Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Summer Fun - Floating the Buffalo River

Ask a native Arkansan what to do in Arkansas in the summer time and inevitably, one of the top answers will be "float the Buffalo!" The Buffalo River is the nation's first National River and a true outdoor treasure. According to the National Park Service, it is one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the lower 48 states, and lures locals and travelers alike to its shores.

Similar to hiking Mt. Kessler, floating the Buffalo has been something I've thought, "we should do that!" since the first time I heard about it. Unlike our local adventure, though, floating takes a bit of planning, and also felt like something that would be more fun when the kids were a little bit older.

With Shauna's departure for her year long adventure in the UK looming, we finally picked a date and decided to go do it! In preparation, I googled "floating the Buffalo River" six ways to Sunday. I found plenty of information on types of floats and outfitters. There were enough sites with water levels to get an idea of where we were in the season. Strangely, though, there wasn't a single place that spoke to a novice like me; a rookie who wanted to take kids down the river but didn't own a watercraft or have really any floating experience at all.

There are so many options - canoes, kayaks, inflatable boats, inner tubes. Two hour, half day, overnight trips. In and out, camping, cabins. I thought it was as simple as - go float! Given our inexperience, we chose to go with the shortish float via canoe, since the three adults at least had experience wielding a paddle. With no specific checklists, we figured we were all set with the reservations and the start time for our planned 3-4 hour float.

Irene, Caroline and John ready to float
That Saturday morning dawned sunny, hot and seemingly perfect for a day on the river. The six of us piled in the van and headed east toward the Buffalo River Outfitters. It's a beautiful drive, but it was a bit farther than expected, and by the time we got there we were cutting it close for the mid-distance float. As we hadn't eaten our lunch yet, we had to instead opt for the 2-3 hour float so that we could have our picnic lunch before heading out. Lunch done, kids' swimsuits on, all we had to do now was wait for the shuttle to get us down to the launch site!

Despite having hats and sunscreen, we were missing some of the more critical equipment. For those rookies like me who've never floated before and can't really find the easy answer, here's what I wish I'd known to bring when I was planning our first trip:
  • A cooler - not only will you want water (or other drinks) while you're out on the river with no shade, it provides a third seat for the non-paddler in the canoe.
  • Bungee cords - said cooler has to be securely tied to the watercraft.
  • Koozies - you can't have any drinks on the river that aren't in something that floats. I love knowing that we're doing everything we can to keep the river clean, and a koozie around a water bottle is a small price to pay to help do that.
At this point, we were blissfully ignorant and just happy to be at the water's edge. My big surprise when arriving at the launch point was how many people were on the river! I knew it was popular, but I'd not mentally connected the dots to realize it was a steady flow of people in canoes, kayaks, tubes, and sometimes just swimming by, enjoying the cool water on a hot summer day. We watched the other floaters, waited for our outfitters to get the canoes to the water's edge, and took a few pictures in the sun.
We managed to get into the canoes and launch into the river, and immediately, I realized - this isn't as easy as it looks!! Shauna and I were in a canoe together with John; Justin had Caroline and Irene with him. Despite having two-adult-power in our canoe, we managed to get turned entirely around, floating backwards right at the start. Good grief!! With a little bit of laughter and a good bit of upper body strength, we got turned around properly and began floating down the Buffalo. We were off - we were floating!
It didn't take long to realize it was much hotter on the water and in the sun than I had expected. I was very grateful for my hat and sunglasses, but without water to drink and in regular outdoor clothes with sneakers, I was stuck in the canoe without a lot of options for cooling off. Thankfully, we'd put the kids in their swimsuits, and we soon realized one of the best parts of floating is stopping along the way to cool off and swim in the river. After an hour or so of paddling, we parked the canoes on the shore and watched the kids dive into the cool, clear water of the river.
Seeing the kids cooling off in the water made me wish that I had worn a swimsuit, too. Back to those checklists - I had figured out what equipment we were missing; now I knew what the attire checklist should've been:
  • Swimsuit - getting into the water would've been amazing given how hot it was that day. I was pretty close to getting in fully dressed, but it would've been a long ride home in wet clothes.
  • Sandals (though the old sneakers did work, as long as you don't mind squishy shoes) - you definitely can't go barefoot. The bottom of the river is straight up river rock, not sand, and would be pretty painful to walk on without shoes.
  • Dry clothes to change into upon returning to the car for the drive home. Nobody wants to drive three hours in a swimsuit that's spent time in the river.
The kids had so much fun; they're still at the age that their laughter rings clear and true, no pretense or worry about what others think as they play and have fun. I so often say we're at the sweet spot with our kids - they're the age where they can do so much for themselves, and at times like this, they can go off a bit on their own without a parent having to be within arms' reach. Their budding independence is an affirmation that we're somehow navigating this parenting thing okay.
We were about an hour and a half into the float at this point, and I was desperately thirsty; I can't emphasize enough how big of a miss it was not to have brought a cooler and drinks. Lesson certainly learned. We herded the kids back into the canoes, and switched places so that Justin would have help with the paddling. That's when I realized how little help was going to come from the kids! I watched Justin and Shauna float farther and farther ahead as I worked to navigate under one and a half oar power!
There were places where the river ran faster than others, and I was glad that we hadn't come earlier in the season when the water was higher. We did run into a few places where the canoes scraped the bottom, but I think all in all, the water level was perfect for our first time on the river.

As I began to think we were going to be hard pressed to make it all the way to the end, there we were - the outfitters were on the banks waiting for us to pull our canoes up out of the water and head back in the shuttle. The float actually lasted just a bit under two hours; the lesson I learned this first time out is that the variability in the time for a float comes from how much time you spend out of the canoe, as well as how vigorously you paddle. If you know me, you know I'm not much one for passive outdoor activity; it wasn't a race, but I was still going to put some muscle into it! If you'd asked me at the beginning whether an under-two-hour float would be just right, I would've rolled my eyes and suggested the much longer one. Given our lack of preparation, though, it was a good thing we only spent that amount of time on the river.

With my first trip under my belt, here's what I'll know next time:
  • Consider an overnight trip - it's a far enough drive that out and back is a little bit taxing. Going the day before to get an early start on the river would help not just with the heat, but with the crowds, too.
  • Relax a little bit - it isn't a race down the river. The views are incredible, and the people watching is entertaining, too.
  • Figure out a way to waterproof a camera - it is a stunning landscape to which my pictures just can't do justice. Along the way we saw a bald eagle, too - it isn't just the bluffs and the trees overhanging the river that inspire.
  • The different types of watercraft all make for a different experience
    • The canoes were perfect for our family trip with kids our age. They're a way to make it a group activity, because it requires cooperation and teamwork to get going in the right direction.
    • The kayaks I saw were often loaded with camping equipment - so I think kayaking would be an amazing way to do a multiday camp/float trip. Those were the people I looked on as adventurers. A day trip on a kayak, too, seems to me like a more solitary, individual float, but perfect for a day of reflection and peace.
    • Inner tubes - now those are the people there for a party! What fun to bump along down the river, drifting in and out of a group of friends, hanging your toes in the water and swimming as much as you float.
    • While we didn't see any of the inflatable boats because the water level was too low, I think that would be a wonderful multi-family float option. I hope to try that together with Shauna, Andy and Irene someday to see if we can navigate the higher, faster water earlier in the spring or summer.
There definitely will be a next time - in fact, I hope there are next times. The Buffalo is a gift, as are the number of other beautiful rivers you can float here in Arkansas. It's the time together, though, that is truly priceless.


  1. Hi Ms. Amanda!
    I still want to float the Buffalo (again) for my 12th birthday (on a blow up boat or raft) with Caroline & Elise. Maybe not in June, maybe late July so we can swim.....

    1. I totally agree - that would be one of the best birthdays ever!!! I'm in!

  2. Nice post as always. remember that you are unique in this universe. Most of couple want to spend their time in a nice place. This blog gives so many information regarding vacation on Buffalo River Cabins. Thanks