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HomeNL-2013-06 Buffalo River

Buffalo River
April, 2013
by Ken Anderson

Arkansas’s Buffalo River is, in the opinion of many, one of the most beautiful free-flowing rivers in the country. Flanked by hardwood forests and high bluffs for most of its length the Buffalo is officially a “National River” protected by federal legislation and administered by the National Park Service. While marveling at the geology exhibited by the cliffs you can fish for bass from your canoe… but watch out for those pesky rocks. I might add that the area is packed with all sorts of hiking trails.

The National Park Service maintains campsites with bathroom facilities, fresh water and picnic tables although some skip the official facilities and camp along the river. A word of warning here: you cannot camp at an official put-in or take-out site with the exception of the one at Gilbert.

In April a group of us paddled portions of the Buffalo. We split into two groups: one group of kayakers who put-in where there was more water suitable fort their flat-water kayaks while the other group (mine) put-in at what I consider the best campground to start the adventure: Steel Creek.

I think of the kayakers as the “lost tribe” since we were out of contact but I later found they’d had a “roaring good time”. They eventually took out at Gilbert, one of the legendary Arkansas small towns, where they roughed out stormy weather in rental cabins.

Starting at Steel Creek the river is usually Class II whereas above Steel Creek it’s generally Class II+ or Class III. It’s hard to predict water levels but for our entire trip the level was low and paddling above Steel Creek was a rather mild Class II. Some of us had to try the paddle above Steel Creek as something of a warm-up for the rest of the trip.

After putting in at Steel Creek the low water forced us to deal with rocks you’d normally pass over. We didn’t portage but the river mandated we stay on our toes otherwise it could and did surprise some with a dump.

The low water did slow us down quite a bit. The actual rate of travel was half what I’d planned but, when the idea is to have fun rather than make time, it’s a small inconvenience. The views were still great!

  Hemmed in Hollow
We stopped long enough to hike to a 200-foot waterfall where canyon breezes cause the falling water to swing from side to side at its base. Called “Hemmed in Hollow” it’s the highest waterfall between the Appalachians and the Rockies. I understand there’s a posted warning at the top advising hikers to not fall over the edge…you know, some people just must have things explained to them.

April and May is the “wet season” in the Ozarks meaning, to me, it’s the preferable time for paddling. In later (dryer) months the water level is generally lower and the river a bit crowded; the two combine to force you to wait your turn to run a rapid or, to coin a phrase, it truly sucks.

The downside to paddling in April or May is the increased runoff is known to get out of hand. The Buffalo is notorious for sudden floods with TV pictures of cars and RV’s floating down the river. Statistically, May is wetter than April but, then again, there are lots of stories out there about averages. I’ll stay with April.

For our group the end came not with flooding but with tornadoes. On Monday, the first day of our trip, we knew rainstorms were predicted for Wednesday. I planned to sit out Wednesday if the weather turned really bad; otherwise we’d just paddle through what looked-to-be a few showers. Well, the weather turned really, really, really bad. Multiple tornadoes touched the ground with temperatures dropping 20 degrees beyond that predicted. One local wag said the weather people have the sort of job that allows them to be wrong and yet not get fired.

Frankly, it looked like we wouldn’t be making it to Auntie Em’s for lunch!! So we called it quits.

In past trips we met other paddlers from other canoeing clubs and enjoyed their company and experiences. Simply put, I’d like to do it again.

I’ll be back next April!

The author, Ken Anderson