Monday, June 30, 2008

Buffalo River Magic

This week I wanted to share a wonderful spot to take the entire family for a great low key adventure. The Buffalo National River in northern Arkansas is a free flowing National Wild and Scenic River with crystal clear water, imposing bluffs, beautiful gravel bars and some of the best canoe camping in the nation. The Buffalo has Class 1 (and the occasional easy class 2 on the upper section) rapids for some excitement as you paddle. At night, gravel bars become your home as the sun drops behind the bluffs and the fireflies emerge in the forest line.

The Buffalo runs for approxiamately 120 miles before emptying into the White River. The entire length of the river is a
designated national park - leaving the river a wilderness. While on the river you won't see camps, docks, private campgrounds, stores or other reminders of civilization. Floaters can choose from several sections for day and overnight trips.

The upper river is known for its higher level of whitewater, but can dry up over the summer and into fall. The middle river is floatable most of the year and is known
for its high bluffs, fun riffles and great camping. The lower river is wider, with larger gravel bars and beautiful bluffs. We generally opt for the middle section, with our favorite float starting at the Carver put in and ending at either Gilbert or Hwy 14 (depending on whether we want a 4 or 6 day float).

Paddlers with basic moving water skills can generally navigate most sections of the river. I suggest describing your skills to the outfitter from which you rent your canoes to see if they think the challenge level is appropriate at the water level that you have when you arrive at the river (see links at end of article).

While on the river, you can enjoy floating down the rapids on air mattresses, bird watching, fishing for bream, smallmouth and largemouth bass, skipping rocks (the Buffalo is a world class rock skipping river!), building campfires, roasting marshmallows and much more.

Our recent June Trip to the Buffalo:
There are very few things that are a constant in life. For my family, the Buffalo National River is one of these things. Since the early 70's three generations of my family have enjoyed floating the Buffalo. It never seems to get old. And it always has magic.
A few weeks ago, Becky and I accompanied a group of friends to the Buffalo. One of the special things about this trip was that is was my brother Doug's sons first trip to the Buffalo. Caleb and Aaron had been dreaming of the day that they would paddle, fish and camp on the Buffalo since last fall when we started planning the trip. The boys were joined by Ruthie Menou - on her first Buffalo River trip at age 7.

We arrived at Gilbert, Arkansas to threatening skies. Our plan was to camp on the Gilbert gravel bar and put in the river the next morning. We awoke at 4am to lightning and thunder. The rain came down hard and heavy the rest of the night and into the next day. Since the Buffalo can rise extremely fast, we decided that it would be a good idea to wait a day before getting on the river. Sure enough, the river rose 5 feet that day. Luckily- it dropped just as quickly allowing us to get on the river the next day.

Once we were paddling down the Buffalo, the magic quickly kicked in. We were accompanied by Doug, Caleb and Aaron as well as our friends Wes and Chris Franciol, Brent and Patty Prather and Mark,
Jennifer and Ruthie Menou and our son Matt and his wife Rebecca. As we paddled away from the put in, we felt immediately comfortable on the moving water. We swept down the river past rugged grey and brown bluffs, thick willows and expansive gravel bars. We reached our intended campsite of McRaven Bluff to find it just as we had left it on our last trip a couple of years ago.

The group was soon involved in firewood collecting, rock skipping, swinging on the rope swing across the river (great job Patty, Brent and Chris!) and fishing. It wasn't long before I heard the familiar "I got one!" cry from Caleb - who looked almost astonished that he had caught a fish all on his own. This so much reminded me of when our son Matt (now 22 years old) when he was
little. It was amazing and beautiful to watch Caleb and Aaron discover the wonder of the river one event at a time. Catching a fish. Paddling a rapid. Catching a turtle. Starting a campfire. Baking a cake on a camping stove. Cleaning a fish and discovering a large crawfish in its belly, Watching the fireflies. Seeing more stars than you ever thought possible. Sleeping in your own tent. Getting there under your own power.

That night, Brent led us in a great variety of folk songs around the
campfire while the (old and young) kids got stuffed on S'mores. No worries though - we were all sufficiently tired from our paddling to conk right out when we finally made it in to the tents. The next day saw Caleb, Aaron and Ruthie getting more and more comfortable with their surroundings. They rode the rapids on air mattresses, found fossil rocks on the gravel bars - and of course - fished. As the sun began to wane, Chris and Wes got an emergency phone call and had to paddle down to take out early along with Patty and Brent.

The rest of the group enjoyed another enchanting night at Lane's bend.
The next morning came all too soon as our group confidently paddled the rest of the distance to Gilbert and took out of the river. The kids got their Buffalo River T shirts as true veterans of the river now. Our little group split ways for the trip home - filled with memories and the simple magic that is the Buffalo river.

Links for planning your Buffalo River Canoe Trip:

Main Buffalo River Site:
Canoe Rentals: (we always use the Gilbert General Store or
(870) 439-2888 or 439-2386)
River Levels:,00060 or call park headquarters at 870-741-5443 for level information (24 hours per day).
What these levels mean: (use the hwy 65 line of the table to compare to the lower graph on the waterdata site).

Of course, we extend a welcome to you to drop by Pack and Paddle for books on the Buffalo as well as help with gear and with planning your trip!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Fishing, Football and Fathers Day

With Fathers Day approaching quickly, I thought this would be a good time to give you a view into my dad and a few of my memories and stories from growing up. I apologize in advance to my Dad who I am sure doesn't want me writing this. You see, he was never one to want to take the spotlight. But looking back through my 47 years, I can see how much his gentle guiding hand has affected my personality and my life.

Known to most folks simply as "Doc" (he was a childrens dentist in our pre - Pack & Paddle days). Many of my earliest memories with my dad involve the camp our family used to have on the levee near Fausse Point state park. In those days, my dad had a serious fishing fever - and my two brothers and I would often accompany him on his many trips into the basin in search of fish. I can remember always getting to the landing in total darkness. We would launch the boat and my dad would take off at mach speeds down canals that I wondered how he could see down in the inky black. The ride always seemed cold and long, so we would climb underneath the pull-over boat he had tied across the gunwhales of his motorboat to try to get out of the wind. Once, we arrived at our fishing spot in the dark and my brother caught a "fish". When he pulled it out of the water - a big snake was hanging on the hook. That line got cut.

I can remember my dad at some point in the trip always taking me to fish between these 2 certain trees in Buffalo Cove that we had caught fish at once. I'm not sure if we ever caught fish there again, but he would take me there to give it a try every time. Our diet in those days was "interesting". We would eat honey buns for breakfast followed by Ritz crackers with cheese out of a can for a snack. After that, we would have Vienna Sausages for lunch. One of my favorite memories of our camp happened when we were on our way driving out to the camp through St. Martinville. My dad pulled over to (I think) a hardware store. I got out with him, not knowing what we were stopping there for. He walked in and bought me a BB gun. It was one of the greatest moments of my boyhood.

It seems as though we always caught fish in those days. One thing that I could never understand about my dad was that when we would get back to the landing and someone would ask if we caught fish, I would be bursting to pull open the ice chest and say we caught a ton of fish, but my dad would always say "We caught a few" and leave the ice chest shut. I always thought he was trying to be humble. Now I wonder whether he was just trying to keep his fishing holes secret.

Another memory I have of my dad is his love of football. Many Sunday afternoons were spent watching teams like the Colts and Dolphins. I can still remember loving my toy Colts helmet with the blue horseshoe on the side - pretending I was Johnny Unitas. When we started a neighborhood team (not exactly sure who we were going to play against), my Dad got us "jerseys" for Christmas. In high school when our team played in the Superdome for the playoffs, my parents and grandparents wore "Tiger Ma and Tiger Pa" shirts.

As Pack & Paddle grew, my dad scaled back his dental practice to help out with the family business. Everyone would say that my mom would come up with some crazy idea and my dad would figure out how to make it happen. Some of these ideas included building a ski machine, remodeling the shop many different times, making our own wooden mannequins, adding on to the building 3 times and much more. One of my favorite stories is that when the big addition that currently holds our boat room was under construction, we had a thunderstorm blow through late one afternoon. We all heard a crash and ran outside to look. The entire addition was blown over and was sitting in the parking lot in a huge heap. My dad walked over and looked at it. He shook his head and said "I think I'll go down to the store and get some beer".

People that know my dad love him for his gentle spirit and wry sense of humor. He embodies that old school graciousness that I fear our society is losing these days. The way that he put his busy dental practice on the back burner to help chase the Pack & Paddle dream amazes me. He went from spending weekends in the basin to swinging a hammer and turning a wrench. He embodies humility, always making the other person in the conversation feel important. He knew how to work hard - and passed that along to all of us kids. He taught us all how to support your spouse in their personal growth and dreams. He instilled in all of us what it is to be a true outdoorsman and adventurer. If all of this isn't what being a dad is all about - I don't know what is.

Happy Fathers Day Dad! We appreciate you and love you!

End Note: Many people ask me how my mom and dad are now. They are doing well - still riding their bikes and staying active. My dad took us out a while back in his boat to check out a spot in the basin for a canoe trip. This brought back many memories. He just bought a membership in a fishing club - so he'll be passing his love of fishing on to the grand kids.