The following is an excerpt from:
For Spring Break of 2019, my buddy from Colorado brought his wife, daughter, and Shih Tzu down to our Arkansas cabin for the week. Brownlow and I had been talking about a float trip down the Buffalo National River for six years and we were finally making it happen.
I met The Townsends when I was living in Boulder in the late-2000s. Kristy was old college pals with my roommate Antar, and they invited him and a crew of friends over for a BBQ. Kristy was as cute as a Care Bear and about the size of one, but she was big on personality. If you couldn’t find Kristy, all you had to do was follow the laughter. I guessed she was a Pearl Jam fan because she was blasting them from her stereo, then quickly discovered she was a social worker with a degree in psychology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The sliding glass door opened, letting in a big cloud of smoke from the grill on the back porch. Like Indiana Jones, Brownlow walked through that smoke cloud into the living room. He eyeballed me and Kristy flappin’ our soup coolers in the kitchen and walked over to shake my hand.
“How’s it goin’?” he said. “Name’s Brownlow. Nice to meet ya.” He extended his hand and I shook it.
“I’m Nate,” I said. “Smells good out there. What you smokin’?”
“Mostly Marlboro Lights but you should come check out this brisket. Want a beer?”
I knew right then Brownlow was my kind of people. My instincts were later confirmed when I saw both a Rocky and a Rambo poster hanging in his garage. That’s also where he kept his weed, tequila, compound bow, and the greasy skeleton of a vintage Triumph TR5 Trophy, the same motorcycle The Fonz rode, which Brownlow was rebuilding. He was a mechanic who loved to read Stephen King and history, bow hunted elk, and brewed his own beer in the basement.
“One day it will be currency,” he said.
“What day is that?” I said.
“When the economy collapses,” he said. “Mark my words. They’ll kill themselves in the city first, and when they run out of bread and the water gets shut off, they’ll come to the suburbs. We’ll be way in the mountains by then. Wolverines. And if you don’t know how to farm and feed yourself and your family, and you don’t have any livestock, you better learn how to grow weed or brew beer. No matter what happens, humans will always want to get high.”
This guy must be a relative, I thought. A long-lost brother.
“Where’d you get a name like Brownlow?”
“Family tradition,” he said. “I’m the fourth. But we can trace the name and our lineage back to the British Isles, before the Roman invasion.”
Maybe it was the beer talking, but I decided Brownlow was going to be my new best friend. He was several years younger than me but had an old soul. The guy looked like he was born to ride a horse with his slight bow-legged strut and large gnarled hands swinging from his gangly arms. Brownlow looked everyone straight in the eye and didn’t bullshit, which made sense because Kristy had a bullshit radar with a long range.
Over the next few years, I became close friends with Brownlow and Kristy both. I was there when he took down his first bull elk, a ten-pointer he pierced through the heart and lungs with an arrow at 11,000 feet on Nebraska Hill in the James Peak Wilderness Area. I was at their mountain wedding in Estes Park, and nine months later I held their daughter Sam when they brought her home for the first time.
With Brownlow’s love of adventure and history, and my proximity to it, I convinced him and Kristy to come down and discover our country’s first national river, or what locals call “The Buffalo.”
The Buffalo National River is one of America’s few remaining free-flowing streams. It’s headwaters are located above Boxley Valley and cuts through dense Ozarks forest, exposing immense limestone bluffs and towering cliffs, for 135 miles until it meets the White River. It has been protected by Congress and managed by the National Park Service since 1972.
The most popular time of year to float The Buffalo is June through July. Those hot summer months will find the river populated with more overweight Midwesterners than its native small mouth bass, the waters sprinkled with kayaks and canoes of all colors of the rainbow. That’s why I liked to go in springtime.
In March, the upper section of The Buffalo is devoid of human traffic. The weather can still bring in a freak ice storm but if you catch a sunny day after some recent rainfall, the runoff and underground springs will bring clear waters to the upper Buffalo, making it perfect conditions for a float trip. Depending on the craft you’re paddling, you might need a wetsuit because those crystal-clear waters would be just above freezing. But there were never any guarantees with The Buffalo. One day it could be dry as a bone, the next it could be at flood stage due to rains above the headwaters. All float trips lived or died according to the morning river levels posted on Buffalo Outdoor Center’s website.
We caught a patch of excellent weather and put-in at the Ponca Low-Water Bridge on a sunny morning just past 8:30. Chelsea was gracious enough to stay at the cabin with the kids. Brownlow and Kristy would be paddling my 14-foot two-person canoe as I led in my 10-foot kayak. Our route would take us down ten miles of bluff-lined twists and turns with dozens of Class I and Class II rapids, to our take-out at Kyle’s Landing. At today’s river level, I estimated it would take us about six hours, maybe another two if we decided to take the short hike to Hemmed-In-Hollow Falls along the way.
Three miles downriver we approached Roark Bluff. At 200 feet high and ¾ of a mile long, it’s one of the largest bluffs on the river, and my favorite. We dragged our boats onto the riverbank to take a break and observe. Brownlow brought over a couple cans of Coors. We cracked ‘em and toasted the majesty of that giant limestone slab sculpted by nature, colored in white and gray vertical striations from the moisture within the rock itself.
“It’s a beautiful place, man. I had no idea,” Brownlow said.
“Outside the Midwest, most people haven’t heard of it,” I said. “Draws a lot of folks from Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma. A few from Texas. But otherwise, outside of paddling enthusiasts, it’s a bit of a hidden gem.”
“It’s gonna be hard to let go of,” he said.
“If it was in the Rockies, I wouldn’t.”
We pulled on our Coors for a pit, staring at the bluff.
“But to be honest with you, brother, you gotta make money while you can. If you don’t go for it, if you don’t jump on this opportunity in Oregon, you may live the rest of your life wondering what if. The least you should do is go check it out.”
“I think you’re right,” I said. “What’s the harm in going out there and checking things out, eh?”
“Get out there, dude. Whether you make it or go bust, you’ll get a book out of it. Like the Gold Rush and Mark Twain.”
“Y’know, Cornelius was planning on coming out here in January, but he got too busy at the farm,” I said. “My birthday is coming up. Maybe I should go check him out instead.”
“You should,” Brownlow said. “Do it for your family.”
We finished our beers and climbed back into our boats and paddled away. We had the rest of the river to ourselves, the bluffs and trees giving way to the sights and sounds of our animal neighbors—the gobbles of the wild turkey in the grassy meadows, the box turtles basking on sunbaked boulders, the great blue herons gliding overhead, the whitetail deer drinking from feeder creeks we passed by, and the high-pitched cacophony of the ever-present frog chorus. Northwest Arkansas was a hunting and fishing paradise, and if that wasn’t your thing, it was also a photographer’s and painter’s wonderscape, as the oil paintings of Thomas Hart Benton and the landscape photography of Tim Ernst bear witness to.
Here’s the highlights from the trip – click for full res:
The Townsends were with us a couple more days. We took the kids to Silver Dollar City, the famous Ozark-themed amusement park in Branson, Missouri. We had dinner and drinks outside at Big Cedar Lodge, the exclusive outdoorsmen’s resort owned by Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops, and listened to the bag piper serenade the sun as it set behind Table Rock Lake, reflecting the blending orange, vermilion, and violet of the sky. After all the pep talks with Brownlow, my resolve became firm.
Two weeks later I was on a flight to check out Trato Diablo Farms.