Buffalo National River

     The Buffalo River,¬†America's first national river, begins its 132-mile tumble down toward the White River in the upper Ponca wilderness, some of the most remote and rugged country in the Ozarks. This stretch of the river is not suitable for floating, has little access and is mostly seen only be dedicated hikers. But the river reaches the historic Boxley Valley and begins a peaceful meandering that stretches the length of the long, narrow break in the hills before it begins its magnificent sweeps around the high limestone bluffs for which it is famous.

Canoe the Buffalo

     Boxley Valley and the Ponca area are favorite elk-watching sites and the floating in spring, when the water is high, is prime. Access is at Ponca and Steel Creek, where there is also primitive camping. Lost Valley and the Goat Trail provide excellent hiking opportunities. Farther down river, there is access and camping at Kyle's Landing, Ozark, Pruitt, and Carver, with hiking trails at Ozark and Kyle's.

     Most areas of the Buffalo are family-friendly and floaters usually take the kids and even the dog for a canoe ride that yields a new delight around every bend, whether it be a turtle sunning on a log, the sweet perfume of wild azaleas in bloom drifting across the river, or just a welcoming sandbar on a deep, blue-green hole of water that's too inviting to pass without stopping to swim.

     Each season has its colors and blossoms. In early spring, fluffy white Service, called Sarvis locally, break the browns of the bare branches and on its heels come the mauve blooms of the redbud. Before the redbud quits blooming, the dogwood will begin to open, spreading flat white clouds of big four-petaled flowers above the river. On the ground beneath, the small purple wild iris, white Dutchman's britches, and delicate dogtooth violets mix with the lush green of new ferns and soft moss.

     By May, the pink bushes of fragrant azaleas are joined by splashes of snow white daisies beneath a canopy of every hue of green. As summer advances, the greens grow deeper and they're interspersed with the purple Michaelmas daisies, the pink Ox-eyed daisy, and the brilliant scarlet of Indian Paintbrush. By fall, goldenrod blooms on the riverbanks, echoing the bright colors of the sweet gums, always the first to turn, and complementing the reds and oranges of the later oaks and locusts.

     Floaters may see the elk that make their home along the river. An estimated 450 animals have grown from a successful restocking program that brought 112 elk in from Colorado and Nebraska in the early 1980s. Spring is the calving season and gangly newborns following the cows could be sighted from the river by mid-May. In the fall, when bulls are mating, their shrill bugle cries may echo from the bluffs.

     Black bear are at home here, too, although the shy creatures are not often seen. However, you may just catch a glimpse of a mama bear and her cubs hastening out of sight as you round a bend in the river. There are several types of herons and, while the Great Blue is as shy as the bears, sometimes the Little Green Heron and the snowy whites will hopscotch along with a canoe, flying ahead and waiting for you to catch up before taking off again. You'll hear the woodpeckers, even if you don't see them, and the songbirds, - finches, cardinals, mockingbirds, wrens, and thrushes will sound a musical accompaniment to your entire journey.

     At night, the music takes a deeper note as frogs serenade your evening camp on a sandbar with their harumphing bass notes and, off in the distance, a coyote finds a reason to howl and the whole pack takes up the chorus. Which is better, drifting lazily through a long deep hole, or paddling furiously to navigate a sharp bend in fast shoals? Both have their charm. The slower stretches give you time to look and listen, to fill your soul with the serenity of the river. Pitting your paddling skill against the shoals is exhilarating and successfully shooting around a big rock in your way will leave you shouting with glee.

     In the end, to have been on the Buffalo, even for a single day, will be a memory to be pulled out and reviewed when the pressure of daily life or the dreariness of dark winter days threatens to consume. It's a step out of time and space into a place where time doesn't matter and the whole world is beautiful and inviting.

Ruth Wilson


For more information on the Arkansas Ozarks, Buffalo River Area, Ozark Mountain Vacations

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