Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Floating The Upper Buffalo River

A couple of fellow Oklahoma kayakers graced Arkansas with their presence over the holiday weekend. Check out the great Buffalo River Trip Report I just got from OKC paddlers Al and Donna!

Road Trip Report: The Upper Buffalo River in Arkansas
Pruit put-in to Hasty Landing take-out (71/2 miles)
paddled by Al and Donna Want.

The Ponca area (Upper Buffalo) is an easy 4 1/2 hour drive from OKC straight up I-44 to Tulsa and then onto US412 to Ark 74 at the intersection with Ark.43.

Although we planned to put in at Ponca and paddle the uppermost (and most beautiful) section of the Buffalo, the water levels were to shallow for that section as is normally the case. Using the Buffalo Outdoor Center for shuttles, we put in at Pruit and they drove our car to the Hasty parking area ($40 shuttle fee). BOC also rents canoes and some kayaks. There are several other outfitters in the area (mostly out of Jasper) but we were already renting a lovely luxury cabin ($165/nite) from BOC at Ponca so it was easiest to make arrangements with them. There are also campgrounds at Steel Creek and Kyles landing as well as Pruit and Hasty.

If you rent a cabin, be advised, there's no tv reception and almost none of the area cabins have satellite or cable. Bring plenty of dvds. Also, there is no reliable cell phone service anywhere within 30 miles so leave the outfitter's number with family for emergency contact. There are no restaurants in Ponca and the choices in Jasper (population 498) are a bit limited. There is also no gasoline in Ponca so fill up before you get there and again in Jasper.

Being a holiday weekend, there were lots of kayakers and canoers on the river but it was never too congested and the company was, for the most part, very congenial and welcomed. The water was a cool 65 degrees and relatively clear and the water flow was an easy Class I (probably about 200cfs most of the way. There were paddlers on the river from 10 to 70 years old and everyone seemed to be enjoying the terrific scenery.

The Upper Buffalo is lined, much of the way, with tall stone bluffs (limestone I think) sometimes towering 300-500 feet above the water. They were quite impressive and at some places the water was deep enough to swimmers to jump off feet first to cool off. As with many Arkansas rivers, the river was punctuated every half mile or so with willow strainers around which the river would bend and pick up speed as it dropped off a foot or two in elevation resulting in easy rapids with some sharp turns.

As a general rule on rivers of this sort, always look for the the swiftest water and follow the current. Most strainers have a calm side which looks inviting and a side chute with small rapids. The calm sides almost always dead-end in a pool and you'll either have to portage over to the other side or paddle up-river to get back to the rapids.

We saw several canoers make this mistake but the river was really rather easy to read and paddlers were free to relax and enjoy the vivid greenery and the gentle flow of the current. There were lots of wide gravel bars which easily lend themselves to either a picnic lunch or overnight camping.

Paddlers should remember that NO GLASS IS ALLOWED ON THE RIVER AND ALL ITEMS MUST BE IN FLOATABLE CONTAINERS. The rangers were out on the river making check-point inspections and the fine for one lady with a jar of pickles was $130 plus a mandatory court appearance.

It's easy to see why the Buffalo was the nations first river to be designated a National Scenic Waterway. The view from the water is gorgeous and the river speed allows for a lazy enjoyable float. Be sure to take a camera. There will be lots of photo ops along the way.

The 7 1/2 mile float took us about 3 hours including a short lunch and socializing break on one of the gravel bars. The river could certainly be run faster but you'll really want to take it slow and enjoy every calming stroke of it. We intend to return as soon as possible and try out the middle sections of the Buffalo.

Spring is a great time to run the Upper Buffalo as it's the only time of year when the water levels are sufficient. You may get a little intermittent drizzle but don't let that keep you off the river. Throw a poncho in the kayak but you probably won't need it. It rained mostly at night and the intermittent drizzle on the river wasn't even enough to get my hat wet. The cloud cover kept the temps in the upper 70's and it couldn't have been much more pleasant.

The Buffalo is one river that bears visiting by all paddlers. You'll want to return to it often.

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