Float the Buffalo


By Gary Alderson  

Photos by Gary Alderson

When I close my eyes & I go to what I call “My Happy Place” I see myself somewhere along the beautiful Buffalo National River. It seems that I can always find my peace there. It being located in the Ozark Mountains of Northern Arkansas and I being from Fayetteville I find myself there quite often. The headwaters are located deep in the mountains near Fallsville, Arkansas and the river runs wild and free for approximately 153 miles all the way to the White River near Buffalo City, Arkansas. People have floated recreationally 146 of those miles. Although the very upper sections are for very experienced floaters and can only be floated during flood stage, most floaters get there start at the low water bridge in Ponca, Arkansas and float the different sections of river all the way to the White River.

This year, I had the chance to canoe from Ponca to the White River. Over 125 miles of protected river, I had dreamed of this float for 20+ years. I had floated almost every section of the river, but never all at one time. I wanted to do a thru paddle of sorts. I wanted to “Float the Buffalo.”

Buffalo River HDR Bluff Floaters

So after finally deciding that this was the year to “Float the Buffalo” I invited a few of my close friends that I normally do these types of big adventures with and told them we did not need to travel half way across the United States, that we could have the trip of a lifetime right here at home. I pitched my idea and without hesitation I had a few ready to go. I set the date for the last week of April and started planning. Planning a big adventure is always fun and exciting to me, and if done right can make for a more pleasant and rewarding trip. I poured over my maps & studied my guidebooks and decided that I would plan for a week: eight days & seven nights, averaging about sixteen miles per day. A nice pace that would allow us some time to enjoy the river. By going by that pace I discovered that we could also camp at several of the NPS campgrounds along the way if we wanted. I planned our meals and before we left I pre-cooked several homemade meals and froze them in the freezer to be packed in the cooler. This was a huge success and we looked forward to a tasty meal every night after a long days paddle. The one concern I really had in planning this trip was transportation. How was I going to get over Ponca and more importantly how was I going to get home from Buffalo City a week later? I called around several local outfitters and found that they could indeed shuttle my truck for me. I was lucky to have found a friend who would do this for me. So we were set and had a plan. All we had to do was hope that Mother Nature did not have another plan. We needed the weather to cooperate with us on this one. Would it rain? Flood us out? Or would it be hot and muggy? Would there be enough water to even float the upper sections?  You never know about April weather here in the Ozarks. I planned for all kinds and just hoped for the best.

On Sunday April 26th 2015 we loaded up our canoes, gear and headed to Ponca. A quick stop by the local Outfitters and by 10 am we were floating down river with nothing but 125 miles of Buffalo National River in front of us.  The weather was quite cool and the day was mostly overcast, so it kept the crowds at home for the most part. The water level was a little bit low too, but we made good time. We floated our sixteen miles that day and camped at the Erbie Campground that first night. This section is full of great scenery such as Massive Bluffs, Huge Waterfalls, Nice Rapids, Deep Pools, and is enriched in Local History. One can easily see why this section is one of the most popular floats in this part of the country.

Day 2 we found ourselves with less people and more sunshine. After a late start and quick breakfast we packed up and it looked like it was going to be another overcast day, but by mid-morning the sun had popped out and was warming our souls & rising our spirits. We stopped that afternoon at Pruitt for lunch where one of my friends who had joined us for that upper section had to pick up his truck and go home. He could not float the whole 125 miles, but wanted to do that upper section with us. After saying our goodbyes we set off down river. It was still early in the afternoon when came to the mouth of the Little Buffalo River and we paddled all the way past Hasty down to the Carver Campground where we spent the night, almost 20 miles that day.

Day 3 was going to be a shorter day for us as it was less than the sixteen miles down to the Campground at Woolum. The river was looking great and we had caught up to some better water levels. Before noon we had already made it down to Mount Hersey where we stopped for lunch. This is one of those places you just don’t stumble upon. After some exploring around the area, we loaded up and started down river again. We quickly found ourselves at the base of the “Nars” and just around the corner we stopped at Skull Bluff for some reminiscing. We talked about how much the river had changed since the last time we camped out on the gravel bar that used to be opposite of the Skull Bluff. Now it was mostly mud & really nowhere to camp. The river is ever changing and I can only wonder what it looked like 80 years ago when my grandparents lived not far from this spot on the river. In fact my mom was born just up Richland Creek in the Valley there.  Soon we found ourselves coming upon the Woolum Campground only to see several RV’s with generators running. We did not even stop and just kept on paddling. We paddled a few more hours before we made camp opposite of Margaret White Bluff. It ended up being a 23-mile day.

Day 4 I awoke to a magnificent foggy sunrise on the riverbank. I was in “My Happy Place”.  It was perfect and I could tell it was going to be great day. We still had good water flow and lots of sunshine. Since we were already ahead of schedule our next planned campsite was just a few hours away and we made goodtime with very little other floaters.  A little bit past noon we had already past Tyler Bend Campground and were floating under the Hwy 65 Bridge, the halfway point of the trip. We then quickly set our sights on Gilbert, Arkansas, the only place on the river that you can walk to a store. We had hoped to resupply some of a perishable food items at the General Store, but found out that they had not stocked up with anything yet. I was bummed, but not worried as I still had other things to eat, just not what I was hoping for. After filling up the coolers with ice we set off down river again. We talked about just pushing on down to a nice gravel bar. By the time we got to that gravel bar, some other floaters were in our desired spot. We then just kept paddling and I was in a zone. I was one with the paddle and the canoe. Just as the sun was starting to set we were rewarded with an awesome sunset. We soon pulled into South Maumee Campground, tired and worn out.  It was a 28-mile day.

Day 5 We slept in and were woke up by the sounds of outboard motors. Four Outfitter Jon Boats all loaded up with clients and gear: 1 boat with all the gear and 3 boats with a fishing guide and two clients. Wow!! What a way to see the river. It was not the way I was doing it, but I must say I did envy their nice camp as I passed by. It was like a resort almost. I’m glad all types of people enjoy the river in all the different ways. Maybe that’ll be me one day, but for now I’ll stick with my paddle and my canoe. We did have a huge breakfast of Bacon, Eggs and all the fixin’s that morning, so by the time we got on the river it was sunny, nice and warm. We were a full day ahead of schedule at this point & decided that we would just finish it in seven days instead of the eight we had planned for. We paddled most of the day with other floaters and I was surprised by how many others we saw on these lower sections. By the time we got the Buffalo Point Campground there were families out everywhere enjoying the beautiful day on the river. We talked about how we wished the restaurant there on top of the mountain had a delivery service down to the river. It’s funny how my mind starts to think about food when I’m out in the Wilderness. We fixed lunch instead and paddled on. Reaching the Historic Ghost Town of Rush later that evening and passing the 100-mile mark. We once again decided to take advantage of the Campground and found a nice site up in the woods. Knowing that this was the last NPS campground along the river. The NPS Campgrounds are nice & have Picnic Tables, Fire pits, and Vaulted Toilets. Most had the water turned off. All are Pack-it in, Pack-it Out Campgrounds. Meaning they do not have trashcans. We did some exploring around the area and had a great night of sleeping under an almost full moon.

Day 6 Once again we woke up, had a big breakfast and watched the Outfitters Jon Boats head down river. Soon afterwards we noticed a huge group of 30+ kayakers from Oklahoma City pass by as we were loading up our gear. We then noticed even more floaters unloading at the Rush Landing. We quickly past them all after the first big set of rapids and had the river to ourselves once again. The day was perfect and the good current kept us going. The last time I had floated this section of the river it was in the summer time and I remembered how long those stagnate deep pools of water were, how hot it was with very little tree canopy for shade, but not this trip. It was a perfect day to float, thus the reason we saw so many others near Rush. I saw countless Bald Eagles along this lower section. We floated 19 miles and made camp on the gravel bar just down from Elephant Head Rock. We ate steaks grilled over the fire and I stayed up late taking it all in. I knew the White River and my truck was just 4 miles away. We had floated over 120 miles so far and I did not want it to end.

Buffalo River HDR 1

Day 7 We woke up to a chilly May morning on the Buffalo River. My last time to pack my dry bags, to haul my cooler, to feel the water pass through my shoes, to hear the birds sing, to see the turtles splash, to be in “My Happy Place”. We decided that we would do a quick breakfast and start paddling toward the White River. It did not take us long and we were at the White River already. I had finally “Floated the Buffalo.” We knew that we had to paddle over a half mile UP the White River to the AGFC Boat Ramp at Buffalo City. The water current on the White River can vary from just a little to a whole lot. Depending usually upon how much water they are letting out of the lake up river. If they are running the power generators at full blast it can be very difficult. We hoped that by getting there in the morning the afternoon rush would not be there yet. We lucked out and the current was manageable.  We pulled into the landing area and just like that… it was over. We had floated over 125 miles, seen some of the most beautiful, peaceful, and tranquil sections of river this part of the county has to offer. It was everything that I had hoped for and more. We spent seven days on a river at the end of April with no rain. Mother Nature really helped us out. It was another successful trip. It was simply PERFECT!!  

I would recommend everyone “Float the Buffalo.” If you can’t do the whole thing I still encourage you to pick a section or two and float them. Just do your planning and know what to expect. If you were not familiar with the river then I would recommend that you get the two Trails Illustrated Maps as well as The Buffalo River Handbook by Ken smith.  There are plenty of local Outfitters scattered along the river that will be glad to help you plan such a trip as well. Just remember to Stay Safe and Have Fun!!

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