Three things came together this weekend that created a once in a lifetime experience: a float on the upper Buffalo National River….in mid August.
First- for us August is a time to back off the Arkansas Outside push for awhile, time to spend a couple of weekends with the family and catchi up on chores around the house. It’s the short rest we need before we dive into the craziness of outdoor adventures that start on Labor Day weekend and won’t let up until December. There are fewer events to cover as people hide from the heat, get their kids ready for the first day of school or finish up the last bits of summer vacation. It gives us a breather and a little time to be spontaneous.
Second- it rained. August normally gives us water only in the form of humidity, moisture rising from the ground and hanging in the air. The lakes and rivers start drying up, the pine trees start shedding unneeded limbs, the heat clings to you in a blanket of damp covering your body whenever you set foot out of the air conditioning. This year August arrived with rain, beautiful heavy rains; rains that allowed serious river runners to enjoy August weekends dropping down the Cossatot River.
Third- an early fall came to Arkansas. Evening temperatures in the 50’s are unheard of in a Natural State August. Record lows have been set and it looks like a record number of people have found their way outdoors. Bicycle and pedestrian trails throughout the state have been filling up with those who may normally be confined to the indoors or to neighborhood pools. Lakes and rivers are busting at the seams with boaters, swimmers and waders.
An Adventure is Born
Last week we heard that the upper Buffalo River was floatable due to the recent rains for the first August in about 40 years. Due to our schedules at the normal flow times of Spring and Fall, we’ve missed out on floating the Buffalo in recent years. We realized we were failing as parents since our youngest had never floated the first National River in the country. Working around other schedules we put together a plan to float from Steel Creek to Kyle’s Landing on the day before school started. The young would paddle her old Loon kayak, the one we bought her when she was 10 and fell in love with flatwater kayaking, and Lisa and I would rent a canoe.
We drove up Sunday morning leaving Little Rock around 7:30 and getting to Ponca by 10:30. The outfitters were busy with the welcome summer business. We had made arrangements with Lost Valley Canoe and Lodging for the rental and to shuttle our truck to Kyle’s Landing so we could load up our kayak at the end and head straight back to Little Rock. I highly recommend the vehicle shuttle option, it saves a lot of time on a day trip.
Things were buzzing at Steel Creek with a lot of boats waiting to get in the water, but it didn’t take long before we were on the river. The young one took on a little water as she launched trying to negotiate through the large number of vessels at the put in but a short stop on a gravel bar around the first turn allowed us to remedy that. One of the outfitters had told us that this was probably the last day they would be running services until the water came up again and as we hit the first ripples we could tell that we had gotten to the river just in time as we could feel a lot of the river bed vibrating our canoe seats.
The water level had dropped and the rocks were putting on a great show peeking up out of the water but we only had one mishap in the canoe when after almost clearing one of the small rapids we found the one last rock that set us sideways and over. No harm done, everything was well strapped in and a short portage to the gravel bar where a small group was able to enjoy our show, made getting righted pretty simple.
The young one had one more unexpected adventure when she got caught going the wrong way around a huge root ball that was sitting at the base of one of the rapids. With a short fording of the river and the help of another paddler we got her out of the predicament and back in the main channel. then we stopped to watch many others attempt to negotiate that curve, some working it out, many almost failing and a few more who had to get out and figure a new path.
Floating the Buffalo is all about the bluffs, the huge limestone bluffs. One of my favorites is aptly called Big Bluff and is also home to the Goat Trail a favorite place we visited on Thanksgiving vacation a couple of years ago. We enjoyed floating below the bluff watching vultures circle the top so much we took a quick break at the base and pulled the camera’s out of the dry bag.
We had brought some basic sandwich makings and chips and after spending a couple of hours on the water, it was time for lunch and refueling our energy. Pulling over on a gravel bar near what I believe is called Jim’s Bluff, we built a couple of rock cairns and watched people take turns jumping off the rock into a deeper part of the river. Some walked to the edge and jumped with a “Whoop!”, some took a few moments to contemplate the penalty for failure, and one even did a couple of nice back flips while we watched. It was a perfect spot to take a break and enjoy the day.
After slipping through a few more bends in the river we came upon the trail head to Hemmed-In-Hollow, the site of the tallest waterfall between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountain ranges. The short hike is a nice way to stretch out the legs after sitting in the boat for several hours. The waterfall had a little more water coming over it than it had the last time we were here but I wish I had seen it a couple of weeks ago when the rains were still falling and the fall had even more water.
It wasn’t only the boaters and hikers enjoying a beautiful day on the river, a minor traffic jam happened when some horseback riders had to wait for us to pass before crossing the river. I wish I’d gotten a photo of them thundering across the water behind us.
Several more bumpy rapids and a few more turns in the river brought us to Kyle’s Landing where we loaded up our kayak, cooler and other stuff. It was nice to find the truck waiting for us and within minutes we were making the long drive up the gravel road from the river to pavement.
We finished up the trip with a drive down Scenic Highway 7 and after stopping for dinner we witnessed the last sunset of the summer vacation season as we crossed the Arkansas River into Little Rock.
…and that’s how we spent the last day of summer vacation.