57 Turtles. 15+ Waterfalls. 1 rogue wave. Zero Snakes. Now is the time to get the kids on the Buffalo River.
On a Monday in mid-April, the weather report for that Saturday was sunny and 75, and with the recent rains all the local rivers were still running high. With no rain predicted for the rest of the week, though, conditions were likely to be perfect for a Saturday float on the Buffalo.
I’m no expert oarsman, but I’ve done the Kings and Buffalo enough times to have plenty of misplaced confidence. And with an early season tuneup on the Mulberry under my belt, I figured adding Lauren and Grace, 9 & 6 years old, would be no trouble.
Saturday morning I was up early, making sure we had life jackets and paddles, getting Nutella & peanut butter sandwiches prepared, packing the fruit, and for when little people got tired and cranky, the Nutter Butters. We were off by 10.
It’s an easy hour and fifteen minutes to Ponca, to get one of the local outfitters to shuttle the truck. The Ponca Bridge was packed, mostly with groups of college guys, and a few families with teenagers. There was even a brave couple with a 16-month old. The water was running at 3.0, which was perfect for us. Fast enough to keep us moving but not fast enough to be dangerous.
While I got the canoe ready they got to watch two of the canoes with the college guys hit that first rock in front of the bridge and immediately turn their canoe over. The girls thought it was funny, but it made me a little nervous, because the water was freezing, and if we went in there, it was going to be a long day with cold, wet, grumpy girls.
We navigated the takeoff with aplomb, smoothly avoiding the rock, and set off down the river. That first part of the float is probably my favorite, as there are so many waterfalls off the cliffs between the Ponca Bridge and Steel Creek. It was still overcast and a little cool, but they were already sticking their feet over the side into the water and trying to stand up in the canoe.
If you’ve not floated the Buffalo, the most striking part may be the bluffs. There are 3-6 story bluffs around every bend. This time of year it seems every 50 yards there is another small waterfall flowing from the top. The water, too — cold but so clear, with the deep pools a spectacular green. There really aren’t enough superlatives to describe the scenery, and so I’d recommend just buying a Tim Ernst book.
Even with the river packed with people — we were rarely out of sight of other canoes — we still feel out in the middle of nowhere. This feeling of being disconnected, out of cell phone range, in the middle of the Ozarks at its finest can be extremely relaxing if you’re 40 — however, the scenery only goes so far when you’re in elementary school. After an hour or so we needed some action.
Also, the turtle count got underway, which although the turtles just sit there, for some reason they held their fascination all day. The turtles dived in whenever we got near, but we never lost the running count. At one point, another canoe claimed there was a beaver under the roots of a tree along the bank. Apparently shouting “there’s a beaver over here” doesn’t really encourage him to stay visible, but we paddled over and looked for a long time, and the possibility of Bucky being there was enough.
We approached a rapid just above Hemmed-in-Hollow, I saw a standing wave and was thinking it would be funny because Grace, having been relieved of her command on the cooler and now in front, was going to get wet. What I wasn’t doing was focusing on them and barking the usual instructions of put your paddle in and don’t lean as we go through this and I’ll do the moving of the canoe. As we hit the wave, the happy squeal came, and the canoe turned slightly sideways to the wave. It wasn’t much, but just enough so we slid along the wave and it poured water in. The girls both squealed and leaned over to get away from the water, and I wasn’t quick enough in counterbalancing. The canoe lifted, and Lauren and I were both in. Somehow, the former captain managed to stay in her seat as the canoe righted itself, but the ship was clearly going down.
The temperature of the water was a shock, and it was just deep enough so that I could only catch my toes a little but couldn’t get enough of a foothold to push the canoe and all of us to the bank. So we were floating along and I was trying to keep the flip flops and water bottles and paddles from getting too far away while I kicked like a duck trying to get the bottom. I wasn’t worried about them as they had their life jackets and I had the boat so they couldn’t get under it. I knew we would get to the bank eventually, and while Lauren floated and shivered, Grace continued to sit regally in the canoe, a look of annoyance on her face at the cold water around her legs but apparently assuming all would soon be well. The annoyance quickly turned to anger as Lauren reached the canoe and grabbed on, increasing the rate of water and causing it to submerge, floating Grace right out with a shriek and fully into the cold water.
Both were bobbing, teeth chattering and only able to dog paddle due to the cold and their life jackets while I held on to the canoe and encouraged them and tried to get my feet under me as we moved downriver. They were fine in the water, just shocked a little by the cold. Thankfully, river etiquette quickly prevailed and a kayaker told them to grab his boat and guided them the final few feet to shore just as I got my feet and moved the canoe over as well. Two or three other people stopped as well to help me flip and drain the canoe, and before too long two very, very cold little girls got back in. Teeth chattering, they definitely wanted to know how much longer at this point because they were having zero fun.
The Buffalo River would not let us have a bad time though, and a mere 5 minutes after we got back in, the sun broke through the clouds and it felt like the temperature immediately shot up 10 degrees. A few minutes later we came to the long flat rock ledge across from the Hemmed in Hollow trailhead, took off the life jackets and just laid there like turtles ourselves, soaking up the heat from the rocks. The smiles returned, the desire to explore returned (although I couldn’t talk them into hiking to the waterfall), and we happily embarked again.
I hate to say it, but getting dumped was probably the best thing for the second half of our trip. It woke us up and gave them just the right amount of “danger” to discuss at length. Their recollections of their coolness under fire (or water) became more brave with every retelling. The excitement of rapids, however, was replaced with more respect and desire to move more quickly through them than we’d had before. But even that started to fade by the end of the day and again I was having to remind them to sit down so I could see.
With the sun out, every stop now involved warm rocks to lay on, including an hour stop on some hot sand where we laughed and talked while they made sand castles and I eventually nearly fell asleep stretched out on the sand under the sun. I would have been all the way asleep if they hadn’t started burying me. It was the best part of the day.
Thirty minutes after the sand we were at Kyle’s Landing. It was a total six-hour float including stops. The truck with our dry clothes was a welcome sight. We quickly loaded, stopped in Ponca for our traditional post-Buffalo ice cream sandwiches, and were back in Fayetteville by 6:30 p.m. that evening.
Trip Planning Notes:
If six hours seems too long, put in at Steel Creek rather than the Ponca Bridge, and it’s an 8-mile trip instead of 10 miles.
Both Lost Valley Canoe (www.lostvalleycanoe.com) and Buffalo Outdoor Center (www.buffaloriver.com) rent canoes, kayaks, rafts. Both will shuttle for a fee.
Go now if you want to float from the Ponca Bridge. The water probably won’t be high enough by summer.
Matt Bishop owns Bishop Law Firm in Eureka Springs.
The Buffalo is a river for all seasons. Buffalo River canoeing is a year-round possibility except in the upper reaches where it’s limited to the winter and spring months. Camping, too, is a year-long pursuit, though visitors should remember the state’s lowest winter temperatures traditionally occur along this stream. The Buffalo’s corridor is also a great locale for hiking and backpacking, but expeditions should be scheduled outside the tick/chigger season.
To get to the Buffalo River, Arkansas highways 21, 74, 7, 123, 333, 14, and 268 as well as U.S. Highway 65 all provide easy access. In addition, a good many county roads provide access to points between the highway crossings.
About two dozen concessionaires rent canoes along the Buffalo and offer other related services. In addition, several rent johnboats and can provide complete fishing packages.
Lodging choices will depend upon individual preferences but can range from genuine log cabins to bed and breakfast facilities to modern motel rooms. And, of course, designated campgrounds are located at frequent intervals on the river. Most all supplies can be obtained at Harrison, Marshall, Jasper, Yellville or other nearby communities.