Monday, July 24, 2017

Arkansas Adventure

It is hot in July in Arkansas -and I absolutely love it.  There are rivers and lakes and mountains and streams that flow to and from them.  One of those rivers remains in the condition it was created.  In 1972 the Buffalo River was designated the Nation’s first ever National River, keeping it protected from any developments.  Apparently, some people had wanted to dam the river (which did happen to nearby rivers) and others did not support the idea.  So they fought and won.  Ever since then many people have been able to enjoy this protected river - as a result of their efforts.
Tiffany and I began at Buffalo Point Wilderness Campground.  When we arrived, we chose a seemingly level campsite, but with a great view, looking out to the bluffs on the other side over the Buffalo River.  We quick-pitched the tent then repelled (backwards) twenty feet down the side of the sandy river bank while holding on (with everything I had) to an exposed tree root.  I thought I was going to flop and roll, but somehow managed. Already an adventure.
The water was so cool, calm, and clear.  Sweet Buffalo River.  I dove my whole self right into her, then floated on my back looking up at the towering bluffs and ridges.  The clear blue sky.  The puffy white clouds.  The soft current.  So perfectly perfect.
We ascended further down the embankment on a less steep slope, thank goodness.
We got our water hydration packs on and set out to hike the Campground Trail, which we had just learned was there (thanks to the map on a wooden board).  It led (apparently) to the Overlook Trail, which sounded promising.  I looooved this trail.  We had a stick to clear out spiderwebs because there were just tons of
them, but the way the trail went from stone steps- to mulch- to grass- then to flat rock - was just amazing and alive.  It felt of Arkansas.

The “overlook“ was a rock balcony overlooking the river. It was breathtaking.
After pausing to enjoy it, we continued on up the trail to where it crossed the road and the Indian Rockhouse Trailhead began.  We knew we didn’t have time to hike that whole trail before the sun set, so we just hiked to the waterfall (on the map) and back down to the Campground Trail.  We showered, made a fire, ate soup, and fell asleep in the tent to the sound of the very loud insects.
The next morning we got up and packed up camp and took our sweet time.  Which was lovely...but we knew this could cost us later in the day, due to our schedule.  We laid out all of our gear, clothes, and food in the parking lot and carefully determined which items were worthy of carrying in our packs through the long trail.  Then we drove back up the mountain and parked at the Indian Rockhouse Trailhead, ready to complete it’s full 3.5 miles this time.  The Indian Rockhouse was just about the coolest natural structure I’ve ever seen.   No one was there at this time and we seemed very small in its capacity.  Ancient people had gathered there, held ceremonies, and just respected it well - which was something so incredible- and I wanted to absorb it.  I just wanted to be still and feel the memories the Rock House held.
Indian Rockhouse

We headed back out to finish the loop and saw a natural bathtub right off the trail.  Tiffany almost convinced me we should make the time to sit in it, but we sufficed for splashing our faces in the fresh stream that crossed the trail a ways up, where the deer kept eyes on us.  After we got off that trail, we drove to the Buffalo Point Ranger Station.  We let them know where we were going, for how long, and that our car would be at Dillard’s Ferry (aka Hwy 14 Bridge, aka 14, aka The Bridge) for two days.  We gave emergency contact info.  It was already afternoon and the lady was surprised that we were about to set out just now to hike the 6.1 trail (plus the mile that leads down the road to Spring Creek Primitive Campground after the trail ends).  She said the trail should be mostly empty, as most people don’t hike it this time of year, due to heat, chiggers, and other nuisance insects.  We stopped by Wild Bill’s Outfitters and paid our fees for bug spray with  deet, much to our dismay.

I think we actually got on the BRT (Buffalo River Trail) around 2:30pm.  Which was fine.  Except the trail looked like a road for a little while, and then broke off into the woods (I did see that, but didn’t realize it was the trail), and so we continued on the road about .5 miles out of the way, and when we realized this, had to turn around and retrace our steps.  We did this mostly in silence.  Our packs were heavy, the sun hot, and we had wasted precious time hiking an extra mile.

We felt relief about half a mile into the woods.  The trail was beautiful and we began to feel its natural pull as it moved us along and eventually we began to ascend it’s mountain.  Up, up, up.  For two miles we went up!  At times we could look over to our right side and see down the side of the mountain as it dropped a good fifty feet in places.  Our heavy packs were strapped to us tight.  One slip/fall could result in some very serious complications.
Near the end of the ascent, and around mile two (we think), we began to see clearings off to our right, views that flew out beyond the ridges and river canyon.  Mountains beyond the mountains.  We kept pausing every forty feet or so, it was so spectacular, these small sightings through the lush summer foliage.  When we reached a clearing with a nice flat rock jutting out the side of the mountain, we dropped our packs and ate our snack/dinner.  It was exhilarating sitting up that high.  950 feet we estimated.  We could see kayaks and canoes floating lazily by, so deep below us.  Had they just put in?  This late in the day?  We could hear them talking, and they had no idea.
After trying (again) to capture the landscape though a small lens, but knowing our eyes could really only receive this beauty directly, we set back off.  Up a little further was a larger clearing with a fire-pit in the direct sun.  It must be the Lookout marked on the map.  We paused briefly, but kept going.  Into and around the mountain this time.  The terrain changed once again.  The sun was behind the mountain and we were in the shade.  Then the rocks rose up large and the trail became marked with stone steps placed by people, markers that let us know we were still on it.  We marched into the low elbow creases of the mountain, then back out, up and around, and then again through the next one. 

Then the forest, and the trail itself, became lush with green.  Two miles of lush, thick grass.  Chiggers.  I knew they’d be relentless, no matter how much deet we applied.  Then the trail turned weird around mile four.  It was like a tractor had come in to clear it out and left all of the debris lying in its wake, which really looked like a Trail Tornado.  We came to a large tree lying directly across the trail, and we couldn’t see around it at all.  Tiffany was certain that the trail was on the other side of it, but we had no way of knowing unless we climbed up and around it, which was no easy task, and certainly woke up ALL of the chiggers in the deep woods.  Sure enough, when we’d climbed to other side there was the Trail Tornado, still ripped and splintered and leading us onward.  We climbed up, up, and up. The trail was wide, but surprisingly still held many spider webs.  I should mention that we were never on any portion of the trail without the lead person donning a “spidey stick” (a long stick with many branches protruding at the end to catch and wrap up the spider’s web).  They definitely helped, but their webs still managed to reach us, sometimes full ones by surprise, other times they’d just float back, or the stick would fill up and we’d have to replace it with a new stick.  This was certainly a sport in itself.

By this time, we have no more “life” conversations left to cover between the two of us.  We’ve discussed and caught up with each other's lives and now we just share this adventure, speaking only of the trek, the location of the sun, how we’re doing on water, food, and energy.  We’re holding up well. I can feel the blisters forming on my feet, but I don’t mention it. The sun always looks high in the sky when we climb a ridge and get sight of it.  Near mile five, Tiffany is leading and turns around to inquire, “if we get to this campground (Spring Creek) would there be a good chance we can get into the water?”  I assure her there is an excellent chance.  We’ve been high above the Buffalo River this entire trail, but the campground is a river access, so yes.  She confidently proclaims that she thinks we can reach it before nightfall.  We know we’ve got a mile to get to the road and then another mile down to the river.  So we press on.  We are dirty and grimy and sweaty and reaching water motivates our steps.
We come out onto the road as dusk begins on the white gravel and Tiffany cheers We Made It! I’m walking quickly -we still have another mile to get down this road before it gets dark and I really want to assess the campground in some kind of daylight.  I’m toting a lot less water.  I’ve drank almost 3L.  When we reach Spring Creek we quickly explore.  There are two vehicles in the parking lot, one bathroom, no running water, and a weird clearing up on the right beyond the parking lot.  We head left to the river.  There is a campsite very close to the river with great big trees to hang our hammocks from.  The floor is packed with moist river sand in every direction and big, tall trees that go on forever down the west bank.  We drop our packs on the picnic table and hang our hammocks.  The fireflies are curious of us and come close to investigate these strangers to their river land.  Their lights are a lucid blueish-green as they glow along the river’s edge in a magical dance where dusk meets night.
Tiffany grabs her environmentally-friendly soap and flies to the river.  She must have.  Because one moment I was talking to her about it and the next I hear her splashing and exclaiming in the river!  I laugh and head down our little embankment to clean up too.  We are the only ones here.  This part of the river has a steady current and I can’t fully get in, as it barely comes to my knees.  I try to get as wet as possible, but when I try to sit I get carried by the strong current.  So we just splash ourselves, pass the soap, and laugh at our river-washing antics.  I put my whole head in and almost fall over twice, but it felt so good.
We drip dry by the fire, and eat dinner.
Sometime before ten (we think- as we kept our phones off most of the time to preserve battery life) we hear the cars coming to collect the other cars.  Spring Creek Road is the only road we can hear cars coming from, and we hear them for a long time before they appear.  There are no other noises, lights, or sounds out here.  We walk to the river again to look up at the stars, uninhibited by anything but the moon’s glow.  They are brilliantly bright.  I want to stare at them all night.  But I am so tired.
Into the hammocks.  Right to sleep like a baby.
For about twenty minutes.
Then a loud BAM! SCREECH! And I reach over and grab my pepper spray and ready it for attack!
Tiffany shines a light to where the noise came from at our picnic table.  I think that’s a crazy idea! Now they’ll know where we are!
It's a pesky raccoon.
She runs it off and I fall back asleep, but it’s a relentless scrounger who sees real opportunity here. After he gets into her pack and tries to drag it off twice, we hang both packs on the pole and bid him adieu.
Sleep, sweet sleep.  River running.  Swinging in the hammock. Drifting...
Sometime in the really early morning I awoke and thought I heard someone walking up river.  My only thought was, “Why is someone walking in the river in the middle of the night?”  I went right back to sleep.
When dawn broke we slowly came to in our mist-filled enchanted forest.  We look over at each other in amazement.  We really slept here!  Here! In the midst of the deep heart of the Lower Buffalo River, right along its glory.  We remember where we are and what we’ve done and it seems like a dream we wake into.
Hammock Camping
We determine that it had been a bear walking upstream in the middle of the night, as Tiffany had observed it with much more clarity than I could have mustered.  
Two kayakers arrive and ready themselves to put in the river.  We lounge in our hammocks, unnoticed.  I think of asking them for water, but I hate to ask anyone for anything, and I feel foolishly embarrassed for not bringing enough water on such a long trek, so I just run through it in my head.  After they leave, we get up for breakfast.  I have one water bottle left.  I’ll need to go boil water for my oatmeal and tea.  I hear a vehicle.  Five minutes later it appears and it’s a park ranger.  What luck!  I’ll just go explain my situation to him/her and maybe get some extra water for the hike back!  But as I walk from the river to the road, the truck turns around and heads right back out of the campground!  Nooooo!  I run toward the clearing and wave my arms!  Hey! Hey! Over here!  Nothing. It felt like I was in a movie.  On an island.  Parched and dying.  Almost rescued.  Almost.

I return, empty-handed.  The reality of the situation, and the weight of my unpreparedness and inability to provide for my own self becomes very apparent.  I cry a little.  I try to explain this to Tiffany.  I think she’s trying not to laugh at me, as she remains quietly busy.  I need a moment, I say, and walk away to take a break.  I find a line to hang our wet clothes on in the sun.  She assures me again that we have the LifeStraw and a fire to boil water with.  We won’t die.  This is true.

Less than an hour goes by and trucks arrive with floaters, canoes, kayaks, and one giant raft.  I stalk the situation.  Everything comes off the trailers except one canoe.  I see the guy packing up to leave and race to the road to intercede.  I explain my situation to this guy who doesn’t seem to think I’m too crazy, but just wants to know, “what do you need lady?”  I need water.  “Do you want to hike or float back to 14?”  Float? Why, YES, good idea!  But I have no money, no ID, no debit card, and a dead battery in my cell phone.  He puts my info into his phone, hands me a portable charger for my phone, leaves the extra canoe, and says he’ll be back.  The floaters (women and children) are left there along the river bank to wait for him to bring back their men.  I think of asking them to borrow their sunscreen because I know how easy it is to burn on the river.  I compare myself to the scrounging raccoon.

When canoe guy shows back up he puts the party of twenty-five into the river to float and returns to settle matters with us.  He tells us it’s a short 4.5 mile float back to 14 and recommends stopping at a creek on the left after the black bluff to hike up to explore a bit. I ask him about the water bottles he offered earlier.  He says, “Oh no….the price on that is jacked now!” He laughs and brings us down three ice cold Life Waters and two Gatorades.  We agree to go to the his store after the float and sign the canoe rental contract.  It’s out of the way and we’ll have to drive a different route home, but it’s such a minor inconvenience in light of what we’re about to get to do!

We get our big packs ready and secure them under the wooden bars that cross the canoe’s middle.  We don’t have a waterproof anything, but Tiffany has a small thick plastic drawstring bag that we put our phones into in case water gets splashed into the canoe.  We leave no trace at the campsite and put into the river.  It’s a perfect day to float.
We cannot believe we are on the Buffalo!  We dip our hats into it and put them on our heads to stay cool.  We can see fifteen feet straight to the bottom.  Huge rocks!  Enormous fish!  We look up to the right and see the ridge-line and mountain Look Out point and can hardly believe we were up that high the day before!  We were there!  Way up there!  Now we’re floating below and it’s incredible!

She’s in front and I in back, we have never canoed together before, and neither of us has had much recent experience.  But it’s the Buffalo and it just calmly carries a vessel, requiring very little effort from its visitors.  We float on the dream, amazed at the creation of this pristine wonder.
We stopped and swam, had lunch in the shade, and took our sweet time, knowing this was such a different day than we had expected it to be.

We almost missed the creek our travel adviser had described.  We had to paddle a little back upstream to it, as it apparently it hadn’t really looked like much to stop at, but we had time, so we banked our canoe again and hiked up the creek.  It was beautiful there.  I sat right in the creek bed and then laid back into it.  It was less than a foot deep and the running water gave it a remote natural spa experience.  Literally.  I relaxed and did not float away and the water poured all around me and flowed underneath me as I looked up at the trees swaying in the breeze on the rocky hillside. The little fish came and nibbled at my legs.  
I was certainly in Heaven and could not move.  All of me relaxed into all of this creation.  Tiffany must've thought the idea good and came and joined me.  We closed our eyes and stayed there for a long time.  We didn’t talk, but knew-  this was sanctuary.  A real life moment treasure of Heaven on Earth, the kind that has no price, but that brings the things of dreams -of serenity, peace, and delight colliding with present reality.  An Oasis of Time and Treasure.
We walk back to the canoe and head down the river for the last mile and a half.  We share a smile, contented beyond words.

As we round the next bend I see a kayaker ahead paddling into more rapid waters.  I mention this to Tiffany and as we approach we realize that we should have started paddling before reaching this away from the tree that is in the middle of the river.  The current picks up and dips down right next to the tree and that is exactly where we are headed.  We both see this happening and try to steer away, but it is too late and we are heading right to the tree as our canoe dips and sides up next to it.  We both believe it’s going to bump into the long tree trunk and right itself into the current and it might have.  Except we both leaned to the right to avoid hitting our heads on the protruding branches and limbs.  And in slow motion, over goes the canoe.
My right knee goes down into the rocks as the canoe pushes over us as we try to stand and balance ourselves.  The water is only waist deep, thank goodness, as we heave the water-filled canoe back over.  I look around and assess what’s floating.  Towel.  Bottle. Sleeping bag.  Paddle.  Paddles!  Grab the paddles I tell Tiffany!  She does and throws them into the canoe.  I have no idea where I learned this but I once heard that if you lose your paddles you’ve lost the possibility of retrieving anything.  We haul the canoe to the opposite bank and flip it over.  The packs never budged.  They were wedged tightly under the bars with the life vests under them.  Our phones though!  They were in the plastic bag set under the rim of Tiffany’s backpack cover, but they weren’t IN anything or secured to anything!  Tiffany looks for it and it’s not there.  The phones are gone.  They either sank shortly after falling out or floated a ways down, then sank, or who knows.  We never tested its floatiness….

There’s nothing to do but put back into the river and float.  We can attempt to retrieve some of our debris.  What else was in that bag though?  OH Noooooo..the car keys!  I had put them in there because of the lock clicker!  Oh good grief.  Now we have no way to get into the car and no phone to call anyone to tell them about it when we get back to The Bridge.
The weight of this is heavy as we humbly realize that we are still on this side of Heaven.  The fallen Earth side.
We keep floating and pick up a flip flop.  Then the sleeping bag, which is so heavy I have to lean to the right for Tiffany to heave it in on the left.  It drains slowly.  What are we going to do? Tiffany offers that we could paddle back upstream and look for the bag.  I don’t think that would materialize.  Another flip flop.  We sit with it: the weight of the several things we could have done differently.  Maybe my phone had backed up our photos to google cloud on that one brief connection I had.   Maybe all of our trip photos are lost.  Tiffany says the memories are better anyway.  I agree.  She looks back at me.  It’s just stuff, I say.  I don’t know how to explain it.  But we’re still on the river.  It’s still a beautiful day, and we have had the most amazing adventure!  Phones.  Keys.  Pictures.  It’s all just convenience.  Nothing can steal the true joy from this trip.  And we agree that we’ll not be ending it like that.

When we reach the end, we bank our canoe and Tiffany exclaims We Made It!
We begin to haul our packs out and prepare for the long wait to get in contact with someone who can come get us into the car.  We talk about laying out the wet items to dry for the duration.  I find my lost shirt stuffed under the packs and as Tiffany moves her pack, there is the plastic bag with the phones and key still inside.  Damp, but all intact.
Our jaws must’ve dropped to the river rocks. Our eyes bulged.  Whaaaaaaaat? Was all I could say!  What?  Whaaaaat?  What?   I didn’t know any other words apparently.  Finally, Tiffany takes out my key, which I’d strategically strapped to a blue bungee cord (for obvious unknown reasons) and presents it to me and says, “Here’s your KEY!”

We take one last picture with her phone, throw our packs back on one last time and trek to the car, pop open the trunk, and proceed to drive the scenic route back.  We stopped at Crockett’s Country Store in Harriet to sign the canoe rental contract, and thus complete the end of the adventure….
...except for when we pulled over at a scenic overlook pass where we could see the expanse of mountains flow on and on - nearly in every direction except behind us on the road.  We had no words, but knew SO deeply that the Creator of all we could see here, dwells here -and everywhere -and gives good gifts, in great abundance--and we received them, and overflow with joy to tell of them.


  1. Great story! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Been going to the Buffalo river for almost 25 years and it never gets old and I always see new things on every trip. Thanks for sharing your adventure and hope you get to return soon.

    1. Thank you! Yes, it even looks new each time I've gone too! I hope to come back soon!

  3. Beautiful story! It's well written and one can almost visualize your adventure...

    1. Thank you! I'm so glad! I love sharing it!