Beneath Kingfishers: Exploring Arkansas’ Buffalo National River
The distant sound of rustling from the woods behind our tents forces my eyelids upward. I adjust to the darkness — it is near midnight in this remarkably remote stretch of Buffalo National River.
“Something is moving around out there,” fellow expeditioner Steven Thomas murmurs from inside his tent a few feet away.
Assuming an unwelcome but anticipated nighttime visitor has infiltrated our camp, Thomas grabs a flashlight to investigate as the remaining adventurers of our crew Brent Daniel and Benjamin Brodt follow suit.
I wait in my tent, exhausted and disinclined to bump into what is presumably nothing more than a hungry raccoon craving freeze-dried food and boxed wine.
“You have to see this,” Brodt calls out to me a minute later, and then I am begrudgingly fumbling in the dark for the door’s zipper.
Whatever animal that had been there was gone now, our food stash untouched as if the cunning creature had pulled us from our tents this time for a different reason.
In the serenity of this wilderness, we are brought outside of ourselves and entranced by a magnificent glimpse of the Milky Way. Every inch of the sky glitters, an absence of light pollution enabling the ineffable brilliance of the stars blanketing our campsite to shine with inconceivable immensity.
More than ever, we are mindful of this planet’s place in the vastness of an entire galaxy and contemplative of our purpose within it.
“Breathe the water,
You can see through water all the way up to the sky.”
Gods of Ocean Tides, Counting Crows
Longing for an outdoor escape amidst a national pandemic, the four of us hopped into our cars and drove out to the primitive hill country of Arkansas to paddle 64 miles of the lower Buffalo River.
Our time frame: five days. Everything we were living off of had to fit into the dry bags we were carrying down the river.
Knowing there would be no cell service, no designated campsites and for 25 miles, no emergency takeouts, our crew eagerly loaded the last of the gear and prepared to say goodbye to civilization.
Day one’s objective was to cover roughly ten miles, and aside from prevailing heat, the weather was perfect.
The crowds, on the other hand, were less than ideal.
We put-in at Tyler’s Bend Campground, a fairly congested recreational area brimming with rental companies and noisy locals who were unknowingly holding their paddles upside down while thoughtlessly blaring country-pop music and crashing into banks.
For the first few hours of paddling, the picturesque bluffs lining the river were mobbed with people, the tranquility of nature drowned out by the concurrence of humans and alcohol.
As we navigated through parties of day-trippers, our decked out boats chock-full with gear set us apart on the water, and a few curious glances were sent our way alongside an occasional inquiring comment.
It was not quite the wilderness we expected — it certainly lacked the “wild” part we had been chasing.
Collectively, we harbored a distinct motivation to paddle swiftly, and we pushed out a steady five or six miles until the final remnants of human life disappeared altogether and all that remained was us and the river.
Granting us entry into what would be our shared home for the coming nights, a Belted Kingfisher soared over our heads and invited us downstream to the true Buffalo, alive at last.
As we moved along the river, the four of us reveled in the stillness of nature.
Towering bluffs lined our journey downstream and glistened with the reflection of the river’s gentle ripples, projecting dancing shadows of light across the shimmering cliff faces.
A concert in the forest featured a symphony of birds, the Kingfisher’s strident rattle distinctly audible among their songs as our boats drifted atop underwater aquariums where submerged rock gardens hosted various congregations of fish below.
Although the Buffalo does not hold the drama of the Canadian Rockies nor the majesty of the Swiss Alps, the subtle beauty of its environment exhibits an addictive allure with an otherworldly charm capable of transporting visitors someplace else. We were no longer in Arkansas at all; it felt entirely too magical, too exotic, to be the same place that had been swamped with tourists just hours ago.
Approaching our tenth mile, we scanned the western banks for an elevated campsite that would place the sun behind us and provide shade from the extreme heat, and with these criteria in mind the entire trip, we had optimal campsites every night both in terms of beauty and practicality.
Camp was where the four of us set up shelter, cooked dinner and relaxed.
Periodically, Thomas would whip out his guitar and spontaneously perform unscripted comedic serenades about members of our crew. When he was not waiting for his Quinoa to cook on his stove, Daniel could be found knee-deep in the river getting the perfect shot with his camera, and nearby along the bank, Brodt sprawled out over a sleeping pad with a book across his chest.
Camp was also where we discovered what would be our trip’s most irritating obstacle: the horsefly situation. An inescapable nuisance, the unrelenting pests would attach themselves to you to the point where the only way to rid yourself of one was to plant it onto someone else, thus leading our group to engage in an unspoken game of tag. In this unconventional version, whomever the horsefly attached itself to was “it”, and ultimately, each of us lost at some point in the game.
Nonetheless, the evenings at camp served as our personal haven, a coveted hiatus that we greatly appreciated following exhausting days of paddling from sunrise to sunset.
“I pray the water wash away the memories and the cost.”
The next three days blended into one another. In that time, we covered 50 miles and had sufficiently adapted to our new routine: wake up, paddle, sleep, repeat.
Day three was our biggest day: 21 miles in just under ten hours. Although we came across quite a few sections with rapids, a good portion of the river lacked current altogether. Some stretches were so shallow that we had to step out and manually drag the boats into deeper waters.
Every few hours, we stopped for cold drinking water at the freezing natural springs that fed into the Buffalo and took swimming breaks for relief from the sun.
The days were hot and draining, but the surrounding beauty and good company compensated for any discomfort. We joked lightheartedly amongst ourselves to get through any physical pain.
“How many miles do you think we have left?” one of us asked Thomas toward the end of each day as he analyzed the topographic map.
“Lie to me,” Daniel would interject before Thomas could open his mouth to respond, sending us all into mutually understanding chuckles.
Brodt had made a list of all the different foods he planned to eat as soon as we returned to civilization. I couldn’t blame him; after eating only packaged tuna fish and peanut butter tortilla wraps, bacon cheese fries had certainly become a recurring thought in my mind.
Above all else, our time in the Buffalo Wilderness was wildly enjoyable. From playing peekaboo with river otters to viewing the impressive wingspan of bald eagles in mid-flight, each bend in the river unveiled some new wonder.
By late afternoon of our fourth day, we hit the 60-mile point that marked the end of our course down the Buffalo and set up camp on a beach within eyesight of where the Buffalo ran into the White River.
Watching bitter-sweetly as the sun dropped behind the ridgeline, the four of us sat together soaking up our final images of this amazing environment before turning into our tents for one last raccoon-encroached slumber under the stars.
“Then we pray to our reflections in the water as it rises.”
By 6 a.m. we were on the water heading towards the confluence of the two rivers.
The White River varied from the Buffalo in two major ways: the swift current and the heavy boat traffic.
Much wider and significantly colder, this portion of the White was a populated vacation spot with several resorts close by. Four miles away, our takeout was a narrow concrete boat ramp located on the opposite side of the river.
Our idea behind getting such an early start was to beat the bulk of any potentially dangerous motorboat traffic. We had factored in the struggle our canoes could face against the current when the time came to pull the boats around into the takeout.
We failed to consider, however, the severity of the dense early morning fog.
Now, not only did we fear getting mowed over by speeding yachts, we worried that the thick fog obscuring our visibility would cause us to pass up our takeout completely as the fast-moving water swept us down-river.
Staring blindly into a blank white canvas, our crew hung back to discuss a plan of action.
We decided our best bet was to hug the right bank until we felt it was safe to ferry across to the other side. As soon as the takeout became visible, we would spin our boats around and paddle as hard as we could upstream into the landing.
After an uneasy forty minutes, we arrived at our destination safely. The four of us gathered our belongings and walked the boats up to the parking lot to our vehicles.
It felt like a dream to be back in the real world again.
On the river, any concepts of time or responsibility were replaced with a deep appreciation and awe for the present moment. Forced to examine the perplexity of a world foreign to our own, we were empowered by the potential that lies in nature’s unknown.
Within the hour, we loaded the gear and parted ways. As the truck pulled away from the takeout, the river faded away in the rear-view mirror, and I closed my eyes, pretending I was still drifting under that Buffalo sky beneath Kingfishers.
“Gods of water / Gods of rain,
Cover up the sun again,
We are crossing at the Mississippi line, and I tried all my days.”