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HomeNL-2017-05 Buffalo River

Buffalo River, Arkansas
April 14-17, 2017
by Kent Walters

Trip at-a-glance - Buffalo River, Arkansas
Coordinator: Kent Walters
Participants: Bill & Hazel Nixon, Joe Coker, Duane Heckelberg, John & Nancy Clark, Kent Walters
Kayaks: Dagger Axis 10.5, Dagger Axis 12.0, LL Remix XP-10,
Dagger Zydeco 11, Piranha Fusion, Dagger Katana, LL Stinger XP
Gage (ID): USGS 07055660 Buffalo River at Ponca, AR

(Click images to display a larger version.)

Spoiler Alert! This was a great experience.

And now I will attempt to qualify what might on the surface appear to be an unsubstantiated and biased opinion. It all started at the Low Gap Café on Thursday evening with a great group of people. We met for dinner and a quick planning session based on the latest weather forecast and flow information. I’ll admit that there was much more dinner than planning going on at this meeting, with frog legs for appetizers, chicken fried steak, Chicken Fettuccini Alfredo, and Prime Rib. There was a live band on the deck and lots of great conversation at our table. After dinner, we drove over to Ponca and stopped for the elk in the road on our way to measure the air gap under the bridge, the traditional and direct way to measure the gage (air gap is inversely proportional to gage and flow). It looked a little on the high side (low flow), but acceptable.

The elk going home after a long day of study at the Elk Education Center

After a good night’s rest, we organized our shuttle, which turned out to be much longer than we anticipated (note to self – pay more attention to how long those squiggly dashed lines are on the map). We began paddling from Ponca at about 12:30 (air gap was 21” – iffy, but doable) with a plan to get to our cars at Erbie, a little more than 16 miles downstream. It was a beautiful day and the scenery was spectacular, with the brilliant, lush greens of a wet spring and the black, white and shades of grey of the stained limestone cliffs rising hundreds of feet next to the water in many places, and the clear water letting us see the details of the river bottom as we glided over it, and the dogwood in bloom. It did not take long for the wildlife to show itself, with the turtles (a different kind than we see in our waters – see photo, but with the same behavior) and a couple of striped racer snakes, and an osprey.

I called this the “angry old man” turtle (its actual name is “Eastern River Cooter”)

The Put-in - the Ponca low-water bridge air gap is behind me (not in this photo). The bridge you see in this photo is Highway 74.

We arrived at Kyle’s Landing (our campsite) at 6:00, where some of the non-shuttle drivers decided to haul out their boats and relax. The rest of us pressed on with a little more enthusiasm, and covered the next 5.7 miles in an hour and a half.

We loaded up the four boats and met the others at the Low Gap Café for another great meal.

Saturday dawned beautiful again, and we opted to launch from our Camp at Kyle’s Landing. We ran the shuttle to Pruitt’s Landing, 13 miles downstream, and got hulls wet by 10:00 in the morning. Highlights of this segment (besides the ever-present beauty of the scenery, clarity of the water, and perfection of the weather) included sightings of a water moccasin in the process of swallowing another smaller snake, a copperhead, a soft shell turtle, a kingfisher, and a bat.

A National Geographic moment

After loading the boats in our vehicles at Pruitt’s Landing, we stopped at a store on the way back to camp for some provisions. Joe provided chips and salsa and queso for our appetizers, Duane contributed the charcoal, and Bill and Hazel treated us all to steaks and sides (green beans, corn, etc.) for dinner – even better than Low Gap Café! Thanks again!

A fun little extra on this trip was the appearance of plastic Easter eggs filled with candies placed around our campsite and in the cup holders of our chairs by somebody with a “random acts of kindness” orientation.

Easter Sunday dawned a little less bright than the previous two days. In fact, it had a downright ominous look to it. We decided to start our activities with a hike, and take our boats with us so we would be ready to put in if conditions merited after the hike.

When we left camp, it was drizzling. When we arrived at the Lost Valley trailhead near Ponca it had progressed to a pretty heavy downpour. We donned our rain gear and started up the trail. When we arrived at “the tunnel” (see photo), it was sprinkling, spritzing and drizzling, so we enjoyed our time there. We decided to stop here because the trail was very wet and got steeper and slipperier beyond this point.

The Tunnel at Lost Valley (we found it).

As we retraced our steps back down the trail, the rain picked up again, and by the time we got back to the cars it was back to biblical. At the trailhead, there was a large metal roof over several expanded metal picnic tables, so we ate lunch under the shelter until the rain diminished again.

We went to Ponca to check the air gap, expecting it to have shrunk with all of the rain, but we were disappointed to find that it had increased from our first day and was now at 23” (not good). After some deliberation, we decided to put in one stop further down at Steel Creek. At this point, our group fractured a little, with Nancy not feeling quite up to a long paddle and Joe needing to get on the road. Those who stayed on the plan had a very pleasant paddle – some in rain, but most dry and under heavy cloud cover. By the time we got to the stream coming from Hemmed-in Hollow, it was not raining and we decided to hike in (see photo below). It was a beautiful little hike that was enjoyed by all.

Hemmed-In Hollow pour-over – Bill and Hazel in the foreground, Duane back by the waterfall

On the way back to where we left our boats, I was lagging behind the group, as is often the case (my leadership style) and I had a little bonus when I noticed a fairly large centipede (see photo).

I decided not to pick this one up

Back in our boats, we paddled the remaining two miles in an hour.

Typical scene on the river

Meanwhile, back at the camp, one of our neighbors had too many potatoes and offered them to Nancy. She had them all cooked over the fire by the time we came in from the boats, so our camp dinner was augmented with baked potatoes (Low Gap Café is closed on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays).

We had a great time around the campfire and retired to our tents. It rained a little that night, but it was only spitting occasionally after we got up on Monday morning. Bill and Hazel left us after breakfast. The remaining four loaded up the boats and drove to Ponca again to see what was happening. The air gap was 18.5” (halleluiah), so we put in there and made the run from Ponca to Kyle’s Landing again. Since Nancy had not been with us the day before and it was still early when we arrived at the Hemmed-in Hollow trailhead, we hiked the 0.9 miles up to the falls again. It looked a lot like it did the day before, so there were no disappointments. The centipede had moved on.

Fun Fact: Today, in the 11 miles from Ponca to Kyle’s Landing, Nancy counted 167 turtles – that’s just the ones we saw. I think we are safe in saying that the Eastern River Cooter is not a candidate for the Endangered Species list.

This is how we saw the turtles most often

We headed in to Jasper for dinner at the Ozark Café. It has been in continuous operation since 1909, and if the food has been of the same quality since then, we know why. Wow!

One more night with a fun campfire program, now with the camp almost to ourselves. There was a light rain in the early morning hours, but it was not nearly as bothersome as the whippoorwill that was causing various levels of sleep deprivation on all of the other nights.

Our Campsite

Each faced his own challenges coming and going. This is how my drive home on Tuesday morning started and continued for quite a while:

Who was on this trip?

Duane Heckelsberg Joe Coker Bill Nixon Hazel Nixon

John Clark Nancy Clark Kent Walters The whole crew,
minus photographer

Individual paddling mileages were:

We had a great time, and we’re already talking about doing it again next year. Thanks to all who made it such a wonderful adventure. 

The red boxes represent the periods of time we were paddling in various portions of the river.

This is what 18” of air gap looks like at the Ponca Low water bridge.

The author, Kent Walters