Day 1 – Friday
After months of preparation and buildup, the day finally arrived for an adventure I had wanted to undertake for what seemed like forever – a hiking/camping excursion along the Buffalo River. Since we first began talking about starting Our Tracts, my friend and Our Tracts co-founder Jarrod Norwood and I had been talking about making this trip together. Our trek was for 3 days – so equipment/gear in our backpacks included tent, food, various tools for starting a fire, a water filtration system and Life Straw (critical- more to come), inflatable sleeping pad and pillow, and light weight sleeping bag. Light weight/easily compressible is the key on any item you take on an outing of this nature. Even with that in mind, our packs weighed about 35 pounds – a significant weight to carry on your back for 3 days!
The departure time was an early 6 AM. Our first scheduled stop was Jasper, AR for breakfast.
I’ve always thought the drive to Fayetteville is full of great scenery (and it is), but the views on this drive were even more awesome.
We drove to Jasper and stopped at the Ozark Café – eggs, bacon, hash browns and a biscuit. An unusually “robust” meal for either Jarrod or me, but we indulged knowing that it would be the last chance for a big meal in several days. It was a great atmosphere with great food to match.
From Jasper, we continued on to the Buffalo Outdoor Center (and saw more beautiful country along the way)– and we only got turned around once! It was a classic case of “should have zigged when we zagged” (well, actually took a left when it should have been a right). Very friendly folks at the Buffalo Outdoor Center – we bought a few last minute items and arranged for their shuttle service. The shuttle service is reasonably priced when considering it saved us from having to travel separately and bring two vehicles. And it worked exactly as advertised – which is always a good thing.
After the Outdoor Center, we made the short drive to the Boxley Trail Head, parked the car for the Buffalo Outdoor Center to pick up, and departed on the Buffalo River Trail (BRT) at about 10:30. Our plan was to hike Boxley to Ponca to Steel Creek and end at Kyles Landing. The first day, we went just over 8 miles. For all three days of the hike, the temps were great, lots of sunshine and there was a very nice breeze a lot of the time. I know nothing is perfect, but the weather April offered up for this outing was pretty darn close. Along the first leg of our hike, there was stunning vista after stunning vista – a lot of nature’s beauty. We did have to keep reminding each other that we needed to slow down and not rush- it was so easy to miss something. Everything was very green – but it almost would have been nice for a little less canopy in order to clearly see the amazing views. Ideally we would have gone about a month earlier – but schedules and heavy rains served as a determent. An observation – for it to be the “Buffalo River Trail”, not a whole lot of the trail is actually by the river. The Buffalo Outdoor Center’s web site has this description of the BRT – “The Buffalo River Trail traverses the eastern upper mountain benches above —and oftentimes out of sight—of the river below”. That is 100% accurate. However, we would discover on the second day that there are some “other trails” off the main BRT that take you right to the river, some great scenery, and some great camping spots. This brings up an important point – if you ever do a hike of this magnitude, be sure and take a map with you! Even if you’ve studied it and know the trail, this will let you explore a few of the secondary options that you may not have focused on and make you feel ok about leaving the main trail.
Speaking of camping, for night one, we found a great spot by a small creek by a bluff. Again, amazing scenery and a big bonus that we could be by water. Having a camp by water makes a lot of things a lot easier. This spot was just past a point where we had exited a stretch of private property. I mention this only because I had never thought about how much of the land that the trail runs through is actually private property. It was always very well marked – with signs like “entering private property – do not leave trail” and then “exiting private property”. In fact, the main trail, for the most part, was well marked.
We set the tent up, gathered wood for the night and next morning, and got ready to settle in for the evening. Before calling it a day, though, we explored the creek and surrounding area – enjoying the relief of not carrying the pack. Let me tell you, soaking your tired feet in cold stream water is great! After 8 miles with a 35-pound pack on – we were ready to relax! Jarrod and I have been great friends for a long time and have made several trips together, but nothing like this. There is nothing like sharing thoughts as you walk the trail and are sitting at a campfire. Not only did we have the main fire, but Jarrod built a special “cook fire” that was much smaller but made use of heating rocks as well as the flame to serve as a “cooktop”. Pretty impressive! A running joke with the fires both nights was any stick used to poke the fire was “ye old fire stick”. Several things got the label “ye old” during the course of the trip! Our supper was canned soup, but trust me, it was the best soup I’ve ever had! We situated two “sitting” rocks and were ready to relax. We made it an early night, probably about 9 PM, but we were both honestly too tired and exhausted to talk any more. We washed up and went to sleep, but woke up a couple of hours later because the temperature dipped significantly. We added a few layers and were very thankful we had some hand warmer packs to slip in our sleeping bags!
Day 2 – Saturday
We woke up early and prepared for the day. Our coffee was instant, but it was good! A couple of other hikers came by our camp as we were tearing it down (which we did in under an hour – not too bad) and we actually saw them a couple of times during the day. On Friday, I only remember seeing one other hiker. But on Saturday and Sunday, we saw several. It’s always good to take a minute to visit with fellow hikers and see where they’re coming from, where they’re going, and if they’ve seen anything interesting on the trail that should be checked out.
We continued on to Ponca (about 11 miles from our starting point) – and the great views continued. By this time, we had slowed down a little and were really completely enjoying the scenery, the company, and the fact that there was no cell service so no cell phone distractions! We saw a nice little cave (and ran into the hikers we had seen earlier in the day) but we refrained from adding spelunking to the agenda (well, Jarrod refrained, I refused!). The fellow hikers also shared with us the usefulness of walking/hiking poles – which we’ll have next time. We parted from our fellow travelers and went on to Ponca, taking a quick break and getting water for our packs from the river. Yes – the river. Here’s where the importance of a water filtration system comes in. You can’t carry enough water from the onset for 3 days – and you certainly don’t want to drink directly from the river. The filtration system is a must have and a Life Straw is also a great secondary system.
Ponca is “canoe central” so to speak for the Buffalo. There were lots of people putting in at the river. The water was actually a little low, so more correctly there were a lot of people dragging canoes to the deeper water!
Just past Ponca was an historic farm from the late 1800s. I loved seeing this because the structure and set up reminded me so much of my grandparents’ and great grandparents’ home place. I do regret, though, we missed any signs directing us to Lost Valley – which has great scenery and water falls. I guess just something to look forward to for next time! We continued on to Steel Creek – a great “drive up” camping spot and place to start some day hikes. After being on the trails for 2 days, though, it almost seemed a little “busy” or “commercial”. We took a quick break at Steel Creek (yes – an actual bathroom!) and continued on.
A comment on the trail – lots of up and down, steep climbs and rapid descents, and at a lot of points, a very narrow trail on the very edge of what would be a very unpleasant fall. I never felt like I was actually going to fall – but I did reach a point of wishing for a little more width in the footpath. A nice surprise – we found a stream (again, off the main trail) that we were able to take a break at – basically just relax in the cool water for a while. Back on the trail and after a while longer (about 3:00) we had started another descent and had started thinking about a campsite for the night. We again wanted to camp by water – specifically the actual river. We’d seen some great views of it from higher elevations and had of course actually seen it at Ponca and Steel Creek – but wanted a close up view without all the hustle and bustle of a main camping area. We ran into some hikers that let us know if took the “ORT – Other or Old River Trail” that was coming up instead of continuing on the BRT, after about 30 minutes, we’d actually be at the river. Running into those guys was very much good luck for us, as this led us to the perfect camping spot. Up on a hill and by the river. We set up camp, gathered wood for the evening and next morning, prepared our fire spots and had time to enjoy the river and soak up some sun. To say the water was cold would be an understatement – but it was fun nonetheless. What a great afternoon.
As the sun began to fade and it was starting to cool down for the evening, we started our fire and settled in for the evening – very much looking forward to supper. We were again camped below a bluff, with several yards of land descending down to our site. No need for sitting rocks at this site, there was a log that was situated perfectly. We had covered just over 9.5 miles that day, so again, we were ready to relax.
Just about that time, we heard a rustle in the area up above us. Deer or elk – finally! We had been hoping to see some since we started. But the rustling and digging continued with no deer or elk showing itself– even with us making noise as we started getting ready to prepare our meal.
Here’s where it got exciting. We had been intently watching the general area where the noise was coming from – expecting a deer or elk to jump out at any moment. Then Jarrod saw what was making the noise – not a deer, not an elk, but a wild hog. Jarrod stealthily moved in to take a closer look and realized it was not just one – but an entire “family” if you will. Jarrod estimated the boar was over 300 pounds and also had huge tusks. I was kind of disappointed that I couldn’t see them, even though I honestly did not want to get close enough for that to happen! They were clearly unconcerned about us or our fire, but they finally moved along. Which was good, because that was something that we really didn’t want to be forced to deal with. But the hogs weren’t done with their show just yet. They made one more pass by the camp – and this time, I was able to see them. A boar, sow, and 6-8 “little” ones – by “little”, I mean about 100 lbs! Again, they just weren’t really interested in us – and we were happy about that. It was so strange to see all these jet black hogs, off in the distance in the dusk, lumbering along. Just in case they came back, though, we decided to build the biggest camp fire we could and gathered even more wood to keep it going most of the night. Given that wild hogs don’t really have a predator in the area and aren’t afraid to take on a human, we were going to take any precaution we could! After another night of bonding and comradery, we went down to the river to wash up and we called it a night and settled in. It’s a very satisfying feeling to brush your teeth and wash your face in a river or creek – hard to explain but if you’ve done, you get it. I heard one visitor come into camp that night – and I was just sure it was the hogs returning – luckily it was not. I think it may have actually been a deer or even a raccoon this time; but by the time we got the tent open, whatever it was had departed. We also heard something jumping around in/crossing the river, but again didn’t get to see it. Day 2 was just a great day – and ended with the temps dropping again (but we were better prepared this time) and soreness setting in.
Day 3 – Sunday
We got up about 7 AM, had coffee (trust me, coffee made by camp fire is the best coffee you will ever have!) and breakfast, cleaned up, took on water, and tore down camp. To plan, we had gone far enough on Day 2 that we would have a shorter hike on Day 3. We ended up going about 6 miles to complete the trek to Kyles Landing. I’m glad it was a shorter hike – because as I said, soreness was setting in. We did however, each find a solid, straight branch/tree limb that served as a hiking pole. By this time, we were truly embracing the concept of slowing down, taking everything in, and not missing an opportunity to enjoy the sites and views that nature was offering. We again went off the “official” BRT path a couple of times and even made it to the river again. We got to Kyles Landing at about noon. During the three days, and even that morning of the third day, we knew we had ground to cover and were intent on a solid performance. We were energized and determined! But when we turned the corner and saw the car parked there at Kyles Landing, I think we were both instantly exhausted and starving! We were feeling the nearly 24 miles we had covered over 3 days!
We loaded up the car and headed home. We stopped at an observation deck just outside Jasper and then stopped at the Cliffhouse Inn and Restaurant to eat lunch. Inhale lunch might be a better description based on the speed at which we consumed our food! The food was great and the view spectacular.
As I said at the start, this was an adventure – an adventure in every sense of the word. 3 days in the outdoors, 24 miles of hiking, and a great traveling companion. I had never done anything like this before – and I had the time of my life. And the fact that I experienced it with my brother and best friend made it even better. I was sore, tired, renewed, and energized all at the same time. I can’t wait to do it again!