April 16-22, 2021
By Tracy and Janet Hays
Our Buffalo River trip officially began Apr 16, but a few of us showed up Apr 14th to do some hiking. This area of the Ozarks is beautiful with many great hikes and lots of waterfalls. Due to low water conditions we had previously changed our shuttle arrangements to pick up our vehicles and begin our trip at Pruitt, about 21 miles downstream from our planned put-in, Steel Creek. But heavy rains just before our arrival changed all that. On the 15th seven of us decided to paddle from Ponca to Kyles Landing, 10.7 miles while the water was still up. Later in the day we were able to contact the shuttle company and change our put-in back to Steel Creek. This was great news as this is a very beautiful section of river that would be a shame to miss.
Day 1. On Apr 16 we rigged our boats, turned our vehicle keys over to the shuttle drivers and we are off at about 11:30am. The cost to have our vehicles delivered to the take-out at Rileys in Buffalo City was $110 per vehicle. Fifteen of us traveled here from Colorado, Tennessee and Florida. We were dodging lots of rocks and strainers on this upper section of the Buffalo. We paddled 13.5 miles in chilly mist to our first river camp Erbie. Along the way we stopped to hike 0.8 mile (one way) to Hemmed in Hollow to see a 200-foot-high waterfall, fantastic. We set up a rain fly at camp and huddled under to fix supper, as it was still raining/misting. Mark and Karen chose an interesting place to get out of the weather and dine — in the veranda of the camps “little brown shack”!
Day 2. We are off before the crack of 10am in another chilly misty day. More strainers and rocks to dodge. Today we saw Osprey, Bald Eagles and lots of turtles. The beautiful tall bluffs, streaked with colors, and blooming dogwoods and redbuds kept us all in awe. Stopped at Ozark Campground to resupply our water. We set up camp on a big gravel bar just past Hasty, about 15 miles today. Someone left four horse shoes and a stake here so a few of us spent part of the afternoon pitching horse shoes.
Day 3. Today before leaving we decided to have a horse shoe tournament. Each of us gets just one throw, closest to the pin, winner take all. A fabulous prize to the winner is promised. Bill goes first and he hits the stake! A tough act to follow and no one comes close until Mark’s toss lands on top Bill’s scooting it a couple inches from the stake. It’s just too close to call so we have a runoff. Mark is first and his throw lands close enough to score a point in regular horseshoes. Bill’s turn, he remarks about the pressure he’s under. His steelie eyes lock onto the pin and he lets it fly. The shoe arcs high tumbling through the air and then, RINGER! Unbelievable, the crowd goes wild. Bill takes a celebratory leap of an inch or more into the air! The fabulous prize turned out to be the dented-up beer can marker atop the stake. (It was hard to see the stake in the gravel bar.) Off paddling by 10 in a light rain, then pounding rain and light hail. Mix in a little thunder and lightning and it was pretty exciting! We pulled under some overhanging trees to get some protection from hail. The thunder and lightning and hail soon stopped but it continued to rain, and we pushed on. We stopped at 1:30 to camp at Mt Hersey after paddling only 10 miles. It was an unpopular decision but some of us were cold and wet. It worked out well though as the sun soon came out and we all enjoyed relaxing the rest of this beautiful day. This afternoon we got out the guitars and tried to make music. Much of it was about what you’d expect from a bunch of river rats, mediocre at best (especially when Tracy and Janet chimed in). But there were moments, when Micki and Jeff were hitting hot guitar licks, and Merlin nailed the high notes. These were special moments – at least to some of us. Later this evening Mad Mat and Demon Rum made for an interesting time round the campfire.
Day 4. Today we got an early start and paddled about 20 miles to Baker Ford making up for lost miles yesterday. It was our first full warm sunny day of the trip. We saw many hundreds of turtles today; one was a tiny soft shell not much bigger than a silver dollar. This is truly a beautiful river with tall limestone bluffs, dense jungle forests, and lots of birds. Lightning bugs and the chorus of whippoorwills was the highlight of this evening’s campfire.
Day 5. We decided to get an early start today because the weather forecast calls for rain, possible snow and freezing temperatures tonight. Another stop to resupply water at Tyler Bend Campground. We then stopped at Gilbert to see a neat old general store and get an ice cream treat. We were all sad and disappointed that Jeff and Merlin had to end their trip here. Shout out to Jeff for leading us through most of the rapids, then he’d eddy out to make sure we all made it through safely. He also gave us his extra beer, food and some warm clothes, much appreciated. We continued on and reached South Maumee after paddling 20 miles into a stiff head-wind. There is potable water available here also. After setting up camp some of us took a long hike to warm up.
Day 6. Cold Morning, our tents are crispy with frost, but it didn’t snow. We had our first morning campfire to warm us up. Slow start, then we paddled 18 miles to Rush. We paid a small fee to camp here. There is potable water and toilets here. Later in the day it warmed up and lots of turtles came out. The river has cleared, and you can see deep into the water. We have seen Bald Eagles every day. At camp Mark called us down to his canoe to see a big snake he spotted on the river bank. We gathered around wondering out loud what kind of snake it was. John quickly fired off with great authority and as smooth as butter that it was a Coral Colored Copper Headed Rattle Moccasin. Amazed at his response our jaws dropped a little as we quietly tried to process this information looking into each other’s eyes momentarily, then we burst into laughter, knowing well we’d just been had! Good one John, watch your back buddy.
Day 7. Due to tomorrow’s weather forecast of am thunderstorms, we made the decision to paddle out the final 24 miles today. When motivated, this group can rack up some mileage. We got an early start so the temperature is in the mid 30’s. The water temperature has been is in the mid 50’s the whole trip. We all launched as soon as we were ready, so the group was spread out far this morning. Just a half mile down, Clabber Creek Shoals caught us all off guard, it produced perhaps the biggest haystacks of our trip. Timing can be everything and for Henry and Kit it was a little off. Their bow dove into a haystack swamping the canoe causing them to flip. They self-rescued and Henry got the canoe ashore before any of us could get there to help. Kit and Henry are the newest members of the Buffalo River Swim Team! They quickly changed into dry clothes while others drained the canoe. Luckily no one was injured and no gear was lost or damaged. This is why we tie everything into the boat. This obstacle was listed in the mile by mile river notes everyone received via email before the trip and several of us had in a map case for easy access, but no one looked at it today. A better trip leader would review all available info daily and issue a heads-up reminder of any potential hazard. I failed to do this, apologies to all, lesson learned. After a long day paddling we reach the confluence of the Buffalo and White River. We must ferry across the swift White River to our take-out so we stop to rest up. Off again, but why is Mat thrashing and splashing in waist deep water near the shore beside his upside-down canoe? Things happen quickly, we think he stepped in a deep hole while entering his canoe and it just went over. Luckily the bad bruise was only to his pride. Not sure if this qualifies him for the BR Swim team. We all ferried across the White without incident, loaded up and parted ways.
This was an awesome group of people and a pretty fantastic trip of about 122 miles. We completed it in seven days rather than the nine scheduled. Big thanks to Mat for always keeping the campfires burning. Also, thanks to Kit for arranging the shuttle and Bill and Henry for providing the mile by mile river notes. It truly takes a village of paddlers to pull off such a great trip. If anyone on this trip did something especially silly, dumb or awesome, and it didn’t get recorded here, it’s simply because it didn’t catch my attention. I do try to watch for this kind of stuff, and give credit where due, it’s what makes each trip memorable.