On the 50th anniversary year of the Buffalo National River, Dennis “Hete” Heter set off on the longest canoe trip of his life — floating the whole river, Ponca to White River, in one trip.
Heter, 74, saw every colorful bluff, every riffle, every rapid and every pool of deep, clear water on the 132-mile expedition. Deer sipped from the river as his canoe, heavy with gear, drifted close. Bald eagles soared overhead and a big feral hog came grunting into his camp one evening.
The Buffalo River begins miles above Ponca, but the Ponca low-water bridge is the highest upstream access for most float trips.
It took some flexibility to get the adventure started. He originally planned the trip for mid-May when the river level was good and temperatures still springtime cool.
A couple days before departure an eye ailment cropped up. It was easily fixed with surgery, but required Heter to delay his start until June 11. There, at the Ponca bridge, he slipped his 16-foot Coleman canoe into the Buffalo. Settling into his boat, Heter made the first of paddle stroke of thousands he’d do before reaching confluence of the Buffalo and White rivers at Buffalo City.
Now in mid-June the river level was low. Temperatures were summertime hot, reaching the mid to upper 90s on many days.
The river at Ponca was so low Heter started his trip in an empty canoe. His wife, Linda, met him 2 miles downstream at Steel Creek access with all his supplies. There he loaded all the gear, food and ice he’d need for several days on the river.
“I wasn’t on any kind of schedule. I was just going to go with the flow,” Heter said, relaxing on his front porch a week after his journey. The Heters live in east Benton County close to Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area.
He reckoned floating from Ponca to the White River would take around seven days. With the river so low the trip took 11 days.
“It was hard work every day,” Heter said, but added he still had a good time. With a loaded canoe he got out a lot to walk or drag his boat through low spots. His longest day was 17.5 miles, shortest was 6.5 miles. Heter said a headwind would pick up each day around noon.
Then there was the heat. All of Heter’s friends call him by his nickname, Hete, which was fitting on his whole Buffalo float because Hete had plenty of it. Temperatures were unusually hot for mid-June.
“I didn’t mind it during the day so much. I could get out and swim, but I still wanted to make some miles. At night though it made it hard to sleep.”
If that wasn’t enough, the river was sometimes crowded with other floaters.
“That turned out to be a blessing at times,” Heter said. “There would be a bad spot in the river and a log jam of boats where people were turning over. Seeing them showed me the way not to go, and I was able to walk my canoe through some rough spots.”
Each day on the water ended with a scenic campsite on a gravel bar next to the cool water.
“My camp chair was the first thing I’d set up and the last thing I’d take down in the morning,” he said.
Heter slept in a backpack-style tent on a sleeping pad. He’d unroll a sleeping bag but ended up stretched out on top of the bag it was so hot.
Mornings he was on the river by 8 a.m. Around 3 or 4 p.m. each day, he’d start looking for a nice camp spot. One evening, he heard a loud grunt and standing right there was a good-sized feral hog.
“I looked at it. It looked back at me,” Heter recalled, “like we were both surprised.”
Heter heaved some rocks at the big hog, and it wandered off.
Cellular phone service was spotty, but Heter was able to talk to Linda on occasion. Their plan was for Linda to meet Heter at Grinder’s Ferry access, about the half-way point, to resupply him with more food and lots more ice. He’d brought plenty, but it melted fast in the hot sun.
She thought about taking the canoe trailer in case Heter decided he was ready to bail and finish his trip another time. When she suggested it, Heter nixed the idea. Hot as it was and low as the river was, he never once thought about quitting.
“I did pick up a little more water the farther I went, but not much,” Heter said.
One item Heter didn’t want was hot food. Linda brought him lots of gazpacho, a cold soup that Heter savored. Sandwich items and other cold foods were ideal warm weather fare. He filtered river water for drinking.
Heter is no stranger to long trips. He’s hiked the whole Appalachian Trail — all 2,190 miles — in one trip. Now he was in the middle of an epic Buffalo River adventure.
“I met so many people. They’d see my loaded canoe and wanted to know how long I was going to be out. They’d be amazed when I told them I was going all the way to the White River,” Heter said.
Appalachian Trail through-hikers talk of trail angels, people who help them along the way. Heter met river angels.
“There was one group on a gravel bar, and they recognized me because they’d seen me the day before. I was just about out of ice. They were going home and gave me all the ice they had in all of their coolers.”
Heter reached the White River eleven days after dipping his paddle at Ponca. While the Buffalo was low, the White was full and flowing fast because of major water releases from Bull Shoals Lake dam 32 miles upstream.
Heter floated 6 miles down the White River from the confluence of the Buffalo and White rivers to his take-out at Shipp’s Ferry, an Arkansas Game and Fish Commission access. He nearly missed the take-out because the White was flowing so fast.
The bow of his heavy canoe touched the boat ramp and his trip was over. Heter didn’t feel happy or sad. The emotion was mostly a satisfactory feeling of completing a fine adventure.
“If I was going to do it again, I’d start earlier in the spring enough to avoid low water, but still have warm weather,” he said.
Heter got inspired to float the whole Buffalo from another whole-Buffalo paddler who gave a talk in April at Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area about his trip.
As Heter made his way downstream in his gear-packed canoe and happily answered questions from curious fellow paddlers, there’s no telling how many people he’s inspired to someday make the 132-mile canoe trip of a lifetime on the nation’s first national river.
Buffalo National River
Congress approved legislation to designate the Buffalo River a national river, the first in the nation. President Richard Nixon signed the legislation on March 1, 1972. Several activities are taking place this year on and off the river to mark the 50th anniversary.
Visit the Ozark Society website, www.ozarksociety.net, to watch the society’s 53-minute documentary about the effort to preserve the Buffalo by preventing the construction of two big dams on the river.
Source: Staff report