Monday, May 23, 2005

Buffalo River Canoe Journals - 1: The Day Before

It was a very merry Christmas and of course we celebrated it "Abbey" style. After breakfast, we hiked the Big Bluff/Jim Bluff traverse via what I have come to term, "Plumber's Crack." The trail to Big Bluff starts in an unassuming gravel parking lot just off the corner in the highway and head off through the trees. (This is the point where my story "Walking Away" ends.) The trail follows old logging roads that have almost sunk back into the surrounding hardwood forest that has re-emerged, down to a saddle in a mountain. From there, we drop off the saddle and then contour around to the Goat Trail across the face of Big Bluff some three hundred vertical feel above the Buffalo River. It was a beautiful sunny day with the high near 40 degrees and the icicles hanging on Big Bluff appeared to be diamonds in the rough as we carefully picked our way across the face.

On the other side of the face, we follow the trail a short way and then bushwhack down the backside of the mountain to a point where we get rim rocked by a thirty feet band of rock. My instincts have lead me to this point and I am never more than twenty yards away from a crack in the rocks that is almost hidden until you are on top of it. The crack runs parallel to the rim of rocks and over the year's dirt and debris has filled it in creating a steep inclined slope down below the rim. It looked very much like the butt crack of a plumber disappearing into the depths of their pants and hence my name for it. I take off my pack, suck in my stomach, and slide/controlled fall down the crack to the bottom.

From there, we bushwhack on down the mountain, inevitably coming across the remains of an old settlers cabin hidden among the trees and because it is off the trail, very few people ever see it. When I first pioneered this route, it was standing and you could walk inside but now it is nothing more than a pile of splintered wood and soon that too will sink into the surrounding forest. A short ways below the cabin we hit the river trail and follow it to Jim's Bluff.

Jim's Bluff in another rock outcropping along the outside bend of the Buffalo River where the water with thousands of years, has eaten away the limestone to form this immense overhand of rock. On one particularly large flat boulder that fell from the overhanging roof years ago, someone has painted the words "Jim's Bluff" on it and it has been there as long as anyone can remember, sheltered from the elements by the overhang. There used to be a rope tied to a tree above the overhang that people used to use to swing out over the deep pool during the summer but it was remover over 30 years ago by the park service. I have been swimming many times in this beautiful swimming hole but today is just a little bit too cool for my taste.

Huge icicles twenty feet long and a foot in diameter at their base were hanging from the lip of the overhang like menacing teeth in a mouth ready to chew us up. I'm sure a picture from across the river would have shown exactly that but because we were sitting on the tongue inside the mouth, I only have the insider's perspective. We sit on the pile of rocks for a while to rest for a bit and to gaze at the icicles in awe. The sunlight is bright at Jim's Bluff during the winter because it is south facing and I get the feeling that I am sitting behind a huge hanging set of the best Waterford crystal.

I get up to check for tomatoes (during a hike on a previous Christmas day, I had found a tomato plant growing in the crack of a rock from a dropped seed of a boater's sandwich that had been garnished with tomatoes. It actually had two ripe tomatoes, growing on it that I had picked and eaten.) but no tomatoes were growing this year so I started looking for a few nice sized throwing rocks. Soon we were all throwing rocks at the huge icicles and watching this fall to the rocks below, shattering into millions of sparkling gems before bouncing down the sloped rocks into the river. Despite our repeated direct hits, we were only able to detach the smaller icicles, still large enough to smash anyone below into a bloody pulp.

We climbed around and up above Jim's Bluff to the trail (same one we started on this morning) and followed it on down to the Sneeds Creek crossing and followed the creek upstream a ways to where is cuts its was through some rock ledges in a series of waterfalls. There we stopped to eat lunch and to nap a little in the sunshine to the tune of falling waters. Later in the afternoon and much refreshed, we hiked back up the trail, up the back side of the saddle to Big Bluff and on up to the trailhead seeing quite a few whitetail deer large by Arkansas standards but small (medium dog sized) by Iowa standards. During the entire day, we didn't see another soul beside ourselves on the trails.

When we got back to the cabin, we spent the rest of the evening quietly packing our gear for the big boat trip tomorrow. We have been coming down here for years and have always wanted to do a float trip down the entire floatable portion of the Buffalo River and after many years of talk, we finally decided to do it. Although it is normally in the 50's and 60's temperature wise down here at this time of the year a cold snap is in the forecast but we are going anyway. As long as the river isn't frozen tomorrow morning, I expect we will not be stopped.

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