Sunrise at Birch Lake, MN

Sunrise at Birch Lake, MN
Sunrise at Birch Lake, MN

Monday, April 15, 2013

Fun and Mayhem on the Buffalo National River

Several months ago, I heard of a Buffalo River trip that the Houston Canoe Club was going to do.  I signed up and then went to one of the planning meetings.  Only three of us, Bob, Skip, and me,  wanted to paddle seven days, so we planned to camp with  the rest the first night at Steel Creek Campground. (If you would like to see the map of where we were throughout the week, click here.  After leaving my paddles in Galveston, I started the trip with a bang Saturday evening, when I blew up dinner, my pots, stove, and assorted other stuff. (More about that later.)

Bob and I had driven up starting Friday after he got off work, and camped at a shelter at Caddo Lake State Park. We had made a deal with Skip to provide him suppers and pick him up in Fort Smith Arkansas, in exchange for Saturday lunch, actually made by his wife and mother-in-law, then supper and bed after we finished the trip. (A REALLY good deal on our part.)

Buffalo River cliffs by Steel Creek Campground

Some of our group visiting and setting up camp

On Sunday morning, Bob and I  ran our shuttle while Skip watched our boats.  After a late lunch,we put in early in the afternoon at Pruitt and had no problems. The river was stunningly beautiful with turquoise water where it was deep, and tan to brown water when it was shallow. The blue color is due to tiny particles of  limestone that reflect a blue light. Bluffs were interspersed with forests and gravel bars. The trees were just getting their leaves and looked very out of focus and soft.  There were light gray-greens, interspersed with darker, yellow greens, and the very dark green cedars as well as dark greys of still naked trees. We camped at Carver, only eleven miles down the river. 

After I struggled up the long, steep road, with my heaviest bag, a guy who was about to leave offered to bring his truck and trailer down to the river and haul our gear and boats up for us. What kindness!

Our camp at Carver. We were the only campers.

On Monday, I took several baths/showers, dumping once and getting a little drowned by high standing waves. The guys mostly stayed dirty and gripped about having to pump my boat out.  We had to hang out on a gravel bar until my warm clothes, which had gotten damp, dried. That day, Bob broke his paddle. I was borrowing one of his paddles so we were down to one spare canoe paddle for the three of us. Skip also took on water several times. Bob was sealed into his kayak and stayed dry.  One of the drops between pools was especially exciting.  It had a ledge, that was probably three to four feet high. with a hole at the bottom.  We watched Skip survive tipping over it and then successfully went over ourselves.  Another time we had to paddle up against a rock overhang but not get pushed into the wall. We were happy to see a big sand bar along the river at Woolum and enjoyed having a pit  toilet near our camp.

Setting up camp at Woolum

We were warned of bad weather that was supposed to occur on Tuesday night,  which might include big thunderstorms, hail, and tornadoes. We were happy to see the lovely campsites along the river at Tyler Bend. We climbed up a path and set up camp. We only had a couple of showers that evening - mostly just sprinkles. But Bob didn't realize the food barrel wasn't fastened until late at night when he heard five coons  fighting over our food and rushed out to rescue it.  Bob and I lost most of our breakfasts, his biscotti, and the red beans and rice that I had cooked and dried. I had pizza dough with me so made a kind of fried biscuit with pepperoni and cheese on them for a really good breakfast.

View on the way to Tyler Bend

While Bob was washing the dishes,  we had a visit from a ranger who informed us that there were no campsites accessible  from the river, and we were in the day use area and would have to leave. He also collected our driver's licenses and warned us, that if we were caught in another transgression, we would get a ticket.  So we three criminals packed up, slid our boats down the hill and hauled down our gear and made a run for Gilbert, hoping to get off the river before the storm hit. (I had hoped to visit the Visitor Center there before we left but thought we should hurry down the river before  being caught in the storm.)

View near our campsite at Tyler Bend

In spite of stopping for a couple of pictures, we made it to Gilbert well ahead of the storm. But again we had the question of where to camp.  There were no developed campsites nearby, and we had been warned to be sure to camp high and have an escape route. Nothing nearby offered that. We did find a horse campsite on the Buffalo River Trail but voted to rent a cabin. We tried to find the outfitter who was supposed to be  at the Gilbert store, but wasn't  and was not answering his phone.  Another helpful person offered to go find the outfitter for us. Finally we got the message that the outfitter would be around in an hour.

One of the pictures I had to stop and take

Butterflies getting minerals at the Gilbert landing

We squatted on the front porch of of his cabins and enjoyed our lunch there, then spent the rest of the afternoon watching a few small showers come over us, rocking, visiting, and reading. Finally it was suppertime, so we put on our raincoats and walked about a block to the Gilbert Cafe.  While there, the outfitter called us and told us he would have the door unlocked for us and to come to the store the following morning to settle up.

The squatting life

After delicious suppers, and a short storm big enough to drive us off the screened porch of the restaurant, we returned to the cabin where we found a kitchen with a trundle  bed and one bedroom. The guys got the kitchen and I got the bedroom with a double bed. We all enjoyed hot showers, then I lay down and read while the guys sat on the porch in the worsening weather. But about an hour later, most of the heavy rains were gone and we had only small showers during the night.

 We also realized  that we could not paddle the entire river, which had been our goal. We had planned to paddle 20 - 25 miles each day but were dong more like sixteen or less. So we decided to come out at Buffalo Point and called our outfitter to tell him of our change in plans while we had cell service in Gilbert.

Putting in the morning after the storm

On Thursday, we took our time and enjoyed a great breakfast at the cafe before packing up and getting back on the river. Bob had to buy a huge, (at least 4-serving) cinnamon bun to go. We only had 16.5 miles to paddle in order to reach the Spring Creek campground, one of the only camps that has sites near the river for paddlers. The water had only risen about six inches and was still clear and beautiful so we knew we would only be only slighter faster than before the storm. (Except in the pools, we drifted at three or more mph.)

Skip photographing the remains of an old bridge

Our boats at our lunch stop
Spring Creek was only about six miles from our final take-out so we decided to take a layover day to avoid having to get off the river a day early. We arrived around three o'clock, unpacked our boats and hauled the gear and then boats up a short bank.  Skip and I put our tents in the field near our table, while Bob found a flat spot between the table and the river where he had great river music. That evening, we built our first fire and enjoyed sitting around it and watching the stars come out.

Skip's and my camp

Bob's riverside location

Friday morning,  we shared Bob's huge cinnamon roll he had bought at Gilbert Cafe after steaming it until it was hot.  I also ate half of my gourmet spam with two little apples I fried.  (I could not get the guys to eat any of it.) Then we hiked, took pictures, and Bob and I hung our hammocks.  He took a three-hour nap while I only took a two-hour one. Skip attempted to paddle upstream to Spring Creek but couldn't quite make it. (This river doesn't have many eddies so there are lots of places where you can't paddle back upstream.) I had bought a can of chilli and beans at the Gilbert Store to take the place of the red beans and rice, so made chilli, rice, and cheese for supper. Then we had another fire and stayed up until at least 9:30. Then we headed to bed in the very silent night.

Wild plums and pollinator

Female mayapple showing two leaves and bud.  Males only have one leaf.

Beautiful wildflower dancers

Around eleven P.M we were were shocked awake by two vehicles racing down the dirt road, coming to a screeching stop with lots of doors slamming, yelling voices,  and big dogs being loosed.  I thought Deliverance Two was happening! One of the dogs  must have hit one of my staked out cords and gave my tent a huge thump. Then the vehicle lights poured across our tents as the cars drove through our site to another one past us - this in a walk-in camp that  had a parking space much further up the road. After that, Skip and I were pretty much left alone, but they camped right next to Bob, and called their dogs and cooked steaks and talked loudly for a few more hours.

Saturday,  we got up early and packed up, trying to make as much noise as possible (but couldn't possibly match our neighbors), ate breakfast and got on the river about 8:30, just as the sun climbed over the ridge. We tried to just float as much as possible, but still were finished with our six-mile trip in only and hour and a half later.

When we reached Buffalo Point,  we again felt that the Park Service hated paddlers.  The road that leads to the gravel bar was closed.  We had to haul our gear and boats twice as far as we needed to, up a steep grade. It took another hour and a half to get our car loaded.

We stopped for a mediocre lunch while driving home the most scenic way. Skip also treated us to a visit to Haw Creek Falls which was just off our route.

Haw Creek Falls

We arrived home to find Skip's wife and mother-in-law waving pompons from their deck, welcoming the returning heroes.   Then, after supper, we were treated to cake and ice cream in honor of my birthday.  (Bob and I had just met Skip but LOVED getting to spend time with him and his family. He's a person you've known forever.) 

Cake and ice cream for my birthday by Skip's wife and mother-in-law.

We came home a little sad at having to leave the river. We are already planning to paddle the river again in the fall and this time get all the way to the end of it while enjoying the beautiful fall colors.


  1. Spectacular trip!! Great photos too!

  2. What about when you blew up supper? Sounds like a great trip!

  3. Let's just say I need a new stove, a pot set, a cutting board, and Skip furnished an emergency supper. Oh yes, the table was dented and just a little cracked. Bob is always telling me NOT to put the wind screen around the propane canister. Now I won't. Skip hurt his shoulder after he was blown off the bench and tried to avoid falling into a fire pit. I had supper all over me and was slightly burned on my chest and head. Also got some cuts and bruises - but very slight. Bob got food on him but wasn't hurt. Hopefully the guy that took the pictures of the aftermath will send them to me and I can write a cautionary tale.

  4. Wow! You had a real explosion. I'm glad no one got anything more serious than that. Which stove was it?

  5. It wasn't a stove problem but the fact that the propane tank was under the stove and I put a completely closed fire screen around it all. But it was my little MSR Pocket Rocket. The stove was blown off the canister and twisted. Hopefully I'll get the pictures from Mike soon and can show some of the damage. The explosion went in a 30-40 foot radius.

  6. Happy belated birthday, it looks like a great trip to mark the occasion. You are lucky to paddle among some topography and elevation changes.