That Most Beautiful of Rivers
Swim, Camp, Float and Hike
By Lacey Thacker & Photography by Brant Portner
We awoke to cool air, a pleasant way to wake in a nearly-June Arkansas. We’d pitched a family-sized tent to share between myself and my friends Pedro and Amanda, along with Pedro’s niece, Ellie. Pedro rose early, before 6 a.m., disturbing those of us still sleeping—but he returned with a chocolate bar, so he was quickly forgiven.
The chocolate inspired Amanda and me to rise and begin preparing breakfast. I’d premade a casserole with sausage, egg and feta cheese to heat on the propane stove, and we also added chopped potatoes and onions to round out our pre-float meal. When I mentioned the instant coffee I’d brought, Pedro made a face and pulled out a French press and gourmet coffee. Amanda had already started boiling water. “I knew I kept you around for a reason,” I said.
Pedro was completing graduate school, and several of his cohort had never even been to the Buffalo River area, let alone camped nearby or taken a float trip. Memorial Day weekend after their classes were completed for the semester seemed an appropriate time to introduce the group to that most beautiful of rivers.
As the others in our party began to rise, we made rumblings about getting out on the river early, but we didn’t manage to start packing lunches and gear until after 9. Eight people, seven boats, three dogs and two vehicles later, we headed back to Kyle’s Landing, where we’d tried to get a campsite the day before. Being the Friday before the holiday, we’d failed. But, happily, park rangers directed us to the Ozark Campground just a few miles away, and we found it much less crowded.
Upon our return to Kyle’s Landing the morning of our float, we quickly unloaded gear, distributed paddles and life vests, and arranged coolers. We were floating down to the campground at which we’d started, a trip totaling eleven miles. “You know, ten miles is usually about my limit for a day float,” Pedro said. “We can do it, but we’ll be done at the end.” The rest of us, having markedly less experience, just said, “Oh, it’ll be fine,” and hopped into our crafts.
The water level was a perfect 4.5 feet, making for a few fun rapids to navigate, the first of them being just a few feet past the launch site. I sat in my boat for five minutes waiting on the others before I finally couldn’t stand it anymore and took off. The rapids were a beginner’s thrill, pushing me quickly downriver and into a quiet pool, vacant of people for just a few moments. My dog Sheba wasn’t too sure about the entire situation, and she became even less sure after she leaned over to smell the water and found herself in the water. She spotted shore and started swimming for it. She appeared rather disappointed when I towed her back into the boat, looking at me as if to ask, “Do I have to?”
After the others approached, we began paddling in earnest, and we found ourselves ready for a shore lunch at the halfway point only two and a half hours later. The dogs ran around the shore while we hauled out two sandwiches a piece, chips and perhaps a beer or two. The bluffs towered above us, and it was clear why this place has become such an ingrained part of Arkansas culture.
A mile further downstream, we found a place to climb up and jump from the bluffs. As you might expect from recently-released graduate students, much swinging was to be had. Just after we reentered the water, we found ourselves facing what, if the water were higher, would have been a rather technical turn in the river. As it was, it was merely fun, and those of us who tipped were quickly righted.
When our campground finally came into view, we’d only been on the water five hours, but we were, indeed, “done.”
A Final Brief Adventure
Sunday morning dawned early but just as cool as Saturday morning. After a leisurely breakfast of scrambled eggs, potatoes, onions and coffee, we proceeded to pack as efficiently as we’d unpacked, finishing with a “police-line” across our camp to verify we’d collected all our belongings and trash.
All but one of us had never been to Hawksbill Crag, so it seemed a perfect way to end our escapist weekend. It was only a brief one-hour detour, after all.
The hike to Hawksbill is a popular and well-trafficked one that often requires visitors to park on the side of the road rather than in official parking spots, and we were no different. A moderate hike full of easy sections, the trail itself is shaded nearly the entire three miles round trip.
When the trail breaks and the point becomes visible, it’s a stunning moment. Most of us from the area grew up exposed to images of Hawksbill Crag, but seeing it in person is a different experience—and one that occurs right on the edge of a very long tumble to the ground. Visitors beware.
After we documented our experience with a few photos, we lay on the ground or on rocks awhile, philosophizing about the role of the outdoors in what it means to live a good life. We came to no conclusions, other than, “Life is good.”