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Hike It
Upper Buffalo Camping Fiasco (almost)

This trip was a lesson in just how ill-prepared one (two in this case) can be.

The Brains Behind It
Friday, my cousin in-law Jason called me, excited that he had made his first major backpacking equipment purchase. He had bought a two-sleeper tent, a pair of hiking boots, a water purifier, and a backpack. His wife and mine were busy that evening, so he invited me to come see his loot.

When I arrived, Jason had set up the tent in the living room! It was nice-looking, a dome tent that had a zipper door on each side, and a rain fly for extra protection from the elements. We had already discussed driving to the Hawksbill Crag trailhead the following day, and with a 3-hour drive would have to leave fairly early.

With all that gear before us, our conversation quickly turned to the possibility of camping. It would allow us to hike in Saturday, then camp. Sunday morning would find us in the woods very early, without having to drive half-asleep. I wish someone else would have been there to see how wide our eyes must have been. We were getting pumped up about the possibilities!

We had always complained that the best hiking places were too far away, and if we just had a way to already be there in the morning, then we could really do some serious hiking and photography. Jason already had two sleeping bags rated to 40 degrees, and the forecast wasn't calling for anything colder. Except for food, we had everything we needed. Or so we thought. He planned to be at my house by about 7:00 A.M. I took home one of the sleeping bags, which I needed to carry myself.

Getting Ready
When I got home (about midnight), I found the EastPak bag I had used for books in college, and started thinking of things I could pack in it. I got what I would need on any overnite trip-- a change of clothes, toothbush, toothpaste. Strangely, the idea of a microcassette recorder popped into my head. I figured it might be useful and fun to record some comments along the hike, so I included it along with extra batteries. Then I started thinking of things the woods required. I forgot that I had taped an outdoors program from our local PBS affiliate, in which Tim Ernst goes through everything needed for various camping trips. So, I was left to my own experience. I ended up including:

  • a pocket knife
  • a roll of twine, and
  • a handful of clothespins.
  • Little did I know my packing was nearly prophetic.

    Taking pictures was a goal for both of us-- one thing that made us good hiking buddies. We knew most people would get frustrated by our frequent and lengthy stops. Since space conservation was vital, I made sure I had everything I needed in one camera bag. My tripod was rather large and cumbersome, and I usually ended up hand-carrying it. We would buy film before leaving in the morning.

    Jason showed up about 7:00, and we headed to the Benton Wal-Mart to get the things we still needed. First was the food. We ended up with chicken-based Vienna sausages (perhaps the word chicken comforted us), saltines, granola bars (the back-to-nature tooth-breaking kind), cubed colby-jack cheese, four apples, and a couple half-liter bottles of water. We figured we could refill the bottles with water from the purifier. Next we hit the sporting goods department. Jason found a tarp that we could use as ground cover for the tent. Last, we picked out the film we needed, paid for everything, and headed out for Northwest Arkansas. Departure time: about 8:00.

    On the Road
    Most of the drive is boring for us, but only because we've driven it many times. We have family in Tulsa, so I-40 west from Little Rock is familiar territory. The rough right lane helps keep the driver awake, and once we leave the Interstate at Clarksville, the road and the scenery get much better.

    The road from the highway to the trailhead is a gravel one-lane, two-way nightmare. The drive itself isn't bad, although a little steep, but knuckles can turn white as one wonders what might be coming around the next sharp curve. Luckily, we have made it both times without incident. Arrival time: about 11:00

    On the Trail
    A short distance into the hike, the differences in our backpacks painfully became evident. My pack was not made for holding that much weight, thus my shoulders were bearing too much of the pull. Jason's pack was longer, and distributed much of the weight to his hips. Good thing, too, because he had a lot more stuff than I did. I probably looked funny, with my sleeping back rigged up to hang off the bottom of my pack. I had used some old camera bag straps to secure it.

    Off the Trail
    We left the trail less than 1/4 of a mile into it. The crunch of the leaves underfoot was so loud, I was afraid they might drown out my first recorded commentary. The beginnings of what we thought was Whitaker creek were our guide from that point, where it was merely a dry streambed. Our hopes of getting any good waterfall pictures, while not already particularly high, were lowered even more. We continued along the streambed, often walking on its uneven surface of age-worn rocks.

    The forest was completely leaf-off, except for the Beech trees that mightily clung to their dead, dry decorations. The wind used them as a very quietpercussion section. There were very few evergreens, and most of those were small cedars. I like it like that, because the view of what's to come is much clearer. Sounds travel farther, too, and we could hear rush of the water long before we could see it.

    As the grade got steeper, the water started showing itself. At first, it was merely in sparsely spread pools, then started appearing in nice little runs over small rapids. The hiking was getting slower, due to the scenery and the sharper drop. We looked for photo opportunities around every bend, but the sun held us off on two fronts. There had been no rain lately, eliminating our chance of big water, and the bright sunlight of the day cast harsh shadows on every scene. We knew as we got farther down the chasm, the mountains would block it.

    We saw one good-sized fall-- about 50 feet, I would guess. Hiking around to the bottom could have been treacherous, but patience and good tree-holds got us there just fine. The sound of the water was much more impressive than the sight, so I use it as a background for my next comments. It made for a great resting spot, and we knew we would have to come back here after a good rain.

    We got a few pictures along the way. An interesting tree, a hole all the way through the trunk, caught our eyes. Jason and I took turns placing our faces in the hole, each of us getting a picture of the other. Maybe somebody besides us would get a kick out of it. Next we got some closeups of fossil formations in a dry part of the stream. Sometimes looking down is a great way to see things.

    Where it All Comes Together
    Gradually we got to the bottom, all the while taking in nature's beauty. Just hiking, without stopping every few minutes to set up our tripod, was a change from our previous trips. We enjoyed the freedom of exploring for its own sake, no worries of capturing the perfect shot. That could come later.

    Our journey brought us to a meeting place-- the confluence of Whitaker and another creek. The spot was grand, a place we immediately saw as a campsite. We could see a long way in any direction, and we could hear the sounds of the stream. A large bluff loomed above a long pool from which we could draw plenty of drinking water. This was our place to stay.

    Setting up Camp
    For the tent, we found a large leafy area that seemed to be clear of trees and large rocks. We noticed that during high water, this area would probably be underwater. For some reason, that didn't tip us off to the problems we would have later. After the tarp was down, I lay down to check it out. Ouch! It was very rough, with several hard edges jutting into my back. I peeled back that side of the tarp and started pulling up the offending rocks. Once I got it leveled out, we finished setting up the tent.

    Jason got out the water purifier, and we headed for the pool. He assured me it was a safe way to drink water. It would get rid of bacteria and virii, using filters and iodine. Then the water is passed through a carbon filter that takes out the iodine taste. I would believe it when (if?) I tried it.

    The water was very cold, and so clear it didn't seem to need any treatment. But, we knew better. Jason put the device together as I held out one of the water bottles. Once it was full, it was time. Who would be first to try it? Since it was his idea, I let him be the guinea pig. Either he had a good poker face, or it wasn't too bad. I tried it. It was better than any tap or bottled water I had ever tried. No after-taste, no trace of chemicals. We had a renewable water supply, and it was great. After drinking our fill, we topped off both bottles.

    Wanting to hike around a bit without our packs, we needed to bear-proof our food. Going on information we had read in camping guides, we hung it from a high tree branch, upwind and about 50 yards from our camp. That was why we had brought the twine, but it wasn't the last time we would need it.

    The Unexpected Hits
    Relieved to have the packs off our backs, we hiked up the adjoining stream. As soon as we got upstream from the large bluff, the water was gone, and a few steps later we met up with two more hikers. They didn't have any gear, and asked us how far downstream to the Buffalo River. Jason and I just looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. We had no idea, but we guessed about four or five miles. After saying goodbye to our fellow outdoorsmen, we hiked about 100 yards up without finding water. Time to hike downstream a while.

    This part of Whitaker creek was larger than what we had followed down into the canyon. There were some nice little rapids, with many large boulders. It was obvious higher water would have made it worthy of several rolls of film. We found some rocks that, when broken, smelled like oil, and featured interesting fossils. I found a nice pocket knife on the bank. About a mile or so from camp, we trudged on, knowing we could go only a little farther before turning back. That's when it happened.

    Jason, about three steps in front of me, lost his balance. It seemed he was in slow motion as he twisted and turned, trying to stay standing. He landed backward, soaking himself from his brand new boots to about halfway up his shirt. In less than a second, he was back on his feet, and it was time to go back now.

    I won't quote him, because this might one day be read by children. Let's just say it was about 55 degrees outside, and that water was no warmer. We walked back as fast as we could. So fast, in fact, that I almost took an accidental dip myself. I stayed on my feet, however, and kept up with Jason. He was moving faster than I had ever seen him move.

    The Drying
    I knew his jeans would take a long time to dry, and I knew he felt cold. When my brother and I used to ride our dirtbikes and our three-wheeler in our pasture, we often thought it fun to ride in the creek. If it was the least bit cold outside, that was the quickest way to end an afternoon of fun. Wet was okay. Cold was okay. Wet and cold? No thanks.

    By the time we got back to camp, it was getting dark. Along with that, it was getting colder, and Jason didn't have another pair of pants. He sat in the tent and took off the wet stuff. I made a clothesline by running my twine between two trees. That sharp new pocketknife worked much better than the one I had brought. Then I pulled out my trusty clothespins and hung his wet clothes out to dry. Next order of business: building a fire. He sat in the tent in his boxer shorts, and would need warmth, fast.

    As I gathered wood, Jason came out of the tent wrapped in his sleeping bag, determined to help with the fire effort. He cleared out about a five-foot wide circle, room enough for us to sit, then began piling leaves and small twigs to get the fire started. In this area, we were hardly roughing it-- we had a lighter and matches. The leaves sent lots of smoke into the air, but they didn't burn well. Jason kept piling and re-lighting more dry leaves and sticks.

    My search for wood was not going well. I knew dry wood would be the best for starting a fire, but I wasn't sure of the rotten wood. Unfortunately, it seemed to be the only kind in abundance. Our spot was at the confluence of two streams, an area which probably flooded during heavy rains. That made for some great piles of wood left by receding waters, but finding the good stuff was strictly up to me.

    Each of us was dedicated to the "Leave No Trace" policy, which means just what it says. Whether out for a day hike or an extended stay, everyone should preserve nature and make prior human presence undetectable to others. For Star Trek fans, it is similar to the Prime Directive. Taking wood from live trees was out of the question.

    Many of the branches were too long for a campfire, so I had to fix that. With no hatchet, something we soon realized we should have brought, I used one of the oldest tools known to man-- the foot. Although I had no formal martial arts training, I knew most of what I gathered could be broken down by a swift kick. Near our campfire site in the dried-up streambed was about a two-foot drop. I laid the larger branches along it and brought my foot, powered by my 160-pound frame, crashing down on them. I may or may not have made various primal grunting sounds while doing this.

    To be continued...

    Lake Sylvia Loop

    We got to the trailhead about 2:30, and it was a bit cool outside. We knew, however, that if we wore our jackets we would just end up carrying them. We could see the trailhead across the street, but had already decided we didn't have time to hike a 4.1 mile trail. Thanks to Tim Ernst's book, I knew the most of the scenic spots were near the end of the trail.

    I found us on the trail map and pointed us toward the end of the trail. We would have to hike through the campground to get there. As we stepped off the parking lot, I noticed the woods. There was virtually no undergrowth, and everything from the ground to about 2 feet above was black. The smell in the air was reminiscient of a campfire. We wondered aloud at what happened, and figured it must have been related to the campground's being closed.

    To be continued...