Directly after Canoecopia, Kate and I took a trip down the Buffalo River. It was a wonderful way to escape from the sunny 54 degree weather of Northern Minnesota to the sunny 55 degree weather of Arkansas, and to finally get back on the water. The Buffalo River is the first river to be designated as a national river and is known for its towering bluffs, and clear turquoise tinted water.
I had been researching this trip for a while, and decided to start in Ponca, one of the first put in points on the river, and then paddle to Buffalo Point. The route called for paddling 95 miles over five days and, assuming that we could average around twenty miles a day, would give us a bit of wiggle room.
Many years ago my parents paddled the same river. So long ago, in fact, that there are now new species of animals residing there (elk were re-introduced in 1981). While my parents were on the river, the water jumped to flood stage, meaning the trip consisted of paddling over bridges at breakneck speed. This would not be the case for us, as the river level was quite low. Through April and March I kept a watchful eye on the water levels, hoping they would be high when we arrived, making the rapids more interesting and the mileage easier.
Two days after Canoecopia, we arrived in Ponca at the Buffalo Outdoor Center, the outfitter/ resort that would provide us both lodging and a car shuttle from put-in to take- out. For those who like to stay at two or more resorts a year, I would recommend taking a look at the Buffalo Outdoor Center. (For those who go to one, I would only recommend Bearskin Lodge). Perched on top of what we in Minnesota would call a mountain, the cabin offered a spectacular view of the hill surrounding it.
The next morning we drove back to the main office to arrange our shuttle. When we arrived we were told that we would be putting in two miles down the river at Steel Creek, due to low water. Reaching Buffalo Point from Steel Creek was also deemed impossible, because of the amount of dragging we would have to do early on. Now, I spend a lot of time on the North Brule, and after getting a canoe from Horseshoe Lake to the Lima Grade in low water, might consider myself an expert on canoe dragging. Nevertheless, I was admittedly out of my element in Arkansas, and was willing to listen to the advice I was being given. Eventually we decided that after a day or two, we would call from one of the payphones located at the national forest campgrounds spread throughout the river.
Launching from Steel Creek
Hemmed in Hollow
We arrived at Steel Creek a little later than we had planned, and began to unload our gear. The weather was warm, but overcast, and while the river’s beauty was obvious, the gloom of the day obscured some of it. We had been repeatedly told that the first 12 miles of the river was the most scenic, and it certainly was breathtaking. We stopped to hike to Hemmed in Hollow, the highest trickle (waterfall) in Mid-America. The falls are very pretty, with much of the water turning into a fine mist before it reaches the ground.
At this point, river travel consisted of fairly good sized portions of paddling intermingled with many shallow rapids, maybe half of which were runable. The going was hard and slow, but we did manage to make a little over 15 miles before making camp. Our first campsite was a lot like the rest of the trips, high above the river in the woods. The wood in the area was very dry. It seemed that all you would need to do was look at it wrong and it would burst into flames. Needless to say, we were able to make a fire with little effort. After a long day we decided to make a simple meal of grilled cheese and hash browns before turning in for the night.
First night's camp
The second day we made a little better time, and spent less time dragging and more time in the canoe. We arrived at our first opportunity to call our shuttle but still didn’t have much of a feel for our pace. We decided to agree on a much shorter trip, with the understanding that we might again change. The day itself was brilliant and sunny, and the second twelve miles was at least as pretty as the first. It was encouraging to see a gradual increase in the depth of the river, and at the end of the day we were about 22 miles farther down the river than we were the night before.
Second night's camp
Chef Kate. Zero portages = Wannigan
The next day the sun came out in full force, highlighting the already spectacular scenery surrounding us. The water became deeper, and the rapids bigger and more fun. The sun being out over the last two days had also brought wildlife to the river’s edge; we were lucky enough to see a herd of elk. As a whole the trip was a success in terms of viewing wildlife. We saw mink, an otter, deer (including one swimming across a rapids), herons, eagles, and even the remains of an armadillo. The sun also had the effect of warming two travelers from Northern Minnesota to a breaking point, and we finally summoned up the courage to go for a swim. The swim, while refreshing, was not lengthy, and soon we were back in the boat.
View in the morning
Later that day, we would encounter what looked to be a possibly insurmountable obstacle in our quest for Buffalo Point. As we rounded a bend in the river we noticed smoke pouring from the forest ahead. With the smell of wood smoke thick in the air, we decided to pull over well before thick haze and see if we could get a better look from shore. The area was very dry and, probably due to the number of spring breakers using the hiking trails in the area, seemed to be the unattended campfire capital of the world. After much observation, we decided it looked safe to paddle past, after which we would be downwind of the fire. A mile long paddle cleared us from any smoke, and once through it we noticed a small sign on shore telling us that the hiking trail was closed due to prescribed burns in the area. Presumably the river was still open.
The "forest fire"
That night we camped in what was becoming our standard campsite, up from the river with a view of magnificent bluffs. This site also set itself apart because most of the area was covered in lush green grass. We had a wonderful pizza dinner and prepared for bed. Despite delaying for the fire, we had made another 25 miles, and being that we were camped no more than two miles from the original take-out point, our prospects for going the distance were looking up.
We awoke to an overcast day, with the feel of inevitable rain in the air. The cooler air was actually a bit of a relief after the unrelenting sun of the day before. We paddled past Tyler Bend early in the day, and decided to call from the small town of Gilbert to change our take out. We called from the Gilbert General Store, an odd little store right off the river. While using the phone, we were told that not only were they expecting rain, but also four inches of snow. The owner cautioned us to camp high and watch the river level. From what we could tell, most people camping who do not camp at the large campgrounds on the Buffalo River instead camp on beaches very near the water. Stories from my parents about their washed out trip had led me to be more cautious and always camp high. In the end I would say that because of this our sites were dryer, and also much nicer, if not less accessible.
We stayed ahead of the rain for nearly the entire day, and made good time. Our fourth day was probably our easiest, and because we were nearing our take out-point, we got off the water earlier then we had the days before. Despite this, it was our longest day of the trip, covering 28 miles. We set up camp in the rain, and cooked on our stove for the first time of the trip. After dinner we crawled in our tent, and stayed warm and dry falling asleep to the sound of the rain pounding down on the tent and tarp outside.
Waiting for the rain
There it is
When we awoke the next morning, we saw that the rain had never turned to snow. The ground, however, had turned to mud, and keeping clean was not an easy task. We stayed in camp much later then usual, only having a few miles to cover and hoping to wait out the rain. The rain kept up, but we stayed dry in rain gear, and our gear was protected by the canoe cover we were using. The take-out point at Buffalo Point was stunning, one of the best bluffs of the trip. We were covered in mud, loaded down with gear, and must have looked ridiculous to the people camped at the river accustomed to only seeing people out on day trips.
A muddy Kate
Take out at Buffalo Point
As we drove back to Ponca, we began to see snow. At the Buffalo Outdoor Center, we were asked if we would switch cabins due to a current guest being unable to drive out from the cabin they were staying in. As we arrived to the cabin we would be staying in, it became more and more evident that snow plow technology had not yet come this far south. I don’t mean this as a criticism, as I was told they only receive about 15 inches of snow a year, and a snow plow would be akin to Bearskin having air conditioners. We drove through a snow covered field to our cabin and unloaded in a howling wind. The cabin was beautiful, with a million dollar view that now looked as if we were sitting directly in the middle of a cloud. Luckly, by the next day the weather had cleared and we were able to at least briefly enjoy the view.
The following morning we begin our trek home. At one point we had to plow through snow so deep that my truck was skidding along on its chassis. Once we hit pavement the snow had long melted off, and we checked out, bought a shirt or two, and headed towards home. We would spent the night in Iowa City with former Bearskin employee Megan Lessard, who is good, before putting in a long ten hour day drive back to Bearskin.
In looking back, the trip ended up being a complete success, with everything working out nearly perfectly. It was cool to camp and paddle in a completely different environment than we’re used to, and fun to do it in mid-March. Hopefully this will just be the beginning of a good paddling season for us, a season that even on the trail might get started much sooner than we ever planned for.