37 Miles In A Canoe: Our Trip On The Buffalo River

It has been a deep desire of Josh's heart to 'float the river' together. He's talked about it for as long as I can remember. He's told me stories of his previous trips and shared about how the time on the water slows his heart and allows him to more deeply connect with God. 

At the start of the year, as we carefully looked at and strategically planned our vacation days, we'd put a River Trip on the calendar for Labor Day weekend. 

However, we'd also put a Disneyland trip, weekend in Chicago, Southern road trip, CA visit, and a few youth ministry events on the calendar as well and all of those were either canceled or postponed due to COVID, so we were holding these plans loosely as the date approached.

About 6 weeks out, as Texas began to reopen, we started to make plans only to find out the Outfitter was closed.

We tried again 4 weeks out and found out the river would reopen ten days before we were planning to go. So, we set a reminder for first-thing that morning and called to book our gear.

Then, we set to work prepping and planning all the rest of the details.

Sidenote: I grew up in a non-camping family. My dad had spent the majority of his childhood being hauled to and from campsites in the back of a station wagon, so he was all done camping when it came time to take his kids on trips. I am not complaining one bit... we went on some amazing family vacations thanks to his hatred of camping. This did, however, put me at a slight disadvantage when it came time to plan and execute a camping trip of my own. True to form, I asked Josh one million questions to gather the information I needed to make sure we had all the stuff we need and make sure I was mentally prepared for the weekend.

Fortunately, my husband had a big tub of camping supplies (freshly organized, thank you shelter-in-place!) which held nearly everything we needed. Just one trip to Academy, a few Amazon deliveries, several runs to Target, and a stop at HEB, and we were packed and ready to go! 

Of course, we drove into a huge rainstorm on our way out of town, so we were both soaked for the first leg of our drive. (Me from running into Starbucks, him from loading ice into the cooler.) It didn't rob us of our excitement for what lay ahead!

We left Thursday morning, but we weren't due at the Outfitter until Friday afternoon, so we enjoyed a leisurely drive while listening to The Splendid and the Vile.

Our first destination was this historical marker. The only International Boundary in the continental U.S. marking the border between the Republic of Texas and the United States.

Josh's family has a long-standing tradition of stopping at historical markers. They've talked about making the trip to see this one, but he's the first to actually get there. Needless to say, he was very excited to take this photo:

We hopped back in the car and made our way toward the Arkansas border. Our original plan was to stop and car camp at Hot Springs National Park, but how good did a nice hot dinner sound?! And what if we stayed at a hotel instead and had a really good night's sleep before three nights of camping? So, I hopped on Hotels.com and picked out a room at The Waters {built in 1913!} The floors felt very Batteries Not Included

While we don't have any photos from the night (post-12 hours in a car plus McDonalds), I can assure you, this was an excellent decision on our part. (Plus, thanks to a gift from Josh's parents, didn't hurt our budget one bit!) If you ever find yourself in Hot Springs, Arkansas, I'd highly recommend staying at The Waters. While you're there, treat yourself to a hot pretzel and gyro (and, if you're so inclined, a beer) at Superior Bathhouse Brewery. We nearly stopped in Hot Springs again on the way home just to have this meal a second time. Holy moly, it was good.

The following morning, grateful for a good night's sleep and a full belly, we headed to the river. Around lunchtime, we arrived at Wild Bill's Outfitters. After changing into our swimsuits in their bathroom (already an adventure!), making quick PB&Js in the back of the car, and hauling what would turn out to be far too much stuff down the hill to our canoe, we set sail. (Does that term apply if the vessel you're on does not actually have a sail?)

Our entire trip was meant to be about 31 miles. We'd planned for 10 miles a day for each of the 3 days--maybe a bit more on day 2 so we could finish a little earlier on day 3. 

We'd been paddling for a few hours when Josh decided it was time to stop and set up camp. We were a bit shy of the 10 miles since we'd gotten a late start, but we'd make that up the following day. Plus, setting up camp now would ensure we had a fire started before the sunset.

While Josh unloaded the canoe, I set to work finding firewood. I was lucky enough to find two massive tree branches already on the ground (a gift since you're only allowed to use already downed trees.) However, we hadn't taken into account the full effects of the previous week's hurricane. The good news: the river had risen in height, so the current was stronger and it would carry us along faster. The bad news: all of the wood was soaked through and nearly impossible to ignite.

So, while Josh worked his butt off trying to build us a campfire, I set up the tent, pulled out the ingredients for dinner, and tried to think through what we'd brought to eat if the fire turned out to be an impossibility.

He was not giving up that easily. He finally got it going and cooked up some delicious tacos.

We fell asleep to the sound of cicadas and the rustling of trees... with not a single human in sight. At one point, I felt myself start to panic a bit because we were so alone, it began to feel a little like LOST. I kept having to remind myself that this was what we'd been hoping for! (It should also be noted that the ground was swarming with spiders--my mistake Harvestmen. They looked like this: over-sized red-bodied daddy long legs. While they didn't appear dangerous, there were many of them.)

The following morning, we made some coffee on a camping stove (far easier than trying to start another fire) and packed up for another day on the water.

 (Check out my massive pile of unusable campfire wood on the right.)

Sleepy faces, ready to get going.

Huge heart eyes for my bearded navigator. 

We knew Day Two would be longer, so we started earlier. The hope was to get about 15 miles to make up for falling shy the night before and to set ourselves up for an easier Day Three. 

The morning was beautiful! We passed a few groups of floaters listening to speakers floating in inner tubes alongside massive ice chests in flotation devices of their own. We also passed a handful of very loud dudes joking and cursing up a storm. 

After a few hours, we paused for lunch in a shady spot on a sandbar. Other than a horsefly we'd picked up somewhere along the way, it was a really peaceful stop.


After lunch, we’d decided to paddle another five or six miles—around a small turn and then one more big turn—and then start looking for a spot to set up camp for the night. 

Those turns came and went and while there were plenty of great campsites on either side of the river, they were all occupied! So we paddled on.

After another hour or two, Josh mentioned that we might have gone far enough to make it to the pick-up spot. We’d asked some fishermen a few miles back and they’d told us we’d be four miles from the end when we saw Elephant Rock. And there it was. Perhaps we should just finish and find a hotel for the night?

Josh was clearly heartbroken at the thought of losing a night of camping and we‘d be pushing it to make it back to the dock before nightfall. After a particularly rough patch of paddling, we decided to call it a night and make the most of a campsite we finally found.

Little did we know, that pesky horsefly that had been bothering us all afternoon had also decided to make his camp there. After many bites and a lot of swatting, he won. We called it a night before dark and curled up in our tent passing the time by playing games, giving shot-by-shot descriptions of our favorite cold opens from The Office, and eating snacks from the dry bag.

We slept hard that night calculating we’d accidentally paddled about 25 miles.

The next morning, up bright and early, we packed up camp and prepared to take on the final mile of the river and then go get a huge breakfast and lots and lots of coffee.

The last little stretch of the route intersects another river, which would mean we had to paddle against the current to get to the drop point. Normally this takes quite a bit of effort, but it’s doable. Not today. With overly-worked arms and an extra quick current, we shifted our plans and opted to be picked up another 6 miles down at an alternate dock.

I have to admit, in the moment I was a little defeated since I’d had my sights set on some (a lot of) coffee, but it turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.

This new river was beautiful—calm and quiet--far less crowded than the other river. We spent large portions of this leg relaxing and letting the current take us.

We looked at homes under construction on the shore and dreamed up possible Summer Camp schedules and memories as we passed a Conference Center.

As we made it to the dock, we were greeted by a handful of families loading and unloading boats, kayaks, canoes, paddleboards, dogs, and kids of various ages—all covered in sunscreen.

We called the Outfitters and sat eating dry Ramen as we waited for the Wild Bill’s team to collect us. We were tired--but in the best way.

Their team arrived and cheerfully loaded up our gear. As we told them where we’d started and how far we’d gone on day two, they all gasped. “What?! 25 miles yesterday? Your arms must be like Jell-O!”

We chatted away during the hour drive back to our car.

Once we were loaded up and ready to head out, we assessed our options. Do we head straight home? Get as far as we can before we stop for the night? Take it easy and drive the majority of the miles tomorrow?

I looked into the same hotel in Hot Springs (mostly so we could have that pretzel and gyro again!) but it was all booked. So, we decided to stop in Little Rock, get de-rivered, have a big dinner, and a good night’s sleep.

Imagine my excitement when I found out Little Rock has Trader Joe’s! We stopped for all of our favorite snacks and made up a charcuterie ‘board’ in our hotel. (A sentimental dinner for us since this is what we did the night before I flew home after my first trip to Texas.)

The roads were clear Labor Day morning making our trip home extra quick! We stopped for coffee and Chick-Fil-A (duh, we were still on vacation) and for a quick photo of Kim's Convenience Store(!!!), and made it home just before dinner.

The clean-up was a tag-team effort when we got home. With everything unloaded in the front yard, I tackled laundry loads one-by-one, (for a total of ten loads) coolers, and dishes while Josh aired out, wiped down, and repacked tools, supplies, and equipment. He did note that this is far more thorough than he would have been if he were coming home from a solo trip, but between the river smell and the spiders, I didn't want to take any risks. I appreciated him for going along with it.

By 7 we were completely unpacked, clean, and ready to sit down and soak up the remainder of the holiday weekend.

I'm sure we'll do another trip like this in the future. Do you have any camping tips or tricks? Any must-have supplies, favorite spots, go-to meals? Tell me all about it in the comments below!

1 comment

  1. Besides the spiders (!!) WHAT A FUN ADVENTURE!! (And, if I may say, a night in a hotel is ALWAYS a good idea...)