Sitting atop soft sand and smooth river rocks along the bank of the Buffalo National River, I waited for sunrise. There was a slight chill in the June air but coming from Florida where summer heat and humidity had kissed me each day since April, I welcomed this refreshing morning.
It was just shy of 6 a.m. and I sat alone while my camping companions were still snuggled in their sleeping bags. I didn’t mind. Mother Nature’s symphony led by birds, insects and a steady burbling of the river in the distance kept me company.
I’m a stereotypical weekend warrior and work hard primarily in an office environment. Come the weekend, I play intensely hard. This particular weekend in Arkansas was a little bit different. It’s the weekend when I remembered people are inherently good.
It’s been a long time since I camped. When I lived and worked in Yellowstone National Park, many weekends were spent in that park’s and Grand Teton National Park’s backcountry. I fondly remember my first trip in the great outdoors. I didn’t pee once during that trip. Granted, it was probably a 12-hour trip, but since it was my first time in Mother Nature’s playground, I didn’t know how and was just freaked out by it. At the age of 20, I wasn’t sure if I was cut out for camping. The following weekend, that all changed when I embraced the free-form squat in a field with tall grass and the rest is history.
When I saw an overnight float trip on the Buffalo National River was being offered in the silent auction for the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association (SEOPA) conference last year, I decided I needed that trip. Okay, I had a little bit of help in the decision making process thanks to my friends rum and Coca Cola. One of the reasons I bid on the trip was being an outdoor and travel blogger, I’m always on the quest for bragging rights. Honestly, I really had no idea where in Arkansas the Buffalo National River was located or what exactly a float trip meant. (Have I mentioned I’m a Yankee by birth?) All I knew was Glenn Wheeler, a SEOPA member and award-winning photographer, had donated the trip and it would be a new adventure.
My One Sticky, Sweet Request
Glenn and his wife Stacey worked with me in determining a June date and we locked in the details, including opting for a scenic trip for novice paddlers. Despite my vision of floating the river in a giant orange raft, I was relieved to learn we’d be navigating the Buffalo, which was established in 1972 as the United State’s first national river, in canoes. When asked about any special requests, I only had one.
“Can we make s’mores?”
Glenn made that happen. Like everything else on the trip, he took care of the details including preparing a delicious steak and veggie dinner (prepared in aluminum foil), making custom-order omelets for breakfast (made in sealable plastic storage bags boiled in water) and rather than making me forage for the perfect stick to roast my marshmallows, he had packed 21st century metal roasting sticks.
This has been the closest to glamping that I’ve ever been! Camping food during my Yellowstone days consisted primarily of the cheese and cracker picnic lunches the employee dining room provided. Friends and I stocked up on the cheese because it lasted all summer and traveled well during our hikes.
My friend Robb whom I met in 1990 when we both worked in Yellowstone, was my guest. Thanks to the magic of Facebook, we reconnected a few years ago and because he lives in Arkansas, he seemed the logical choice.
#VisitArkansas: In the Beginning in Harrison
Our trip began at the Wheeler home in Harrison where Glenn and his family treated us to a lunch of juicy hamburgers, crispy fries and homemade apple pie at the Daisy Queen Hi Boy. (9044 Ark. 7, Harrison; Tel: 870-743-1122) Afterward, Glenn and his son Zane loaded up the two canoes and camping and fishing equipment while Robb and I assisted where possible.
Okay, I really don’t think we were much help at all. We were the new kids on the scene and I basically acted as if I was busy doing something, like repacking my dry bag and lightening the load. “Do I really need my eyebrow pencil for this overnight trip?” Wasn’t the answer obvious?
We caravanned over a winding dirt road lined with towering trees and white and pink wildflowers to Woolum, our take-out point, where I left my rental car which started out gray but had become a light tan color, thanks to the dust. We then hopped in Glenn’s truck to Mt. Hersey, our launch point. Along the way, he pointed out homes and land owned by his relatives which painted a picture of his family history in the area.
What Happens When You Assume?
My misstep in the trip was assuming everyone has the same experiences as I do. Once we reached Mt. Hersey and equipped the two canoes with camping and fishing gear, I asked Robb, “Have you canoed before?”
“No, I haven’t,” he cheerfully said.
“Oh, boy,” I thought. I then remembered enjoying new things is the spice of life and it’s how I thrive. I appreciated Robb’s enthusiasm to give canoeing a try and had faith we would not tip the boat over. (Love ya, Robb!)
We paddled for a couple of hours atop gin-clear water and alongside towering rock cliffs, sandy banks, and forested areas. Campers were settling in for the evening and waved as our canoes floated down the river.
Ride of My Life
My heart raced when we navigated through the biggest whitewater rapids I had ever seen. Being honest, in reality they weren’t that big but for this gal, maneuvering the canoe through rushing water without capsizing was an adrenaline rush. I yelled out my signature “Woo-hoo!” after each successful ride through the mini-rapids, even if we were floating backwards down the river.
As the sun began to set, Glenn picked out a camping spot across a tall rock cliff. “Um, what are those?” I asked, already knowing the answer but hoping I was wrong.
“Bear prints,” Glenn casually said.
“Should we leave?” I asked while sucking up some courage.
“No…seriously, we’ll be okay,” was the outdoorsman’s response. He’s the expert and I trusted his judgment. Since we were not attacked by bears that night – although a racoon sniffing around scared the bejeezus out of me – Glenn was right.
A photo posted by Jennifer Huber (@jenniferhuber) on
After setting up tents on soft sand, we swam in the cool water and Zane showed me how to skip rocks, an art form I haven’t practiced in years. He’s a pre-teen but already a wise outdoorsman which proved handy during the trip. On at least two occasions he spotted cottonmouth snakes which are venomous. He also has a fun sense of humor, easy-going attitude and an affinity to 80s music. He may blush when reading this but I adore this kid!
As dinner cooked in the campfire darkness set in. Our quiet camping spot erupted with a loud chorus of whip-poor-wills, croaking frogs and buzzing insects while fireflies flashed across the dark sky. Looking up, stars shimmered against a blanket of black.
We continued the rest of our journey to Woolum the next morning while stopping along the way to fish for small mouth bass, swim and take in some of the river’s features, including Skull Bluff. From a distance, and with a little imagination, this grayish rock formation with small caves looks like a skull. By the time we reached our take-out point, we had paddled 8.6 miles of the Buffalo’s s135 miles of wilderness in the Ozarks.
We hauled the canoes back onto the trailer in the pouring rain and the Wheelers continued the adventure. They opened up their home for us to freshen up then took us to dinner in Jasper at the Cliff House Inn, home of a spectacular view of the Grand Canyon of the Ozarks in Jasper, as well as Arkansas’s official Sesquicentennial pie called Company’s Comin’. It’s a meringue, soda cracker and nut crust filled with a whipped cream and crushed pineapple mixture. Definitely a must!
My dinner was delicious, too. So much of the menu looked tasty but I opted for a cheeseburger with blue cheese and a side of crispy, golden onion rings. Boy, oh boy did that hit the spot! Cabins are available for rent, too. (HCR 31 Box 85, Jasper; Tel: 870-446-2292)
#VisitArkansas: Until Next Time
After dinner, it was time to head off to the next Arkansas adventure. What touched my heart was in the 30 or so hours I spent with the Wheelers was how much they felt like family. It’s not that I’m cynical about people but it takes me time to trust people and their intentions. (Hint: If I warm up to you quickly and want to be around you, that’s a good thing.)
During that short period of time they shared their personal lives and their pride in Arkansas. To say they went above and beyond with my expectations of the trip is an understatement. I hope to someday extend the same level of hospitality to them when they visit to Florida.
Arkansas, don’t you worry, I will be back and know you have the Wheeler family as your champions!
How You Can Float the Buffalo
Although Glenn is not available to take you down the Buffalo, there is at least one outfitter you can contact: Buffalo River Canoes; Tel: 870-446-2644
View additional photos from my float trip on the Buffalo and to Arkansas on Flickr.