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HomeNL-2018-06 Buffalo River

Buffalo River, Arkansas
March 29-30, 2018
by Kent Walters

This trip followed the adage of, “we make our plans, and God laughs’. Since the timing and structure of this trip changed a few times, I’ll lay it out like it happened – one day at a time.

Originally this trip was scheduled for 22-29 March. On March 19 I postponed the trip to one week later because the water level was too low for paddling and no rain was in the forecast for the week we would be there. We will call this “Change 1”. We met at Low Gap Cafe in Low Gap, Arkansas on Thursday, March 29 at 7:00 PM, and had a nice dinner. While there, we planned our next day, noting that the river was running very high after the rain that day (locals reported that it was 5 feet over the Ponca low water bridge the day before), and forecasts looked pretty gloomy for the area. We decided we would eyeball conditions at Ponca the following morning. Before we met, Carl and Linda had decided they did not want to set up camp in the rain and arranged for a cabin, so we all enjoyed a luxurious first night (“Change 2”).


We went to Ponca in the morning to check the level and found it to be very high compared to other years, but it had receded from the previous day’s high of 9000 cfs. It was all the way up to the bottom of the low water bridge at almost 1400 cfs.

Ponca low water bridge
David & Kent
ready to go

We considered the situation, watched a few launches, and finally David and Kent decided to go ahead while Carl and Linda went on to enjoy the Lost Valley Hike. We’ll call this “Change 3”, since the intention was for all to start the trip here. For those who chose the kayaking, the Ponca to Kyle’s Landing paddle was great fun. The trees had not leafed out yet, so it was easier to see the birds. However, the water was very lively (and cold), so our attention was laser-focused on the water and we didn’t notice many birds. This also explains the scarcity of photos on this segment. There were several sections of large standing waves, and the water was generally very pushy and active.

Bluff      Kent in turbulence

We identified the correct location and beached our boats at the river-side trailhead for Hemmed-In Hollow and started up the trail, but lost it somewhere and ended up at a waterfall we didn’t even know existed (“Change 4”). At the base of the waterfall was a rock with some very interesting inclusions.

David at unnamed


We came back down and picked up the trail to Hemmed-In Hollow and witnessed a good flow coming through that pour-over.

Hemmed In Hollow

Then it was back to the river where we re-entered the flow and bounced on down to Kyle's Landing. By the way, the road to Kyle's Landing has been repaired and is much more comfortable than it was last year.

Carl and Linda reported a very nice hike with great scenery up the Lost Valley trail, and they actually found Lost Valley. Carl met us at the takeout and we did the short shuttle and loaded the boats.

We capped off the day’s activities and compared notes with a great dinner at the Ozark Cafe in Jasper.

Deciding factors after the first day:
1. River was at flood stage and not dropping at all (sign at Kyle’s landing said “Extremely Dangerous”)
2. Lots of rain was in the forecast (more flooding, less enjoyable weather)
3. Temperatures were dropping into the freeze zone (uncomfortable)
4. Two of the four people on the trip did not feel comfortable with the idea of paddling in the pushy water

Now they tell us...

With items 1, 2 and 3 deteriorating, item #4 made the decision easy to move the party somewhere more conducive to our original and prime objective of fun paddling for all (“Change 5”).

I had previously researched a few other rivers in Arkansas, selected the Caddo River, had Carl study its current statistics and forecasts, and made the decision to go there.

Where are we going?

So, after another night in the “cabin of convenience”, we made the 4-hour trip to Caddo River and ran a quick shuttle. I’m not going to try to keep up with the changes from here, since this whole 3 days was a fundamental change to the direction of the trip. Everyone put in at the Norman River Access, and after a very pleasant and engaging paddle and a little bit of gravel bar rock hounding / fossil hunting, we took out at the Swinging Bridge. It was a delightful little trip with mostly clear skies, comfortable temperatures and interesting water, just a little above nominal gage and flow.

Linda on the Caddo   Carl in some sunshine   Carl & Linda
going over a ledge

Kent, Carl & Linda   Linda approaching
the swinging bridge
Swinging bridge

After taking out, we went in search of a campsite and accidentally found the Arrowhead Campground at Caddo Gap, which was very well-suited to the paddling we were intending to do. It provided a campsite at a reasonable price, free showers, a gravel bar on the river for launching. Further, it came complete with covered and lighted picnic tables, shuttles, boat rentals, and a new owner with a passion for the place.

Dinner Campsite Kent dressed
for weather
Easter candy

The next day (Easter Sunday), David, Carl and I tackled the segment from our campground to Amity, which turned out to be a little over 21 miles. This was just as challenging as the day before, keeping our attention and moving us right along. Though it lacked some of the drama of the Buffalo River’s high bluffs, the trees were starting to leaf out , the water was clear, there was almost no trash, and the lines in the river were relatively easy to read. We spent just a little too much time on a gravel bar looking at rocks where David found several teeth fossilized in their original positions in the jaws, one with roots showing. We took out at dusk, loaded up the boats, and drove back to camp in the dark, where we had dinner together under a covered and lighted picnic table.

Easter paddle Carl on the 
Caddo River
Kent & Carl
on the Caddo
Splashing down
the Caddo

All good on the Caddo   Underwater features
(hard to see)

David finds 
his dentures
Kent at take-out   Carl at take-out

The next day dawned a little grey (very solid overcast) and mist. Carl and Linda decided they wanted to leave early to do some sightseeing on the way home. Carl went with us to the Norman River Access and shuttled the truck back to the campground while David and Kent got on the water, continuing past our first takeout (Swinging Bridge) to our Arrowhead campground - another very pleasant paddle with more gravel bar rock hounding and fossil hunting. We packed up our boats and our campsite and drove home.

Kent & David
ready to go 
  Close-up of one of
the water features
Rocks More rocks

Packing up   Lost a tooth on the 
ride home

And that accounts for how our well-planned 4 days on the Buffalo River turned into 1 exciting day on the Buffalo River and 3 wonderful days of paddling the Caddo River.

Our trip bird list consists of:
Great Blue Herons, kingfishers, a bald eagle, a golden eagle, an osprey, geese, a couple of scissor-tailed flycatchers, a couple of cormorants, swallows, crows and ducks. As we were leaving the area, a male cardinal flew across the road, so I guess he counts.


Conditions and forecasts on the day I changed the start date (March 19):

Gage was way too low and declining, and precipitation was coming toward the end of our trip in small amounts:

Here’s what actually happened that week of the original plan (first rain came on our planned travel day:

So that was a good call.

Here’s what happened on the Buffalo River the week we came:

Lessons Learned:
1. Make sure everyone understands the nature of this trip – scheduling flexibility is highly desirable.
2. Build the trip around a mid to late April date for more greenery.

3. In areas that are highly dependent on weather, have a couple of backup plans with at least one non-local alternative for every two days planned.


The author, Kent Walters