Saturday, March 13, 2010
Five guys, Jim, Jeff, Steve, Glenn and myself(Jim also)went to Arkansas to walk along the Buffalo National River from Ponca to Pruitt Arkansas. They left southern Missouri early Friday morning, driving through to a stop at Springfield at Lambert's Cafe to eat until we could hardly walk. Arriving a mere six hours later at the Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca, Arkansas, we discussed the details of handling the vehicle, strapped on packs and headed off. We had made arrangements with the Buffalo Outdoor Center to shuttle our vehicle up to Pruitt on Sunday so we could drive straight home from there.
Jim drank a five hour energy before leaving the trail head hoping the energy would propel him easily through the ten miles we had to cover that afternoon. We set out around 2 in the afternoon and hiked along the river on the appropriately named Buffalo River Trail. A couple of locals snapped a photo of us before we launched and then we were in the scrubby brush along the bluffs bordering the river.
The river has some deep turquoise sections and shallow dark blue sections with towering bluffs framing the length of the river on both sides.
Jim, Steve and Glenn all boasted extensive experience with the Boy Scouts. Jeff and I had done several hikes in southern Missouri along the Ozark trail. Jeff had also done a few solo hikes through southern Missouri. Between the five of us we had all been out in the woods backpacking more than once. We tried everything we could to decrease our pack weight, carrying dehydrated meals, carrying water filters instead of two days worth of water and only taking gear we need, trying not to duplicate items. We carried one compass between the five of us. The weight we saved from condensing our supplies was directly applied toward the alcohol we carried for drinking, two liters of Jeff's home made IPA and six liters of sangria. We never achieved any real diminishing of pack weight as the alcohol was always considered an essential for backpacking.
We had made several cat can stoves, stoves made out of cat food cans, and carried denatured alcohol for fuel. The stoves had been Glenn's idea, he had used them before on a boy scouts outing, and caused some curiosity about their ability to heat food for the trip. We had done some testing at Jeff's house and proven the stoves to be efficient and light. I was curious to see if the stoves would work in the field, especially given we had brought only cat can stoves for all of our heating purposes.
We walked along the trail enjoying the vistas along the cliff edges over the snaking river. Jim set out at a brisk pace and led the pack. A couple of hours into the trip Jim's hiking rhythm slowed and his legs started tightening. He began complaining of cramping in his leg muscles. He stopped several times to rest and wait for his leg muscles to unlock. He would stop for a moment then press on slowly, painfully. I'm not sure how he found the resolve to continue each time. His face was screwed into a cacophony of anguished wrinkles and ridges while sweat poured from his brow. We plied him with aspirin and tylenol, eventually breaking into the sangria in hopes it would help ease the cramping. We were only about 3 miles into the first day with a total of 25 miles to finish by Sunday.
The cramping was replaced by fatigue at some point around 7 miles into the walk and we walked slowly as the nearly full moon lit the now darkened night sky. The moonlight was bright enough to light up the trail and we walked without using our headlamps for most of the time. We finally rounded a bend and dropped into the first camp site at Kyle's Landing.
It was a nice camp ground with gravel pads for pitching tents, picnic tables and a pit toilet. We spread out, fired up the cat can stoves, Jim built a fire and the beer and sangria was liberally passed around. We relaxed and ate by the fire recounting the day's sites and encounters.
The next morning we broke camp and filtered water for the rest of the day. We weren't in any hurry to put the packs back on and everyone started looking at the map to see of there were any ways of trimming off a few yards here and there. After breakfast we had no choice but rig up and head out.
We walked along the road for the first section, bypassing some of the trail. The road climbed back up the bluffs with a steady pitch and even walking. The trail appeared to route into the brush and switchback up to meet the road. We ended up back on the trail above the river and the day was started. Jim reported his legs were no longer feeling crampy and we walked the trail with a steady pace. We were committed to 12 miles on this day and were bouyed by the fact we had all day to accomplish this. We had done ten miles the day before in just under eight hours.
The trail map was consulted at one point and there was a route through a flat section near the river we could follow while shaving a few yards and keeping on flat ground instead of climbing up and down. We made the appropriate changes in direction and walked straight into the river. The river had bifurcated and now flowed across the trail at about knee depth. We were more than half way to the next section of trail, to turn back would have required a walk back to the other trail then across the hilly section we had tried to avoid. Jeff decided he would try just leaving his boots and socks off and cross the river. We all followed and eventually crossed the bifurcated section. The water crossing involved pitching a pair of crocs back and forth across the river and took up a good 45 minutes of the day. The knee deep water was cold. The rocks in one section were sharp and biting hence the croc throwing. We rested on the far end of the water and dried our feet.
The water crossing provided a little diversion from the steady plodding through the trail. We spotted a few armadillos along the trail at various points, a few elk and Jim startled a rafter of turkeys and apparently didn't even see one himself. We watched as at least 15 turkeys lit from the ground in front of Jim as he entered a field. Later we asked him and Jim stated he didn't remember seeing even one turkey.
We found our way to an area to camp and set down for the night after another evening of hiking through the dark. The area we camped in was not as nice as the first night, there were no pit toilets. We built a fire, drank the remaining sangria and ate heartily using the cat can stoves once again to heat the water for our dehydrated meals.
The next morning, our last on the trail, we ate various breakfasts of granola bars, oatmeal, coffee, tortillas wrapping up cream cheese,packed up and started the last four miles of the trip. The final miles were split into two sections of about two miles each. In the middle was another campground, Ozark, featuring a nice bend in the river below the bluffs. We spent a little time with packs off and enjoyed the scenery. The final two miles passed in the forever slowness it seems to take as one gets closer to the end of a trail. The closer we were the longer it seemed to take until we saw the car and the end.
We did manage to save a few extra yards toward the end of the hike the last day by cutting through the woods instead of around the bend in the river. We finished somewhere near 25 miles of hiking and were pretty sore the next day. My only souvenir was a hungry tick burrowed in my forearm I found after napping in the car on the way home and some new stories to tell with four other guys and myself who all agreed to stumble through the Arkansas woods.