I went back down to the lower parking area, saw that the crew was back and busying itself to make dinner, and sought out the leader, Ken Smith. He graciously accepted me into their little group, showed me where I could pitch my tent, and the crew invited me to eat with them. Over the next 36 hours, I got to know this bunch of kind and passionate people, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been part of such a great project, if only for a
The first thing that I learned was that any story of the Buffalo River had to have Ken Smith at its heart. He was instrumental in the movement to preserve the river in its free-flowing form, and it was that process that eventually resulted in the creation of our first National River. That designation turns out to mean something between “National Park” and “Wild and Scenic River.” The latter term is used for a river that has been preserved without dams and artificial control, but does not necessarily have public ownership along the river. In the case of a National River, the lands around the river are owned in large part (if not wholly) by the National Park Service, which preserves and protects lands in its care, as well as providing for responsible public recreation. Today, most of the National Rivers are also part of the Wild and Scenic River program, but are protected to a greater degree.
The Buffalo River, like many others, was threatened in the middle of the 20th century by the proposed development of large hydro-power dams, and locals sought to preserve the river’s natural flow among steep cliffs and rock formations. The Ozark Society was founded to lobby for protection, and was ultimately successful when, in 1972, the Buffalo National River was signed into law by Richard Nixon. Ken Smith worked for the park service for ten years int he 1960’s and 70’s before leaving to become Education Director for the Ozark Society in 91974. Today, he is officially retired, but continues to live out his passion for preservation of the BNR, by working towards the creation of a comprehensive hiking trail to span the length of the river. He does this by bringing together teams of volunteers, then providing tools, campsites, food, transportation and – most importantly – expertise in trail engineering for a few weeks every year.
I had happened into the middle of all this, and despite the fact that the other volunteers had paid for their opportunities (to cover the costs of all of the above), they welcomed me into their fold and shared what they had. Upon waking up in the frosty cold, they shared the warmth of their fire as we all bustled about, eating breakfast and making lunch while we warmed our toes. By mid-day, though, after some hard labor on the new trail, we had stripped off a few layers and were happy to sit in the shade as we ate our sandwiches. I arrived at the end of the week, so the finishing touches were being put on the trail surface – I was given shovels, garden rakes, and pulaskis, and alternately asked to pile rocks for cairns, chop out roots that might cause a stumble, or rake the trail into its final smooth surface. Even the boring work was made entertaining by the great and dedicated folks who I had the opportunity to work with, and who told their own stories of life-long commitment to the Buffalo River as we worked.
That night, the crew invited me to dine with them again, and then we sat around the fire for a couple hours… it was the last night of the fall trail-construction week, and I had graciously offered to help the guys finish the beer they had along, so no one had to pack it up in the morning. We went to bed early, though, after a long day, and I snuggled deep into my new down-filled sleeping bag, protected against the chilly November night.
I was very happy to delay my trip north for a couple of days for this opportunity, and hope to get back to explore the Buffalo in greater depth. If you’ve ever been there, or to any of the other National Rivers, leave a comment below and let me know about your experience!