Roads Rivers and Trails

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Arkansas’ Hidden Gem: A Week on the Buff

By: Will Babb

As a student at Ohio State, I am privileged to work part-time at the university’s Outdoor Adventure Center. The OAC boasts a climbing gym, equipment rental, and trips program designed to let students experience everything from backpacking to climbing to caving all across the world. I’ve spent most of my time as a climbing instructor, but I devote some time as a Trip Leader to share my passion for adventure with as many people as I can. 

I recently attended the OAC’s annual Trip Leader Training, a 12 day staff trip focused on developing both technical skills and interpersonal skills. When my supervisor announced that TLT would be held in Arkansas, I was confused. I wondered where we could possibly go in Arkansas, a state I had never thought of as an outdoor adventure destination. My mind immediately leapt to the possibility of a backpacking trip through the Ozarks. Instead, I was surprised to hear that we’d be spending more than a week canoeing the Buffalo River, a hidden gem of nationally designated wilderness that few people know about. I was skeptical at first, but a Google search of “the Buff” revealed beautiful blue waters, pristine wilderness, gravel bars perfectly suited for camping, and towering bluffs rising over 500 feet above the river.

It is no easy feat to plan a twelve day canoe trip for 16 people, but we managed to do it despite the weight of finals over our heads. We broke the twelve hour drive from Columbus into 2 days, arriving at Steel Creek Campground in the afternoon of the second day beneath grey, rain-filled clouds. We shrieked with excitement and anticipation as we pulled up to the river, staring in awe at black and tan streaked bluffs rising above the water on the far shore and roaring waterfalls pouring over the cliffs. Our excitement turned to nervousness as we looked at the river, whose normally turquoise waters were a turbid brown as the raging river overflowed its banks and twisted around a bend with humbling power and speed. We camped overnight, hoping the river level would drop by the following morning. Rain all night long dashed those hopes, instead showing a rise in water levels.

Many of the Buffalo River’s 135 miles are wide and gentle, but the upper portion of the river just below our launch point at Steel Creek contains technical rapids up to Class 2. With the river in flood stage and park rangers urging us to hold off on starting, we were faced with a choice. We could wait several days to start until water levels receded, throwing us off our itinerary, or we could face the flooded river. We opted to launch into the turbulent waters in a trial by fire. This was not a reckless decision, the entire group had previous paddling experience and was fully outfitted with PFD’s, whistles, throw ropes, pumps, and bail buckets. Half the crew was Swiftwater Rescue certified, and with a whitewater raft guide to lead us through the rapids, we felt confident we could make it.

We loaded the 8 canoes with hundreds of pounds of gear- stoves, food, tents, clothes- and strapped it all down in the center of each boat. We launched into Steel Creek just as the rain let up and then cautiously steered into the river, immediately being tested by fast moving waters. Right off the bat a canoe flipped and we had to stop to rescue swimmers, reposition gear, and bail water. Righting a canoe loaded up with gear and half full of water in a flooded river is no easy task, but we had to do it again and again throughout the day as the Class 2 rapids flipped one boat after another, even the most experienced paddlers. There was a constant threat of strainers and streamers along the overflowing riverbanks and holes and rocks lurked in the turbulent waters. We were forced to learn quickly and work hard, along an intense stretch of river that required full concentration. By the end of the day, we had covered 12 miles and everyone, and everything, was soaked. The first day on the water had tested us, but everyone emerged from the river alive and smiling, enjoying the thrill of riding Class 2’s in a canoe.

The second day saw slightly lower water levels, more rapids, and fewer flipped boats along a 15 mile stretch of water. Overcast skies still loomed on day 3, but glimpses of sunlight taunted us. We flipped less with each day as we grew more comfortable on the water and made it to easier stretches of river, mastering the J stroke, C stroke, and pry as we paddled downstream. Flooded gravel bars left us with few camping options alongside the river, and a planned 15-mile day of paddling on the third day turned into a 30-mile day as we searched for a suitable campsite.

As we paddled, we watched turtles resting on logs and swallows dive in continuous arcs across the river. Eagles, stately rulers of the river, perched in trees overhead. A mink dipped into the muddy waters and kingfishers squawked noisily as they flew across the river. The monolithic bluffs rising alongside the water captivated us as we strained our necks to stare upward at the impressive rock formations. We camped each night on sandy or gravel beaches with bluffs rising on the far shore, whippoorwills calling incessantly, and the murmur of the river ringing in our ears as we fell asleep.

One evening we watched an otter swim gracefully down the river. As the skies cleared on day 4, we marveled at a sky full of stars in the evenings. We skipped rocks across the river and did push-ups on rocks at every stopping point. We quickly became used to routine on the river and the days went by in a blur. We swam in the frigid waters beneath a scorching sun and practiced rescue techniques in our free time. The muddy waters reverted to the beautiful blue color they are known for and we lazily drifted down the calm stretches of river, enjoying every moment we had on sister river. Sunny weather lifted our spirits and we splashed each other and tried to capsize other boats in bouts of piracy.

The days passed quickly and the miles flew by. Our group of leaders bonded together; the river nourished new friendships for us as it nourishes life in this wondrous wilderness. After 8 days and 100 miles on the water, we pulled our canoes out of the water at Buffalo Point. There was no doubt in our minds that we were far more skilled on the water now than we had been on day one, so the only logical thing to do was to test our skills on the eight mile stretch of rapids from Steel Creek to Kyle’s Landing that had flipped so many boats on the first day. Back at Steel Creek, the river was completely transformed from what it had been 8 days earlier. Sparkling, clear, turquoise waters rolled across rocks and rapids where floodwaters had been before. We could see the bottom of the river and rocks that had been submerged before were now obstacles to steer around. We started paddling the next morning, eager to ride some more waves in canoes empty of gear.

The change was clear- we had mastered steering and could pick the best lines through each set of rapids. We navigated around strainers and avoided the holes that could flip a canoe instantly. Where on day one we had nervously steered away from the biggest rapids, we now turned the bow of the canoe directly into the most exciting water and enjoyed cruising through technical stretches of river. Perhaps we were a bit overconfident, as several canoes flipped. A storm rolled in right as the first boat flipped, turning a pleasant morning cold and dreary in a flash. As more boats went over and the downpour continued we got cold and paddled hard to make it to the takeout. A canoe in front of mine flipped on the final rapid and the upside-down boat bounced off a rock and floated right beneath my canoe as we tried to navigate the rapid, flipping the boat and leaving us shivering and dripping. Even still, we couldn’t help but enjoy a final challenge on this river.

A wet morning on the river marked the end of our long float. As we waited for the vehicles to shuttle back to our takeout point and carry us home, we gathered, shivering, in the small bathrooms at Kyle’s Landing and huddled together for warmth, taking turns crouching beneath the hand dryers until we had dry clothes to put on. Two days later, we rolled back in to OSU. Twelve days without a shower on the river had left us smelly and bedraggled. We were all anxious to get back to Columbus, relax, and be clean, but I think I speak for the whole crew in saying there was a part of us that was sad to leave “the Buff.”

That river had challenged and rewarded us and it became home for us, an escape from school and work and responsibilities. Any time we set out on an adventure, whether it be to the mountains or paddling a scenic river, we go home. Our true home is in the outdoors, in the places we can go to time and again for healing, renewal, and growth. These beautiful, wild places challenge us and bring us together, they ground us and remind us who we are and why we do what we do. The wilderness is the greatest teacher, it brings people together and exposes people for their true selves in raw form. Each trip out leaves us exhausted but unbelievably happy and fulfilled, ready to face the real world until once again adventures call us and our spirit needs to be quenched with time spent in the outdoors. My trip down the Buffalo River had done all that for me. Each time we adventure on the roads, the rivers, and the trails that beckon us, we are going home for a time, and there is no greater feeling in the world than that.