Buffalo National River

On the river, time does not exist – only the sound of the rushing water, the cries of the wood thrush and crow and the sight of light dancing on the water.

~Ginny Masullo

Our second paddle adventure back in October was on a section of the Buffalo National River in Arkansas. The Buffalo River was our nation’s first national river, designated as such in 1972. It flows over 135 miles and is one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the lower 48 states. Unlike the spring-fed Current River in Missouri, the Buffalo is largely rainfall dependent. This means paddlers must be very aware of possible changes in river levels due to storms, even those far upriver. When we stopped at Wild Bill’s Outfitters to arrange our shuttle, the staff mentioned the possibility of severe storms during our stay, with a chance for hail, possible tornadoes, etc. He added that these predicted storms often “amount to diddly-squat” as they tend to break up when they hit the mountains. But, he echoed the park literature advice and said we should “camp high” on the gravel bars since the river can jump over one foot in an hour under the right conditions. Melissa asked, how high is high? He said at least 4 feet, and make sure you have an escape route to higher ground, just in case. Well, four feet above the river level is not a common change in elevation on many of the gravel bars we encountered and on some that did have that, they dropped down as you approached the higher ground, so you could end up being on an island if the river rises, which is something that is not advised.

We decided to go ahead since the forecast called for good weather the rest of our 4-day window. We launched at Dillard’s Ferry and planned to take out 39 miles later at a private resort on the White River across from where the Buffalo joined it. We were particularly excited about paddling the Lower Buffalo River Wilderness Area, a 25-mile stretch that relatively few people paddle because, once you are in it, there is no place to take out until you get to the White River.

We paddled about 39 miles between Dillard’s Ferry and the juncture of the Buffalo and White Rivers, including the remote Lower Buffalo Wilderness (click photos to enlarge)

Right away, the Buffalo impresses you as being on a grander scale than the Current River – the bluffs are longer and much higher, soaring to about 500 feet above the crystal clear river in some areas. The cliffs are sandstone, limestone, and dolomite and add a dramatic backdrop to the beauty of the river. Fall color was just starting to paint the bluffs with red and yellow and many of the deeper hole in the river were that same aquamarine we had seen on our previous paddle.

Long bluff along the Buffalo River
We frequently scanned the high bluffs for wildlife and usually saw vultures, a few hawks, and an occasional Bald Eagle soaring above

On our first evening, we watched a beaver across the river, busily preening while sitting on a submerged rock ledge underneath an overhang of a bluff. Thirty seven vultures soared over and gradually settled in to roost. The white head and tail of an adult Bald Eagle glowed gold in the setting sun as it circled on a thermal and transformed into a mere speck in the sky above.

It is a dramatic juxtaposition when a bluff emerges directly out of the river
One of our favorite campsites
A beautiful sunset over our gravel bar campsite

The next day we encountered some shallow riffles, requiring us to get out and pull the canoe for short distances. The wind was our constant companion and even had us paddling into white caps on some of the long straight stretches of the river (I don’t think I have ever paddled into white caps while going downstream on a river). Wildlife sightings included a couple of otter, two eagles, and some wood ducks.

Another beautiful scene along the river

At one stop we found evidence of lots of other wildlife. See if you can guess who the track makers were (answers at bottom of post).

Track maker #1
Track maker #2
Track maker #3
Track maker #4
eTrack maker #5

On the upper stretches of the Buffalo you may even encounter some elk, which were reintroduced to the region over 30 years ago. We did see deer a couple of times, but no elk.

An aptly named Bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax) greeted us on one gravel bar

On our second night, we searched for a campsite that was a few feet above the river level as this was the night for the predicted storms. We found a location about 4 feet in elevation, but it required dragging the canoe quite a distance (unloaded, of course). But we felt secure and had our backs to some higher ground, just in case. No storm materialized in our area that night, but at one point I looked out and could see near constant lightning far off to the west.

Our high and dry campsite
Fall color along the river
Another dramatic cliff face coming straight out of the water

Our last campsite of the trip was on a beautiful, wide gravel bar across from another bluff. We had seen two more eagles that day, and another flew by as we were setting up camp. While exploring for firewood sticks, I found one eagle feather. This section of river had more eagles and more kingfishers than further upstream, no doubt due to the increase in smaller fish we were seeing.

Feather from a Bald Eagle (we left it on the beach after taking this photo)
Another spectacular sunset was a great way to end our canoe camping adventure

After a gorgeous sunset we settled in for a nice campfire and some star gazing. It wasn’t long before we experienced something new to us both – exploding rocks in the campfire. There was a particularly large burst of flame and sparks when I added some sticks to the fire early in the evening which caught us both by surprise. We thought it was something in the sticks I had added until we started hearing little whizzing sounds, similar to the sounds a flying bullet makes in cartoons. Suddenly, Melissa got hit in the forehead by a small pebble and we realized the rocks were exploding in the fire. This, our last night, was the first time on our entire trip we had experienced anything like this. It turns out, exploding campfire rocks is a thing caused by moisture trapped in certain rock types. When the rock gets heated high enough, the water vaporizes and can cause the rock to splinter, shooting rock fragments up to several feet. We scooted back away from the fire, and I stirred it, spreading out the ashes to reduce the heat. This soon stopped the rock fireworks. Melissa surmised that the cliff face near us was sandstone rather than the dominant limestone and dolomite bluffs we had encountered on most of our trip and this created this unusual phenomenon.

An exciting final night campfire complete with exploding rocks
Here is a pebble that shot about 6 feet from the fire and embedded itself into a plastic bag with an audible thud
Our final misty morning on the Buffalo River
One of the well-known landmarks on the lower Buffalo – Elephant Head Rock
The end of our journey as the White River comes into view

On our final morning, we enjoyed another otter encounter and marveled at how one can disappear even when you are close enough to see its bubbles pass under your canoe. The river widened as we approached the confluence with the larger White River and it became harder to dodge the increasingly common huge boulders just below the surface. We had to pick our way through some boulder fields before hitting the fast flowing current of the White River. That river is controlled by a dam upstream and we were advised it can be difficult to paddle upstream when they release water. When we hit the confluence, it suddenly became almost impossible to paddle the short distance upstream we needed to in order to go around the island to our take out location just across the river. We ended up getting to the shore of the island and walking the canoe around the tip so we could then paddle with the current to the canoe landing. And, it turns out, this was normal flow (there was no release of water from the dam that day). I can’t imagine trying to paddle that stretch when water is being released.

Our adventure had ended and now we had a couple of days travel back home. What a trip – two beautiful crystal clear rivers, amazing scenery, beautiful weather, star-filled nights, and loads of wildlife. Now we are hooked on long distance canoe camping (we paddled about 100 miles on the two rivers). Up until this trip, most of our canoe camping has been on the Roanoke River and Merchants Millpond back home. We’ll be searching for other rivers for this type of experience, so if you have suggestions, let us know.

Answers to the track photos:

#1 River Otter

#2 Bobcat (roundish and no claw marks)

#3 Coyote (oblong with claw marks)

#4 Raccoon

#5 Aquatic snail trails

Beginnings – the Southern Route

My wish is to stay always like this, living quietly in a corner of nature.

~Claude Monet

On our previous two truck camping road trips, we headed due west across the plains through Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, until we hit the mountains. This trip, we had no real plans, just head west. We played with the idea of going to Big Bend National Park in Texas, but by the time we would have arrived, temperatures were already heading into the high 80’s and low 90’s (not my favorite temperature range for camping), but we did decide to take a more southerly route than before. Our first night was in Natchez Trace State Park in Tennessee, a pretty typical campground, with sites too close together for our liking (we’ve been spoiled by Forest Service dispersed camping) but with a beautiful lake and lots of bird life (tanagers, woodpeckers, thrushes, various warblers).

We had heard some good things about the natural beauty of Arkansas, so we pointed the truck in that general direction the next day and Melissa worked her navigation magic from the passenger seat by downloading Vehicle Use Maps from likely national forest units we would pass and reviewing satellite images to ground truth what the terrain might be like. She is also very kind to me in our on-the-fly planning and looked for side trips to wildlife refuges along the way (we both love viewing wildlife, but I probably need a wildlife pic fix more often than she does), so we hit Hatchie National Wildlife Refuge in TN and Bald Knob NWR in Arkansas the next day. Hatchie is a beautiful cypress swamp and had lots of warblers (especially Blackpolls and Prothonotaries).

Bald Knob was great with a variety of habitats and we soon found ourselves following waves of Bobolinks and Dicksissels as they flew up from the vegetation along refuge roads (although it was challenging to get close enough for photos). These are two species that I have seen occasionally in NC. They are both grassland species so I have observed them in migration near the coast and at the Museum’s Prairie Ridge Ecostation. And on the Museum’s Spring Mountain Birding trips, I have seen Bobolinks in some fields in the mountains where they are known to nest. But this was amazing, as they seemed to be everywhere along these roadsides.

Pair of Bobolinks at Bald Knob NWR in Arkansas (click photos to enlarge)

At Bald Knob NWR, we came across what is now one of my favorite birds – the elegant Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. I had seen one in the NC Sandhills years ago but they are considered a rare migrant and even rarer breeder in my home state. We spotted two sitting on a barbed wire fence next to a road so I pulled the truck up alongside for a closer look. They were very cooperative and let us hang with them quite awhile as they scanned the skies for an insect treat.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on barbed wire

Just look at that tail! The tail usually makes up over half the overall length in this species, with males generally having longer tails and more color on their sides. After taking way too may photos of them sitting on the wire (a very common pose we were to learn), we hoped to get a shot of one in flight highlighting that forked tail (the long tail is useful for making quick turns in flight as they pursue flying insects). I waited, and waited, and finally one took off and I just squeezed the shutter in burst mode and tried to follow it. Though not as sharp as I wanted, I was pleased with the sequence showing a successful snag of a fly.

Launching from the wire and showing that awesome tail
In hot pursuit of a flying insect
Eating the fly you just caught

After spending a lot of time with flycatchers, we moved on to Ozark National Forest and camped along beautiful Richland Creek for the night. I’m not sure why, but the waters in this area are some of the bluest freshwater I have ever seen.

Our campsite next to Richland Creek

Melissa had scoped out some trails very close to our campsite, so the next morning we walked up the road a short distance and hiked along a well-marked trail leading to Keefe Falls. The forest had been burned, probably last year, and the resulting wildflower display was amazing all along the trail.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia sp.) in our campsite
Phlox and Fire Pink along the trail
A white Larkspur (Delphinium sp.) was scattered in the woods and on the upper rim of the waterfall

The state motto for Arkansas is The Natural State. And after our day in the Ozarks, we know why. As we hiked, the trail split and we decided to take what looked like the lesser traveled route which climbed a slope and soon came to a cliff of loose sandstone. The trail started to disappear as we headed down-slope toward the creek and the sound of a waterfall. The last 50 yards or so were a bit dicey, with slippery soil on a steep slope, and then we rounded a corner…

We were both stunned when this tropical-looking waterfall came into view

I can truly say this is one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen. The greenery-covered walls and the aqua blue color of the water with rays of sunshine piercing the still developing forest canopy…and we had it all to ourselves!

A side view of what we think is Splashdown Falls
It is a magical place and we had it all to ourselves

We lounged by this pool for quite some time (someone I know took a swim), and, once again, we took way too many pictures trying to capture the beauty of this tropical-looking scene. On the hike back we encountered another couple hiking toward Keefe Falls. We told them about our find (which we now think is called Splashdown Falls) but warned them about the steepness of the last section. They shared an encounter with a rattlesnake on their hike to another nearby waterfall and told us about the abundance of beautiful falls and cascades in this forest.

One of the spectacular roadside waterfalls, Six Fingers Falls

On our way out the next morning, we stopped at two of the more popular roadside waterfalls – Falling Water Falls and Six Fingers Falls, and they did not disappoint. Arkansas maybe should change their motto to The Waterfall State if this one section of Ozark National Forest is any indication of what can be found elsewhere. Needless to say, we will return to Arkansas on future trips. But for now, we headed west (more in the next post).