The First Buffalo National River Trip I Planned

Foggy Morning Restaurant View

Last summer I returned to one of my favorite places — the Buffalo National River, and five friends from Texas joined me. At age 44, it would be my first time on the Buffalo with anyone other than my family. When these guys originally asked me to get a trip together back in May, I was pumped. Then they said it had to be in August. Not much of the river usually is floatable in the middle of August without a lot of getting out and dragging the boat.

You might think that it’s difficult to get lost when floating down a waterway that only leads in one direction. I managed it easily, but that comes later.

(click any image to enlarge it)

Friday – August 15

After work on Friday, I picked up co-worker Mike at the local Monett, Missouri airstrip. He and I arrived at Buffalo Point Campground after dark on Friday night to find the guys who drove up from Texas almost finished setting up their tents. As luck would have it, there was plenty of sleeping space without setting up ours. Also, the guys had generously donated blood to the local mosquito population to help keep them off us, and they emanated a reeking cloud of bug repellent that enveloped anyone who came near.

Putting up the canopyWe helped set up a few more things to make the campsite comfortable and then enjoyed some guy time. We spent hours playing dominoes and hearts, and finally welcomed late arrival, Eddie, at about 11:30. Josh sat out some of the time to play his guitar. Our flashlights set aglow the eyes of raccoons lurking just inside the undergrowth near our campsite. We secured our food from prying claws and hit the tents at about 2:30 a.m.

That bedtime becomes important in the next sentence.

Saturday – August 16

At 6:15 a.m., I awoke to the sound of the tent zipper. I’m not complaining that Jeff needed to get out of the tent. I’m just saying that military-grade quiet tent zippers should be standard in all price ranges.

Camp Stove

We gradually got up and enjoyed coffee and sausage Jake made on his grandfather’s Coleman camp stove. Definitely not for backpacking, the old stove showed its age, but worked great in camp.

Despite Jake’s cooking on old Granddad’s stove, we drove up to the restaurant. The coffee was fresh and tasty, and the view was amazing. I was surprised to get steel-cut oatmeal, and based on that and the other guys’ breakfasts, we started second-guessing our plan to cook out that evening.

On our way to our canoe outfitter, we stopped at a small store, which didn’t carry my preferred outdoor adventure lunch — a packet of tuna. I settled for a float trip classic — Vienna sausages — and snapped a quick pic of the guys in the back of the truck before we continued on to get our boats.

Guys ready to float

At Buffalo River Float Service, Shannon welcomed us and took our money. A few local dogs wandered across the road for the requisite belly rub, and a grizzly, white-bearded man pulled up in a ’70’s-era van, our rented boats in tow. We piled into the van, and I took the front passenger’s seat.

“It’s an old Dodge. You gotta just slam the doors,” the driver said.

I pulled my door handle, and with a loud creak and a metallic bang, I was ready to roll.

Our driver was a wealth of information. He had been guiding fishing trips and shuttling river floaters for 43 years. “I’m the oldest living boat hauler in the world.” he said.

Since just before President Nixon signed the final order declaring it the country’s first national river in 1972, our driver had been making his living on the Buffalo.

He said the government forcibly displaced at least 1200 people to make room for the public use area. I couldn’t help thinking it might have been much worse on the locals had efforts failed to prevent the first planned use of the river — a Corps of Engineers hydroelectric dam. The resulting lake would have flooded many more square miles than the National River status grabbed, and would have brought in developers with big money.

Instead, Arkansas is home to a 150-mile free-flowing river surrounded by rugged wilderness. Although private land is not far away in many areas, the entire Buffalo National River shoreline is federally protected and floaters are free to camp on and explore its banks. The Buffalo River Trail provides adventures and scenic views for those preferring dry land.

“So, you’re staying at Buffalo Point. What section of the campground are y’all in?” the driver said.

“Section D. Sites 58 and 59.” I said.

“Oh, that’s a nice one, with lots of shade. You know, there’s a river access trail between D and C. The restaurant just up the road has good food, and a nice view of the river. They do a real good job,” he said.

“Thanks. Good to know,” I said. I remembered how good the breakfast had been.

The dirt road narrowed to one lane when we turned onto the Spring Creek access ramp — the final stretch toward the gravelly shore. A competitor’s van, its trailer rack full of rental canoes, blocked the spot where the road reached the river. We debarked and gathered our things from the back of the van and walked carefully down the embankment to the shore. We waited.

And waited.

Still blocked by a competing outfitter’s vehicle, our driver finally decided to unload our boats while still parked on the one-lane ramp. He lowered a canoe from his trailer’s rack and onto his shoulders and head. Two bystanders looked on with concern when the canoe listed toward them.

“Um, you need a hand with that?” I said.

“No!” he answered. I felt a bit scolded, but then figured he had been told not to risk customers’ injury by having them help unload boats. I couldn’t read his facial expression, though, because his head was still inside the canoe.

He shifted the load and found a clear spot on shore to set down the canoe. He repeated the above with the second boat, but without scaring anyone in the process.

At our put-in spotMeanwhile, my cohorts and I fiddled around taking photos of the group. A stranger took direction well and used my camera to get the high bluffs behind us while staying close enough to recognize our faces.

“One of you could help me get this kayak down,” our driver said.

Apparently the kayak was heavier or more cumbersome. Josh, the lone kayaker in our group, helped him pull it down and set it safely next to our other boats. We gladly tipped the “oldest living boat hauler.”

Two canoers from another group tipped their boat over within seconds of starting. They had managed to get pinned against the only tree stump in that part of the river.

As Jeff and I pulled away in our canoe, I shouted back to our driver, “I didn’t catch your name!”

“They call me ‘Little Leon,'” he said, and smiled.

I waved and smiled back. “Thanks, Leon!” The way he talked, and his genuine feelings for the river, made me wish I had recorded every word.

A nice distant viewWe floated the river to a soundtrack of cicadas, tree frogs, and other critters. Muffled country music drifted over from Jake’s portable iPhone speaker, which he had stuffed into a dry bag.

We stopped and skipped rocks a few times and soaked ourselves in the river’s cool water. That helped keep the beating sun and lower 90’s heat and humidity from messing up our fun.

Josh under a bluffThe bluffs were fewer and shorter than they are on the upper Buffalo, but there was no mistaking we were secluded from the rat race. Although the occasional rapids gave us no problems, through the long pools we paddled to battle the wind. Jeff and I never had to drag our canoe — a pleasant surprise for middle August even on the lower Buffalo.

Josh expertly cast his lure into spots most likely to hide fish. Each time his pole bent we looked on in hopeful anticipation. Somehow, fish after fish wriggled free before he could pull them much more than halfway to the boat. Right about the time he changed to a smaller hook, he accidentally caught someone’s discarded fishing line and the tangled mess frustrated him.

Jeff throws a rock    Jake and Mike near a bluff

We found a few leeches stuck to our legs after one stop, but they weren’t huge, Stand By Me leeches.

Cave approachNear the end of the trip we explored an interesting bluff with an underwater cave. The smell of bat guano overwhelmed anyone who stuck his head inside the blackness.

The Buffalo Point river access launch was closed, so we did as Leon told us — gathered the lifejackets and oars, then left the boats on shore. Without phone signal, we had no immediate way to let the outfitter know we were finished. When it became obvious we had a long walk back to our campsite, hauling all the things we had stowed in the canoes, Mike suggested we offer someone $5 to drive one of us to retrieve a vehicle.

Buffalo Point

I volunteered to walk, but the guys thought that would take too long. We recalled that Leon had said there was an access trail between areas D and C. So, instead of walking, I took the kayak farther downstream in hopes I could find that trail.

This was my first time in a kayak. I paddled from shore and rode a fun rapid down to a long, deep pool. By this time I was around the bend from where we had taken out, and couldn’t see the guys when I looked back. Dense forest greeted me on both banks and completely blocked my view of the campground. I had no way to tell how far to go.

Up ahead, on a bare, sloped spot on the mountainside, stood a dark brown building with windows across the back. I could tell it must be the restaurant, but that only proved that I was still on the right river.

I noticed a spot where two kayakers had pulled up their boats and sat talking near the tree line — about 50 yards from the water.

“Hey there. Can you tell me what part of the campground is behind you?” I called.

One of the strangers turned and looked at the woods, then turned to look at me. “Um, I didn’t know there was a campground behind me,” he said.

“Ok, thanks!” I said, and pushed on down river.

In the distance I saw several swimmers, with no boats nearby. They must be from the campground, I figured.

The first swimmer I approached was a young girl, about 12 or 13. Only her head was above water. “Hello,” I said.

“Hi,” she said, and smiled.

“Do you know what area of the campground this is?”

She shook her head. “Um, no.”

“Okay, thanks.” Strike two.

I paddled on, and saw a man heading toward a trail that lead into the woods and up a stairway made of railroad ties.

“Hi there!” I called.

He turned and looked my way. “Hello!”

I repeated my query regarding where in the world I might be.

“This is area P,” he said.

Our campsites were D-58 and D-59. I figured I must have overshot them by quite some distance. Paddling upstream was not an option, so I beached my kayak and followed the man up the stairway to a clearing.

I was in the primitive campsites: area P. That made sense, but it also meant I might still be far away. I reached the main road and saw that the campsite numbers were only in the ’30s.

I had not floated far enough downstream to reach Area D, but I worried that I would miss the spot if I continued my solo kayak adventure. I had no way to let the guys know I was making progress, or was lost and hearing banjo tunes. Nothing.

It was all very 1970’s, a throwback to when Little Leon started his river career.

My oar and lifejacket in hand, and only my river shoes on my feet, I walked. Within a few minutes I reached our area and saw Eddie walking across the road to the restroom. I waited gratefully and patiently until he returned, and we jumped into his truck to go get the guys.

The river adventure for the day was over. It wasn’t until later that the cops got involved.

View from the restaurantWe all agreed it was too hot to fire up the grill, and found that the restaurant was great any time of day. The view above a bend in the Buffalo River was spectacular, and the food and service were very good. It isn’t open year-round, but if you visit Buffalo Point when it is, be sure to give it a try.

On the way back, I rode shotgun in the cab of Josh’s truck while a few of the guys rode in the pickup bed. Shortly before we turned down the hill to head back to our campsite, blue lights flashed.

Yep, we got pulled over for having passengers in the back. Josh didn’t get a ticket, and we all made it back just fine. It was just another memory for us to add to our Buffalo River experience.

The guys decided that one drive up from the DFW area had been enough for the Buffalo. They had envisioned the action of higher water and the upper section, not our lazy float. Despite that, it was still the Buffalo.

It was a great way for me to celebrate two full weeks living back here in the Natural State, after a long hiatus.