My First float on the buffalo

Buffalo national river kayak
The Buffalo National River, near Jasper/Ponca, AR

I steered the canoe just fine. No one drowned, nothing was lost, we just got a little wet. Which is to be expected and is all just part of the experience, really. I saw about 30+ turtles (they were everywhere!), finally figured out where Steel Creek Campground is (people always seem to mention this one as being a great spot) and I’m excited to go back and explore this area again soon. Also, we were only a about two and a half hours away from our house in Bella Vista, so it wasn’t the end of the world for things to be damp and dirty for a bit since we’d be home that night. For those of us in the Bentonville-Fayetteville area, it really isn’t an exhausting trip and can be done in a day if you plan in advance and get an early start.

The backstory

My brother lives just on the outskirts of Harrison, AR, on a gorgeous property with a stellar view (he’s also got one of those legit custom tree houses, like on Discovery or Travel Channel!) and a fairly easy drive down to the Buffalo National River. He also happens to visit the river often with his kayak, for hikes and exploring, or to help the local search and rescue volunteer group when there is a need. So we basically had our own private guide, which made the experience that much more awesome. It’s a wonderful place to explore, and happens to be America’s first national river. It flows for 135 miles and is one of few undammed rivers in the lower 48, according to the NPS. This year is actually it’s 50th anniversary – so if you have been thinking about a visit, this is the perfect time to do it.

kayak coleman canoe buffalo river
The Ponca low-water bridge, where we put in for our float that gorgeous Sunday

I have years of river floating experience, but it has typically been only a few times each summer, and mostly on the same river in Wyoming. The North Platte River near Saratoga, WY, felt like a second home growing up. Almost all of our family vacations (in the winter it was a ski trip to Laramie) were in this area when I was a kid, and a big reason for that was my uncle’s large raft and his piloting capabilities. I had two uncles in the area who knew that river like the backs of their hands, and that provided us a great experience growing up that I definitely took for granted. I love the North Platte and felt pretty confident among its slow twists and turns, with the occasional section of rapids, and the private land that surrounds it (just don’t get out of your boat in the wrong spot). But now that I’m in Arkansas, it’s high time I started visiting the rivers around here.

Orange coleman canoe
The good ole Coleman

I’m pretty sure my parents have had this orange canoe since before I was born. This thing (and a couple others that look just like it) has been across a slew of rocks, caught on random trees and branches, gone down with myself and family members a time or two….. but they are workhorses, and I would not hesitate to recommend a Coleman canoe to anyone considering a purchase. I can’t personally vouch for any that are less than 35 years old…but I hope they still make them like they used to.

My brother prefers the kayak (Liquidlogic, purchased from Pack Rat Outdoor Center in Fayetteville) and is loving life in that thing these days. It is perfect for him when he’s out there by himself, and we found several great spots for him to practice rolls while John and I relaxed in the sun on the nearby bank. One of the things I had to adjust to, compared to Wyoming, was the public land that surrounds the water. Like I mentioned, the river-adjacent land in Wyoming was far from welcoming when you stepped out of your boat. There were only a few select spots (which my family knew well, thank goodness) that you could hop out of the boat and pee without trespassing and potentially ending up with a shotgun pointed at you. I love Wyoming. But it was a nice experience to stop where we wanted to on this trip and just admire the landscape without worrying about getting back in the boat in a hurry. There was one place along the way that is a popular hiking spot (had we had more time that day we would’ve parked the canoe and gone for it) that I’d definitely take advantage of if your schedule for the day allows. Hemmed-In Hollow is right off the river, and is apparently spectacular after a recent rainfall. It’s on my to-do list next time we float that section.

Buffalo national river canoe float
River selfie

The route

We started at the Ponca low bridge, and ended the day at Kyle’s Landing. We also hadn’t been super prepared that day for a river trip, so we’d made a quick trip to Wal-Mart early that morning. They had a solid supply of outdoor gear and we picked up two new life vests and some other accessories that we hadn’t brought with us. I’d originally planned on going for a hike that day, so left all of the water-related gear back in Bella Vista. Harrison doesn’t have a ton of options when it comes to shopping, but I was impressed with the selection at Wal-Mart, along with the knowledge of a local that was got as a bonus. Our cashier told us all about growing up on the Buffalo where her dad was a guide. She told us that we could float the whole river in about eight days, but she and her family used to do it in six. She also recommended several other places for later in the year when the water level is lower (I believe she mentioned Gilbert as a fun area to lazily tube when the summer heat becomes unbearable). This conversation is just another example of that southern hospitality I mentioned in another post. The locals near the river know that area well and are a wealth of information for visitors. The Buffalo National River is a point of pride around here, has provided many years of memories, and most of folks love to share their stories to inspire the visitors they meet. It’s worth a few minutes of your time to have a chat with the people you run into.

Ponca Arkansas general store
We were able to drop the truck here at the store, where they’ve got a shuttle service you can use to have your vehicle delivered to the final destination for a fee.

One other (random) thing that connects my years in Colorado to my new state are the elk. Believe it or not, Arkansas has its own elk. This was not something I was aware of until our first visit here at Thanksgiving of 2020. My brother took us on a driving tour of the Ponca area and we encountered quite a herd. After the Eastern Elk disappeared at the end of the 19th century, there was a natural gap in the ecosystem where the herbivore had previously helped keep things running smoothly. In 1981 about a hundred lucky members of a Rocky Mountain Elk herd were relocated to the Boxley Valley of Arkansas and have been happily reproducing and eating vegetation ever since. The herd is around 500 strong these days, and you’re likely to see them if you visit the area in the fall.

Buffalo National River water
The weather and river were perfect

Get out there!

We had a great time, saw so much beauty, and there was only one close call with my steering skills. We had almost made it the whole way with no incidents so I was feeling pretty sure of myself, but one turn with a few too many obstacles and I ended up sending the nose of the canoe right into a pile of brush on a swiftly moving turn. This then led to water gushing into the canoe, some sideways acrobatics, and several loud expletives. I refused to let John get dunked on our very first canoe outing together and managed to hold on to a sturdy branch as well as the paddle to keep us mostly upright. He got a little wet, we both got a little bruised, but came out of it without any serious damage. After overturning a canoe in Wyoming about seven years ago and struggling to not get dragged down in a very fast current, I’m more cautious than I used to be. It was not an enjoyable experience and my boat partner on that float ended up doing some serious knee damage that required surgery. I was glad we got new life vests for this trip, and as uncomfortable as they are sometimes, the peace of mind is worth it.

I highly recommend a float on the Buffalo if you’re in the area and considering a splash of fun (see what I did there?). The Upper Buffalo float season typically only goes through June, but the lower Buffalo may have more flexibility and access when water levels drop in the summer. Check out the Buffalo Outdoor Center and the National Park Service website for more information. I’ve never booked anything through the BOC but they have a lot of options when it comes to activities and equipment (and cabins), and they’ve got the know-how to safely provide visitors with the action they seek in the area.

Buffalo river float guides outfitters
It can be a pretty good sized crowd on a beautiful spring morning as the outfitters bring their guest and gear down to the water

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