Picture Courtesy of Joey Benton
The Buffalo River begins its 150 mile race to join the White River in the wooded hills of southwestern Newton County. For the first 15 miles, it flows through the Ozark National Forest. At their boundary, the National Park Service takes over and the entire remainder of the stream is a free-flowing National River.
Awesome in its scenery and legendary in its fishing, the Buffalo attracts visitors from all over the world for hiking, camping, swimming, and fishing. But, for the upper river, the main event is the spring canoeing season.
Intrepid and seasoned paddlers get a brief chance each spring to float the wilderness area at the top of the river. Most of the year, there is not enough water, but for those few days when the river is swollen with adequate spring rain, this is a rugged float that will make you whoop and holler all the way down.
It's only slightly less rugged if you start at Ponca. Floating the miles from Ponca to Kyle's can be challenging for the skilled and disastrous for the novice, depending on the water level. Outfitters provide canoes and shuttle as well as sage advice about river conditions and how to handle them.
Putting on at the Ponca bridge, the first thing you see is one of those famous Buffalo River bluffs. You're racing downstream into a curve over one of those fast stretches where your canoe bounces and you hear the constant slap-slap on the bottom of the boat, and you're facing right into the bluff. But hold onto your hat! The big one is just a little ways downstream. Beneath the towering bluffs at Steel Creek, you and canoe are dwarfed. You go through the big hole, around another bend, and you're racing again. Another rapids, another sharp turn and a bluff dead ahead - this time on the opposite side.
That's the way floating the Buffalo goes. Falling fast and furiously here in the upper stretches, it's a hallelujah ride. Yet, as the water level drops, it can also be a safe, fun float for family groups and new canoers. We've seen the baby, the dog, and grandma all on the river having a fabulous time!
As the spring water levels go down, keep moving down river. Start at Kyle's for a time, then put on at Pruitt. Move on down to Hasty, then to Carver. On each section of this magnificent river, there are wonders to be experienced. The bright green water gets it's color from minute weathered clay particles from shale outcrops which wash into the river during rains and remain suspended for weeks. They interfere with the passage of light, which bounces among the particles and separates into the colors of a rainbow. Of these colors, only blue and green are reflected, giving the river its color. The water is so clear that you can wade in chin deep and look down and count your toes.
There are more hiking trails here, on the upper river, then in any other section and they have a wide range of difficulty and length. They have in common however, the spectacular outdoors of the Buffalo River country, filled with blooming things, graceful trees and stunning vistas.
Watch for wildlife. The whitetail deer population is near carrying capacity on this stretch of the river and it is home to perhaps as many as 600 elk, the only sustaining herd in the southeastern United States. You may see nothing more than a big turtle sunning on a log, but there's black bear, wild turkey, fox and gray squirrels, raccoons, herons, and numerous other critters and birds.
There are developed campsites, but camping is also allowed on the wide gravel bars of the river and in any area not otherwise marked one-half mile or more from developed facilities.
In these hills and hollers there are caves, waterfalls, burbling spring branches, all kinds of edible and medicinal plants, dozens of different wildflowers, sinkholes, and rocky ledges and bluffs enough to make a float, a drive, a hike or just a few brief steps into the woods to look around an exciting adventure in discovering natural wonders.