Buffalo River, Arkansas- Part 1

I haven’t spent a lot of time in Arkansas. We visited once as a stop by on a family vacation to the Ozarks back in 1985. Aunt Maibelle and Uncle Palmer (a presbyterian minister) made us a wonderful dinner, and took us to the The Passion Play. It was more of an indoor trip, with a few roadside stops to see “The views”. To be perfectly honest it was hard for me to get excited about the thought of Arkansas after my teenaged brain had categorized it as “not an adventure”.

What I experienced last summer on the Buffalo River in Arkansas was an incredible, fantastic adventure in one of the most beautiful and scenic places I’ve ever been.

The Buffalo National River flows for 151 miles, and became a National River back in 1972. It is usually described by 3 sections, Upper, Middle and Lower.

There are over 20 access points along the Buffalo River. A wide array of places to get on and off the water means that you can plan a short two hour float, a multi-day adventure, or something in between. The put-ins and take-outs are where you access the river. The “reach” is a term used to describe a section of the river between access points. The reach you select will be defined by your put-in and take-out locations. Each reach has its own beauty and challenges.” From nps.org

We set out to float the Lower section, due to the summer water levels being most favorable in this area. We have our own canoes, but we needed a shuttle service to get us back from the take out. The clear winner for that task was Wild Bill’s Outfitter in Yelville, Arkansas.

SO glad I got the T-shirt!
These cabins at Wild Bill’s were rustic and awesome

We’d planned to sleep in a tent the night before we set out for our float, but the nice folks at Wild Bill’s sold us a night in a cabin and gave us a good deal on the shuttle (or was it the other way around?) It was nice to have a cabin to organize the gear and groceries , and to get one last shower before the next 3 nights in the tent.

Side note – Shannon had been talking about wanting to find some Old Milwaukee for at least 6 months. His dad passed away several years ago, and Old Milwaukee brings fond memories of his dad and fishing. We’d looked around where we live in Alabama, and an earnest search showed that the closest place for us to find it was 7 hours away in Arkansas. We forgot about it. Fast forward to the day we got to Wild Bill’s and I spotted a case of Old Milwaukee in the fridge!! *cheers all around*

It’s not easy to find in the South!

We decided to float a total of 45 miles from Dillard’s Ferry to the White River (39 miles) and from the convergence of the White/Buffalo to Ship’s Ferry (6 miles) . A float that would take us about 4 days and 3 nights

As we set out on the first day near mid day, the first thing we noticed was that the water was like glass and we could see everything under the surface. Gar, small mouth bass, and sunfish darted at the bottom, and we marveled at the difference between this water and the opaque Cahaba river back home.

Stopping for a swim

We fished our way down the Buffalo, and as usual, Shannon caught the most fish, and all of his were the biggest.

Blue and. yellow tiny fish. This is how my fishing went most of the trip……

The Lower section is one of the least popular sections to float, which meant fewer other people. This is key when you’re competing with other paddlers for prime camping spots. Because the River sits within US Forest Service lands, camping is permitted anywhere there’s a suitable spot. Our first night, we found a great spot, on a sandbar, near a small shoals. It was beautiful, serene, remote, and perfect.

We brought steaks to cook over the campfire that night, and we’d picked up a watermelon at the grocery store. We’d hoped the watermelon would last for all 3 nights, however, we had some bandits after the sun went down. I heard them rustling near the tent, and when Shannon shone the flashlight, their thieving raccoon eyes glared back, undeterred. The next morning we found the hollowed out shell of the watermelon at the tree line. They didn’t waste a drop! Not a speck of fruit remained.

We saw more wildlife here than on any other float trip we’ve been on. Bald eagle, wood ducks, great blue heron, deer, otter, and raccoons.

There is no light pollution at all out here. Once the fire died, we laid on the sand and looked up at the sky, which was covered with stars. There wasn’t another soul anywhere around, and it was quiet except for the river and the crackle of the fire. The peacefulness that settled in is something that is hard to find anywhere but in a place like this. We realized after awhile, that we were watching the Starlink ( Elon Musk) Satellites overhead, as we stopped counting after about 12-15 in a row. Although seemingly opposite to the backcountry wilderness experience, it was pretty cool to see. The soundtrack we’d created for this trip played in the background and complemented the scene in a way that we couldn’t have predicted, and it was unforgettable. It’s these memorable, unexpected events in un-planned moments that blow me away.

Part 2 coming soon!

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