valley CG it began raining and big thunderstorms started rolling in from the southwest. The sky turned black in the west but was clear in the east so I decided to move on east down the river for the night.  

 By now I was hungry so I decided to go NE about 25 miles out of the Park to Harrison, eat a big dinner, and then head back SE into the Park after dark, probably in the rain?  Along the way back I had several campsites to choose from. I picked the Mt. Hersey river access point because it looked more isolated.  Primitive camping is allowed all along the river.  I didn’t necessarily have high expectations for Mt. Hersey but I wanted to check it out.  To my surprise I ended up liking this spot so well that I made it my base camp and stayed there for the rest of my trip. 

 

          - Mt. Hersey Looking Down Stream -                     - Mt. Hersey Looking Up Stream -

 

When I take someone else with me on a trip like this I always do a lot of research and detailed planning. I make a detailed itinerary with fallback plans and possible extra side trips. This has worked very well over the years but it is also a lot of work and can be restrictive.  Since I was by myself on this trip my “master plan”, evolving as I went along, was to “do whatever seemed interesting at the moment and return home in 5 or 6 days”.  Basically I hoped to explore the western end of the park for 2-3 days and then float/camp/fish the river for 2-3 days starting as far upstream as the seasonal water levels would permit.  Over the years I have found that if you talk to the locals, take some chances and use your intuition you will usually see many interesting things you would never discover on your own.

 

Wondering around my campsite: 

                                 - '48 Ford? -                                                            - No Mosquito -

 

                                                                 -River Sculpture -

 

                               -Dew Drops on the Grass, Red Roots, & Green Persimmons -

 

I had planned to kayak and fish for Small Mouth and Rock Bass but I never found the time to drive out of the park and back just to get a fishing license.   I was having too much fun exploring, pondering the meaning of life, rivers, rocks, etc.  Previously I had only briefly passed through this western section of the park and it was a pleasure to finally get to spend some quality time there.  My base camp at Mt. Hersey was isolated - hardly any people disturbed my isolation. The longer I stayed there the better I liked it.  I was pretty much by myself most all of the time except for one other camper the first night, some occasional passing fishermen, and a really interesting guy I met, George Day.   

George turned out to be a wealth of information and literally gave me a shopping list of interesting things to see that I would have never found on my own.  He has been developing land surrounding the Buffalo River since 1961 and was a walking talking history & resource guide for this area.  He and I spent several enjoyable hours gabbing. I usually run into several nice people on the Buffalo and George is one of the nicest, most knowledgeable, and most interesting folks I have come across.  I could listen to him talk about the area for hours.  It seems to me that people like George that have moved into an area and really love it end up knowing so much more about their surroundings than many of the locals.  One of George’s current developments was on a mountaintop overlooking the river above my campsite.  George invited me to visit his property and enjoy the mountain top views of the surrounding area.

Even though my campsite was "primitive" I had all the conveniences of home.

 

             - Dish Washer -                                            - Washing Machine -

 

                                         - Solar Powered Portable Clothes Drier -

 

The next day I was wondering around on George’s mountaintop taking pictures enjoying the views when I ran into George again.  He was up there to feed the fish in a pond he had built.  We spent quite a while talking and enjoying the view.  George pointed out many interesting sites visible for miles below us, some new places for me to explore, and filled me in on some interesting local history and information.  He would be a fantastic tour guide!   Suddenly a big thunderstorm hit. 

 - Looking down on my campsite on the river from George's property (lower right center of the picture) -

 

 George suggested I hold up in his cave about 200 yards below us to get out of the rain & lightning. He proceeded on to feed his fish and depart.   I grabbed a flashlight out of my car and scrambled down the mountainside where I saw the cave entrance just as the rain really started pouring down.  The entrance to the cave was a hole in the mountainside with a dirt slide steeply sloping down about 30 feet into a large underground room, maybe 40 feet across.  After I got settled in I spotted an ominous hole about 4 feet across at the bottom of that dirt-slide. That hole appeared to go straight down. I later found out that it “went straight down 40 feet”.  There was another passageway on the other side of the dirt slide leading off from the right side.  This was a “living cave” (new stalagmites and stalactites were forming) and surprisingly several large and interesting formations were only a few feet in from the entrance.  Most of the caves I have seen before have been exits for underground streams.  This one was an entrance for water high up on the mountainside.

 The rain runoff from the mountain above steadily increased forming a small waterfall at the entrance of the cave that ran down the dirt slide.  The dirt slide soon turned to mud with little rain filled rivulets disappearing into that 40’ deep hole at the bottom of the cave. That concerned me since I had to climb back up what was now a “mud slide” to get out and it looked to me that if I started slipping backwards down that slope I might end up sliding down into that 40’ deep hole at the bottom!  I am not a “cave person” and that was intimidating.   Kayaking and hiking alone is very rewarding but you do need to minimize potential risk, especially when by yourself with  no one there to help you. The possibility of George coming across my car the next day and finding me at the bottom of that hole wasn’t appealing, even though that scenario was unlikely.

After the rain stopped I climbed out of the cave slowly working my way up a small washed out gully using rocks and sticks embedded in the mud as footholds and grab points.  I wanted to cross over the mudslide and explore the passageway on the other side of the cave but I didn’t want to risk sliding into that hole. I could see some of nice formations in that passageway with my flashlight.  Maybe I’ll get back there again when it is dry to explore that passageway and take some pictures of the formations. Sadly, I didn’t take my camera with me this time.       

Typically after spending the day exploring the surrounding area I would get back to my base camp just before dark, make a big dinner, take a moonlight swim, then hit the sack. In the morning I would get up, make breakfast, and sit on the side of the river enjoying my coffee while deciding what I would do that day.  I stayed on the move most of the time.  I walked up, down, through and across the river and explored the two spring fed creeks on either side of my campsite.

I found big cold springs at their sources and a dam for an old waterwheel powered electricity generator.  George told me that an early resident had built a small water driven generator there and then later expanded to a bigger dam and generator to provide power to other people that had moved in.  Probably when the REA arrived he was put out of business?  I also hiked an old abandoned road above the river in the hills and explored miles and miles of dirt roads up and down the river by car. 

 

              - Dam on Mill Creek -                                                    -Mill Creek Spring -

 

                                                             - Liquid Color -

 

Exploring by car I visited the Boxley, Ponca, Steel Creek, Kyle’s Landing, Ozark, Hasty, Pruitt, Mt. Hersey, Carver, and Gilbert river access points and campsites. The Ozark and Steel Creek campgrounds were very nice developed campsites with water and showers. Mt. Hersey was a great primitive and isolated campsite and base camp for me on this trip.   

This time of year there is usually insufficient water in the river to float above Gilbert but the recent rains made much of the upper river floatable. I have kayaked the Buffalo below Mt. Hersey several times but never this upper section.  I would be great someday to float all the way from Boxley in the West down to Buffalo City in the east. That float might take me 10-12 days at the pace I like to go. That is over 100 miles of river from end to end with an average water speed of about 2 mph – maybe 50 hours of floating or about 30 plus hours at my kayaking and exploring pace.  I do like to take side trips along the way.  The extreme western part of the river is the white water section when the water is up.  There are also several hikes along the way that I would want to take.  

The river was really nice with lots of spring fed creeks feeding deep clear pools separated by shallow riffles, usually with high limestone bluffs on one side – classic Buffalo River scenery.  I saw several deer, a herd of elk, a mink, many coons, indigo buntings and heron, a scarlet tangier, many rabbits, several road-kill armadillos and opossums too, plus the usual collection of other birds, fish and mammals you see in this area. Unfortunately I didn’t see any eagles, otters, or beavers on this trip.  Because of all the rain the wildflowers were blooming nicely too. 

The days were hot and humid so my nightly moonlight swims were a special pleasure. I relaxed and floated around listening and watching for wildlife before going off to bed.  The water clarity and temperature were perfect. I could see my feet clearly on the bottom in the moonlight. It was so refreshing to just sit or stand in the river neck deep silently for long periods of time listening to all the sounds and admiring the moon lit scenery.  

One night, after floating around in a state of bliss for a while, I decided to go back to my car and get a cigarette.  The moon was brilliant so I didn’t take a flashlight.  Not smart!  When I came back to get into the river I saw some strange movement at waters edge in the shadows under a tree where I was getting in, I had left my glasses back at the tent so I couldn’t make out much detail in the moonlight shadows.  Peering carefully I discovered a snake right where I was about to reenter the water.  My towel and flashlight were laying a few feet away. Unfortunately the batteries were weak and without my glasses I couldn’t tell if the snake was a water moccasin or just one of those nasty tempered water snakes.  The ones that the tourist kill by the thousands every year thinking they are water moccasins or copperheads!  That was a bit intimidating so I gave up my swim for that night and went on to bed.  In all the walking and driving I did on the creeks, rivers, roads, and trails I only saw two snakes the whole trip.  The other one, which I ran into in the daylight while hiking up the edge of the river was just one of those unfortunate common non-poisonous water snakes.   

Too other animals I encountered on this trip need to go extinct.  The cell-phone-bird and the junk-yard-frog: One day I had hiked down the river and found a perfect rock to sit on. I could see down into the main channel to watch for interesting fish passing by plus I could see up and down the river for a quarter of a mile in both directions.  I quietly sat there a long time, apparently several miles from anyone or civilization, listening and watching, my senses getting sharper and sharper, hoping to spot an otter, beaver, or eagle.  To my total disappointment I faintly heard a cell-phone like beeping sound way up the river.  #$%^&*!   I kept waiting for a canoe to appear around the corner but it didn’t.  The electronic beeping sound intermittently continued. Eventually the sound pattern changed and I realized I was only hearing a bird! 

Evidently that sensitized my mind to hearing “people sounds”.  A while later I started hearing what sounded like someone hammering on a car way up in the hills above me.  Tap, tap, tap! Out here in what I expected to be total isolation.  #$%^&*!  The source of this “human like sound” turned out to be a frog with a strange mating call way back in the woods!    The mind plays tricks on you when you are out in the woods by yourself.       

I really enjoyed hiking up those cold creeks and finding the springs at their sources. The weather was so hot and so humid but the cold spring water running down the creeks from the mountains above also created a wonderful river of cool air above the water - flowing down to the river below just like the creek. The creek beds were cut deeply in the ground. The resulting meandering corridor was shrouded in mist all day. Hikes up these lush stream beads provided a refreshing break from the heat and humidity – trees tops sealing out the suns heat above. I spent many hours hiking up these cool clear streams, often pausing to savor the surreal beauty in lush mist cloaked surroundings or to observe the plants and animals around me.    

                                              - Islands in the Mist on Spring Creek -

There is a maze of abandoned old mining and logging roads that run along the tops of the bluffs and hills above the river.  The place where I stayed evidently had been a river ford at one time but the water was too deep to cross in my Subaru. The Park still leases many small fields that border the river to local farmers for the hay.  These riverside fields make ideal places for the deer and elk to graze in the evenings.  I pitched my tent in the edge of one of these fields about 200’ away from the river. I have seen the Buffalo rise 18' in one night.

Even though I took a kayak I was so busy walking the river, creeks, and hills that I never even took the kayak off the car!  I had planned to get a shuttle up stream at Gilbert or Buffalo Point and then float the river a day or two but I never seemed to find time for that.  I could walk, wade, float, or swim the river for miles in either direction.  It would be great to just hike down the river for days. I believe you could walk along one side or the other most of the time, wading back and forth as needed. Sometimes you might be hiking in water ankle to knee deep but I suspect most of the time you would be walking on sand, gravel bars, or old riverside trails.  Sometimes you might need to hold you pack over your head or even wrap it in plastic bags and use it as a float to swim across or down some of the pools and deep places.  A small inflatable kids raft might be useful to hold you pack and act as a float when you just wanted to drift along with the current in the deeper sections or to cool down or take a break from walking.

               - Wondering Around -                          - Rental Canoe - Why I Took My Son's Kayak -

 

Buffalo Campsites: I visited many nice campsites that ranged from primitive and remote to more developed sites with restrooms, showers, and gravel beaches. Cabins and improved campsites with electricity and water hook-up are available down river at the Buffalo Point CG.  At the bigger developed sites in this upper area you typically find campsites located at the edge of a field with trees for shade. Behind your site through the trees you usually find a gravel beech and a 1/2 to 3/4 mile “clear pool” in a bend in the river. Across the river you typically find 100-300' foot lime stone bluffs towering up from the rivers edge.  The sites are clean, the water, cool and clear and the scenery picturesque.

                 - Down River -                                            - Crispy Campsite (not mine!) -

                                                                         (Note the beer cans and charcoal lighter.  Hum?)

To get to the campgrounds from the highways that border or cross the park you often travel down a decent gravel road for several miles to the river.  Some of these roads are steep! - So steep you wonder how some cars get out, especially if it rains.  On one decent my brakes overheated.  After that I used low gear to save the brakes. I haven't traveled on roads like this since I was a kid growing up in the Smokey Mountains.  At the more developed sites I usually saw a few families camping - everyone enjoying themselves sunning on the gravel beaches, swimming in the crystal clear water, or just laying around their campsite.  The kids sometimes climb up the cliffs and jump 5-40 feet down into the cool deep water below.  These were some of the most pleasant and scenic campsites I have seen in all my travels. 

Many people feel the Buffalo is one of the nicest parks in the country and I find some good justification for that. Clear pristine waters, magnificent towering limestone bluffs, excellent fishing, swimming and boating, in quiet pristine isolated surroundings.  There are not many places that can match the subtle isolated beauty of the Buffalo.  Yosemite, Teton, & Glacier National Parks are magnificent and awe inspiring but the Buffalo National River Wild and Scenic Area is a thing unto itself - a more subtle national treasure in an uncrowded pristine wilderness area.  You could spend your life exploring on foot, by canoe or kayak, and by car, and never see a most of it.  

I am always planning my next trip back before I even get out of the park heading for home.

 

 

                                                 - Parting is Such Sweet Sadness -

 

For more information, more pictures, and useful links to other Buffalo River related sites see my other Buffalo Web Page at   http://www.angelfire.com/mo3/rrgaines/     

email:  rgaines@sprintmail.com