Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
How to write about the Buffalo River in just a few hundred words?
How to tell about its unique place in history as the first national river in the U.S., or of the families who’ve lived along it for generations? Of its cool, clear water tumbling over shoals into pools past elk meadows, lined with limestone bluffs and gravel bars perfect for sleeping on?
First, these three words: Float the Buffalo. Get a canoe or a raft or a kayak, put in at one of 19 places and paddle for a day or 15 days, if you want to go from the mouth of the river to where it meets the White. See it firsthand. See the otters swim and the firefly hatch sparkle. See it under the moon. See it with your family — it’s that safe.
The Ponca-to-Pruitt float on the upper part of the 135-mile Buffalo National River, in the Boston Mountains, is where the whitewater is, and is best floated in winter and spring. Check out the middle and lower Buffalo in summer, when the clientele changes from “paddlers to piddlers,” says Ron Grinder, who operates Silver Hill Canoe Rental at St. Joe on Hwy. 65. Silver Hill is one of 13 canoe rental concessioners up and down the river. And Grinder is from one of those families who go way back — Grinder’s Ferry Access at the Hwy. 65 bridge is named for his great-great-grandfather.
A warning: One stretch of the middle Buffalo — from Woolum to Baker Ford — “is as dry as the highway out in front of here” in July, or earlier in drought years, Grinder said. The river goes underground at Woolum, Grinder said, and re-emerges four miles downstream “so cold you can’t get in it.”
But though the river can run low, a big rain can bring a five-foot rise in an hour; if you see rainclouds, make camp way up on the gravel bar.
Canoe rentals run from around $40 to $50 a day; shuttle prices vary, depending on whether concessioners charge by car or distance. There are numerous places to stay near the Buffalo, from the la-dee-dah River Wind Resort at Ponca on the upper river to the park’s own cabins at Buffalo Point Ranger Station on the lower river.
Three more words: Go to www.nps.gov/buff/. The National Park Service site has all you need to know: rules (no glass, life vest for everybody, etc.), the area’s natural and cultural history, fishing information (smallmouth bass here), water levels (and a chart to tell you what that level means for floaters), activities for kids, where to camp, and so forth. Bon voyage.