CLOUDLAND JOURNAL - FEBUARY 2023 PART A (previous months)
Little Bluff Cabin cam February 23 - Roark Bluff yesterday evening - HAPPY THURSDAY TO YOU!
Journal updated on the 19th
Our CANVAS GALLERY will be OPEN 2/25/23, 9-3, and is also available for appointments most anytime - click for info.
Print Of The Week SPECIAL (above) - CLICK HERE
02/01/23 Two-part post today. But first, a third part to help explain the other two. When I hung up (sold) my last big camera systems three years ago I never stopped taking photos, but rather stopped being a “fulltime” nature photographer, physically but also mentally. Many folks think this job is all fun, easy, and you get paid for just showing up. While it certainly was FUN much of the time it rarely was easy and I never got paid for taking pictures, at least most of the last 45 years. No one made a cent unless an item was SOLD to someone else (a book or print or image rights to reproduce a photo). 99% of my job over the years was not being out in the beautiful outdoors, but rather right here at the computer, or on the sales floor or phone trying to sell something. Not complaining, just stating the facts.
So when I hung it all up I eventually did get a small and lightweight pocket camera with a zoom lens - a camera I would produce “pro-quality” photos with when needed. It’s not a camera I “always” had with me (in fact rarely did), but it was available if I needed it for some reason. In the past three years I can count on one hand the time I specifically went out to take a serious photo - I was not a real nature photographer, but rather have been able to enjoy everyday life without the constant stress of needing to be ON duty all the time.
Turns out that little bridge camera was somewhat of a pain to use and we didn’t get along too well - good thing since I hardly ever used it. Most of the new photos you’ve seen from me the past few years have been with a phone camera. I did use that little camera for new waterfall finds (of which there have been hundreds of them), but those photos were usually just to document the waterfall and not deliberate works of art, haha.
When I got back from Nova Scotia I realized that little camera was not up to my standards, even for a small pocket camera - I especially missed out on the nighttime photos that Ray Scott and I took. Actually the camera was OK but I needed a different lens for the Milky Way photos I love so much. This past December while shopping for that lens I discovered a new and improved version of that camera was coming out, and GULP, I decided to trade the old one in for the new one - at about triple the price. After mulling it all over for a month, I decided to add a couple more lenses to the system, which would give me a really nice but still small camera system capable of taking really good quality images when needed. (and with the additional lenses, my system cost quadrupled - double gulp!)
OK, so I had my system figured out, but it has taken me literally a month to get the system in my hands. First the new camera was so popular that it was back-ordered. Then the camera and lens kit arrived and I realized it was an “open box” kit that had been used by no telling who for a while, so I sent the kit back. The kit was back-ordered again, but arrived a couple of weeks later. In the meantime I discovered the manufacturer (FujiFilm) had stated that the all-purpose lens that shipped with the camera was subpar and could not “resolve” the new hi-resolution (40mp) sensor in the new camera, even though they packaged this lens with the new camera as a kit. REALLY? OK, after a few test shots I agreed with them, and back the second camera kit rent.
So now I needed to order the camera and a very high-quality lens by themselves but, you guessed it - the camera was back-ordered again. When the camera became available again a couple of weeks ago and was shipped, winter weather hit us and FedX air was unable to deliver the camera to me - in fact if I had not been in Fayetteville for my car maintenance on Monday the camera would still not be here (understood - the roads have been really bad here).
So I finally got the camera, but the new lens to go with it was coming from a different company (that I traded some old camera in for) and it was also delayed, again and again. But I FINALLY got all my ducks in the same room and am now a happy camper the first good camera system I’ve had in several years.
I won't a fulltime nature photographer, but rather my plan is that instead of living every hour of each day and night stressed about where I should out be taking pictures, I’m going to be a part-time nature photographer, equipped with the goods and willing to get out from time to time to take pictures (maybe once or twice a month). There won’t be any new picture books (or new slide programs, probably), but we do plan to continue the ARKANSAS WALL CALENDAR each year, hopefully with a few new photos. AND I'll try to post some of the new photos in the "2023 NEW PHOTO" online gallery HERE. Some of these will be iphone photos (not additional processing - right of of the camera), but most will be taken with my real camera, after I'm able to get them processed).
OK, so yesterday I wandered out around our property looking for something to take a picture of, and I settled on one tree along the trail at the edge of our neighbor’s pasture. In person it was just BEAUTIFUL with the ice/snow/sleet mixture coating I love the graphic nature of trees and bushes like. It was FRIGID out, and my hands turned white almost immediately since I had to remove gloves to operate the metal camera (I have Raynaud’s phenomenon, sometimes called Raynaud’s syndrome or disease). I got the picture, then packed up and moved on to find another.
Never, ever, have I found any glove, mitten, heated or otherwise, that solves my fingers problem. The only thing I’ve ever found to work was - BARE HANDS with chemical hand warmers in my coat pocket - when not using my hands I reach in and grab the hand warmer and wrap my fingers around it. THIS is the only thing that has worked for me - but obviously I’m not able to have my hands out of the pocket for very long, otherwise they are toast (frozen toast!).
Anyway, I moved to a second frozen tree that was interesting and shot a few photos, then left our property and hiked up the equally-frozen county road a ways looking for other photos. Nothing. So I retraced my steps back to the office, stopping a couple of times to reshoot the same photos I’d already taken (you can NEVER have too many photos of the same thing!).
When I arrived back at the gallery and peeled my clothes off I discovered one of my gloves was missing! (I’d only used them for a few minutes until I realized they were useless with the temp so low - they are OK when temps are higher). It wasn’t until a few hours later - last night - when I suited up at the cabin and headed out to look for the lost glove - should be easy to find - just follow my tracks in the snow until I found the glove.
I had my stocking cap with a built-in light (no need for a headlamp), but immediately realized it was really BRIGHT outside, even though it had been “dark” for several hours already. Of course man, there was a 3/4 moon up there somewhere, and even though there was still sleet/ice/snow pellets in the air, what little moonlight that got through reflected off the white forest floor and hiking was easy.
In fact I rather enjoyed the journey, making my way down the trail and around through the nighttime winter woods. Stopping a time or two there was absolutely ZERO sound. Magical! The only problem was that even though I retraced my steps exactly I never found my glove. Oh well, I bought those gloves more than 20 years ago and they had served me well during more balmy temps. It was a great hike.
But of course first thing this morning I put on my serious-weather snowmobile suit (the temp was 16 with a wind chill below zero) and headed out once again to trace my steps and find that darn glove. That big suit is really best in sub-zero temps and it didn’t take long to work up a sweat, so I had to hike slower, and spent a good bit of time just looking around soaking it all in.
But once again I had failed - NO GLOVE! I took a few snapshots then headed back through the woods to the office. And of course - there it was - actually stuck to my tripod I’d used yesterday (they are the same color). YIPPIE!!!
One odd unrelated note - Wilson has this thing he does - he is addicted to eating snow. Sometimes he’ll just dip his head and scoop some up as he trots along. But with the snow/ice/sleet packed hard this time he has to stop and kind of dig with his mouth a little to get some of the frosty stuff. Yesterday I noticed blood on the snow - his blood. He must have some small cuts from the snow, and not wanting him to leave trails of bloody snow all over I leashed him up and returned to the cabin - he would be quarantined for most of the day (but did get out with me during my night hike last night).
They just issued another “winter snow warning” this morning until tomorrow morning. Doesn’t look like we’ll get mail service anytime soon, but I plan to have the gallery open this Saturday one way or the other - for anyone who can manage what may be a slippery road...
A note about TERRY KEEFE. We all got gut-punched a few days ago with the news that our dear friend, and OUTDOOR ARKANSAS LEGEND, Terry Keefe, was killed while trying to cross a road near his home (as his beloved wife watched in horror). I’d just spent an hour on the phone with him the evening before - he wanted me to go check out a waterfall he recently discovered - “it’s a good one” he’d told me and I know from experience he usually doesn’t sugar-coat many of these.
I first met him in 1980 as part of the HikeANation group of backpackers that were hiking across the United States. Twenty years later he went way out of his way many times to help me find and photograph a bunch of waterfalls in the Buffalo River watershed. This was well before hunting waterfalls in Arkansas was a thing, but Terry had been doing it for decades already. Our exploits led to the publication of my first ARKANSAS WATERFALLS guidebook, with one of the most beautiful apply named after him - KEEFE FALLS. It’s become a popular destination ever since with a well-worn social trail to it.
While he was known for a lot of other outdoor activities, he’s best know as a pioneer whitewater kayaker in Arkansas, being the first to explore, document, and name many of the classic whitewater runs in our great state. He also helped build the Ozark Highlands Trail, and was always been known as one of the Elders Of The Tribe of hiking in Arkansas. His lifelong partner along the way has also been a mover and shaker right there with him, and is in fact a very talented artist. The two of them since retiring a few years ago have explored many other parts of the world together - always lots of new adventures and stores to share.
Only once have I ever been able to show Keefe something he’d not already explored - a unique and obscure natural bridge. Several years ago I got a call from him and they were “in the area” I’d told him about but needed a little nudge to point in the right direction. Sure enough, within an hour they’d found it - I had no doubt.
I gotta tell ya there was something a little different during our last conversation just a few hours before he died. He wanted to make sure I would be able to find that new waterfall he’d called me twice about. I assured him it would be tops on my list to go find and would most certainly be included in the newest edition of the guidebook I’ve been working on. It’s as if he knew. Not to worry my friend - now that you are a little closer to the big water tap in the sky I’m hopeful you’ll turn it up a little bit when I go hunting for your new waterfall to make sure it’s flowing in all it’s glory!
02/02/23 Thoto is in our front yard yesterday - a large cedar tree limb finally brought down by a heavey load of ice/snow overnight (note the icy trees on the distant ridgetops - higher elevation got the most ice, as usual - we're right on that ice line so it's always a crap shoot if we get the most, and most beautiful ice/snow). Temp was 16 with a wind chill below zero.
There was a Cloudland Moment last night. The pups and I headed out late (after dinner and tv shows) for about two miles of night hiking in the snow. It was so peaceful, calm, and BEAUTIFUL wandering around. Still overcast with lots of diffused light from the 3/4 moon above - but no direct moonlight and no shadows in the forest. It’s kind of weird like this - hiking at night without a light - it is usually either REALLY DARK, or bright moonlight casting lots of shadows everywhere.
After the first mile or so of being in a zen-like state (no booze, just pure wonderfulness being in the forest!), all of a sudden the sky opened up and BRIGHT moonlight came rushing in, creating about a zillion shadows across the shadowless forest. It was a WOW moment, magical, amazing, and all that - a standard Cloudland Moment (in more ways than one since clouds made it happen - or rather them leaving did!). But like most Cloudland Moments, it didn’t last long, and soon the clouds joined up again and the second mile of the hike was shadowless, but still kind of magical...
02/03/23 The moon, snow, and stars...
02/06/23 It was late afternoon when we headed out for a short hike to Hammerschmidt Falls, which is the closest public waterfall to our cabin. Bright sunshine was continuing to melt away that last bits of snow and ice, and the air was a welcome warm for the first time in a while (two weeks maybe?). I do LOVE cool weather though, but sometimes ya just gotta soak up the warm.
The utility companies are in the process of mowing out the power pole right-of-ways, which is a GREAT thing to see since the chances of power outages due to falling trees/limbs is much reduced when they’re done. The machinery they use these days are massive and kinda threatening looking - like they could chew up an entire person as easily as a small oak tree. Several years ago they expanded the width of these right-of-ways around here by 20 feet, so when the cutting machines get done there are hugs swaths of empty forest crossing the landscape. Better than using chemicals in my opinion.
Just beyond, we came alongside the creek that feeds the big waterfall, and it was clean and clear sparkling water rolling over and jumping across moss-covered rocks. Small pools in between groups of rocks where quiet pools, and if you stood and looked just right the water turned a beautiful blue - reflecting the clear sky.
I eventually made my way around and down the social trail that leads to the bottom of the tall waterfall while my bride remained above lost in the moss and pools and warmth of the day (ever the artist, she was really working her brain, finding one painterly composition after another - taking snapshots and making mental notes - for perhaps a return trip with watercolor or pastels).
There was little snow below the big bluff, but there were piles of icicles here and there - especially at the base of the waterfall. As I slipped and slid down to the creek below the falls a few more of the ice daggers came crashing down. STAY AWAY FROM BELOW THE BLUFF EDGE I kept telling myself. On warm days like this after freezing spells the warming sunshine will loosed the ice just a tiny bit, which sends them straight down, often impalling them into the ground below. Good time to wear a hard hat I say!
The waterfall was running OK but I really wanted to find an intimate composition along the creek somewhere to practice with my little camera, and I found one nice spot a few minutes later. At the moment I don’t have a good tripod that works well with my new little camera system. My previous “perfect” tripod that I used for many years is simply too heavy for me to carry in the woods, and my smaller tripod that I’ve used the past couple of years is just too small and unstable. I finally cobbled together parts from three different tripods and wanted to see if that would work. It did, kinda, but it wasn’t a natural process for me to mount the camera, set up the composition, tweak the composition, and shoot a series of pictures, but it was a step forward, yea! (I took the same scene with both an iPhone and my real camera, shown below.)
I found a spot among some boulders where the creek poured over a ledge into a pool below, everything moving and glistening and making quiet music. I’m really not one of those persons who uses the back LCD of the camera to compose, focus, or really do much of anything with - I much prefer to have my face to the optical/electronic viewfinder for everything - somehow the scene before me and process of taking a picture are much more personal that way - it’s just me and the scene without the distraction of the rest of the world. (try it sometime - zoom into exactly what you want to take a picture of, then move in close and look through the viewfinder for a few moments, then back out and look at the LCD screen and see how much different it looks.
Anyway, I took a series of photos, lingered at the water’s edge for a little while to enjoy the moment, then packed up and headed out to find my bride - she was only about five feet from where I’d left her - an artist at work!
On the way out we stopped to converse with a trio of ducks at the edge of a small pond, and I picked up a Native American-made small tool of some point - it wasn’t an arrowhead, but could have been a small spear point, but most likely it was one of many types of little tools that were used for scraping or cutting or who knows what. We admired the craftsmanship then left it behind to perhaps return to the earth.
Not a long hike, but always a rewarding one getting to spend time in the woods with my bride!
02/07/23 Cindy told me the lowest she’d float the Buffalo River from Ponca in a kayak would be with the gauge at 3.0. Yesterday was the first chance I’ve had to float in almost three months, but the gauge was only 2.8 so a little too low. Since I really just wanted to get the boat and my feet wet I decided to go.
Bright sunshine and blue skies filled with puffy white clouds, and the temp was 60 degrees. But the river itself was the star, with that most wonderful emerald green color all the way. Winter floating is some of the very best - no bugs, snakes, or other people on the river! Although there were a couple of folks that literally walked out of the woods to stand and watch me pump up my little blow-up kayak. And for the first time ever, I actually got it to work first time (there are no less than seven air chambers in my boat).
So off I went, just for a short trip downstream two miles to Steele Creek. Within minutes I had seen a pair of wood ducks up close, a kingfisher flew right over me, and I was in a large pool of that emerald water and up against a painted limestone bluff. SO NICE to be able to reach out and touch the bluff that I’ve seen hundreds of time from a distance. Not a major bluff, but like to many things in Arkansas it’s the intimate details that make me smile.
I floated past several waterfalls that I’d documented last year running at full tilt - they of course looked differently today and mostly dry, but it all ready gave me a great perspective of how they are all lined up along the river. And then SURPRISE - a new waterfall along the same bluffline - but one not accessible from land - bluffs on either side come all the way into the river. Might get to this one when the river is low, but then there wouldn’t be any water in the fall then!
Came around the corner and through a set of rapids, then landed in a long pool of that same emerald water - only this time the bluff ahead was a giant one - Bee Bluff with it’s striking white line down the middle. I needed a picture of that scene so flipped the boat around and drifted sideways while I got out my phone camera and took a few snaps. Then as passed beneath the bluff I looked straight up and saw a giant bird in the sky - a bald eagle. For those that have kept up with this Journal for a long time, THIS was another Cloudland moment! Just amazing!
The next set of rapids and a tree across it so I had to do some quick thinking and took a shallow channel instead, and got hung up a bit (Cindy was RIGHT - needed a little more water beneath me). When I got free the river tossed me sideways into another tree and a broken branch dug into the side of my boat. That’s one of the problems with blow-up boats on rivers - getting speared by a sharp broken tree branch - YIKES!
But I realized my boat was three layers, with the outside cover being a really tough fabric - so we just bounced off and continued on downstream - yea boat!
There was a giant sycamore tree blocking almost the entire channel of the river, but I was able to scoot through the upper branches with ease - I bet this old tree will get swept off to the side with the next big rainfall (which we hope is TONIGHT and tomorrow!).
After another shallow area where I had to scoot and push off a little bit (I was too lazy to get out of the boat, and really wanted to test everything to see how the boat would perform in shallow water), I came through a set of rapids that pushed me into a calm area, almost to a stop. I looked up and realized I was staring at the full length of the mighty Roark Bluff, one of the longest and most beautiful painted bluffs on the entire river.
Kind of funny, but as the boat continued downstream a bit the far end of the bluff started to light up with late afternoon sunshine, and I knew I needed a picture - and it was as if the river knew this and wanted to push me back upstream a little bit so I could stop and do just that.
It was weird, and kind of magical at the same time - the rapids on my right, downstream on my left, and me being held in the middle at the perfect photo spot. And then something happened that’s been my life for 50 years - that beautiful light disappeared just as I was ready to take a picture! Can’t control sunshine when clouds are rolling through.
I sat there admiring the scene just waiting, but the sun never appeared, so I figured I’d just continue on. I’d only gotten maybe 100 feet downstream when the bluff lit up again, so I swung around and paddled against the current and landed back in my little still part of the river, reversed and got out my camera. Nope not this time - the sun disappeared again! And so I waited.
I’m not good at waiting, so I pushed back into the current and motored on, this time going farther downstream and getting an up-close look at the base of the big bluff, seeing so many things (like fossils and small ferns) that I’ve never been close enough to look at before. This is one of the many benefits of being in a boat instead of over on the opposite side on the bank. I followed the painted stripes of the bluff with my eyes up and up and up until I saw blue sky directly overhead - and there was another eagle - kind of hovering in place (most likely laughing at me).
Just then the big bluff lit up AGAIN! OK, Ok, I HAD to reverse and go back for one more try. I did. I sat for even longer waiting on the light. It never happened. Then I realized that since the water level was so low I could just go ahead and complete my float, then hike back up to this spot with my REAL camera (that was resting in the van at the takeout point). So off I went, this time in a hurry to finish the float and run back up to get that photo - if the sun were to reappear.
But no luck - by the time I’d pulled the boat out and packed up the sun had already sunk below the treeline and the bluffs would not longer be lit up. Oh well - mental note of location and circumstance - first chance I get with an emerald river, low water, and clear skies, I’ll be back and wade across the river to that spot and maybe get a good photo.
One last note - as I floated through the long hole below Roark Bluff my mind wandered back to the many photo workshops I used to teach there. And especially the many times one of my assistants, Angela Peace, would drag her bright RED kayak down to the water’s edge and get into the water and pose for us. So this part of the float was in honor of Angela, may she rest in peace. Then I thought about the whitewater all along the river - those were always Terry Keefe’s domain. The trails along the river where I’ve spent so much of my life I hike in memory of the great Jim Rawlins, Scott Crook, “The Wildman” Carl Ownbey, and Roy Senyard - all close friends that we’ve lost in the past several years. And, of course, the entire protected Buffalo National River itself - I think we all hike, canoe, and enjoy as a way to pay tribute to the many hundreds of volunteers who fought so long and hard to protect, but none greater than Dr. Neil Compton. So many memories, and so many more chances to ENJOY this great place!
02/08/23 We had a couple inches of rain overnight (yippie!) and about midday the fog and clouds seemed to be hanging low in the valley. I decided to make a quick trip into Lost Valley to see if I could get a photo I had dreamed up inside my head - a far away photo of Eden Falls flowing well and shrouded in misty fog.
It was raining when I left the van and splashed across an already muddy Clark Creek for the short mile hike to the falls. I’d come equipped for heavy rain and deep creek crossings (they were calling for several more inches of rainfall during the day). It was a BEAUTIFUL hike up the creek, even though muddy waters are not very scenic. The surrounding forest was lush and magical though, with every small branch sprouting mossy cascades - and the many beech trees, still full with bronze leaves left over from autumn, absolutely glowed in the dim, foggy light. (beeches usually hold onto their leaves until new spring growth pushes them off the stems)
Eden Falls was already roaring when I got there, but the misty fog I’d been chasing, and hoping for, had disappeared. That was probably OK since it looked like several trees had come down during the recent heavy snow and ice that would have been in the way of the photo I’d imagined. But hey, I like LEMONS!
So I carefully waded across a now swollen Clark Creek and into the dry of the giant Cobb Cave overhang (it had started to rain), and I was a happy camper! I spent the next 30 minutes taking pictures looking out and over to the roaring Eden Falls and associated boulders that guard it. I’d packed an umbrella for the camera but it was SO NICE to be able to unpack everything and shoot completely in the dry out of the rain.
I’m still in the testing phase with my new little camera that I’m having a little trouble coming to grips with, so I put it through several different types of shooting situations - I was a little rough around the edges but hoped something would turn out well.
Then I stepped back and turned my attention to a couple of really tall waterfalls that were pouring directly over the front of Cobb Cave from high above - these usually only run doing flooded conditions, and this was certainly one of those! I’ve photographed this scene with and without waterfalls many dozens of times, and I do believe today it was at it’s most beautiful. Not only because of the waterfalls, but especially with all the beeches that were in full bloom in the background - always colorful, but even more so since everything was super-saturated with the rain and colors pushed to their limits (basic photo science - stuff is MORE COLORFUL when it’s WET).
At one point I reached over and turned the camera off and just stood there in awe. Millions of photos of this location are taken and posted by thousands of hikers each year, but nothing can ever come close to how absolutely beautiful it is in person, especially during a big rainfall event. OH MY! I also realized none of my photos would capture the complete magic, but I gave it my best shot.
Soon I got to thinking about how high Clark Creek was getting, and with it raining hard now I decided to pack up and get to the other side. I had made mental notes of water levels and depth when I came across, and made sure I picked a spot that was no deeper than my 18” boots. I also used my “tripod walker” method of crossing a creek, and got across just fine (I fully extend my tripod and secure it out in front of me one step at a time, bracing myself against the legs as I inch across - not perfect, but much safer than attempting a raging creek crossing without).
The hike out was quick equally as scenic as the hike in - I always enjoy hiking back because there is always so much more to see! I stopped and took a few phone photos, but was getting a little concerned about how high the creek crossing would be a mile downstream at the trailhead - so many side drainages adding water volume to the creek, each one swollen pretty high.
The creek was raging and too high at my normal crossing point, so I moved on downstream until the creek was at it’s widest point (and hopefully shallower). I soon realized it would be deeper than the tops of my boots, but that was OK - the current was not too bad and I was able to get solid footing all the way across by using the tripod walker again. My backup plan was to just follow the creek downstream to the highway and then hike back to the trailhead. Boots were full, but I quickly emptied them and headed to the van.
Even though there were hundreds of waterfalls everywhere, I only made one brief side trip stop before heading home. I knew the big Roark Bluff waterfall would be flowing (only during floods), so I snuck down to Steele Creek and took a few photos. One of the three lenses I had for my new camera was a telephoto, and this was a perfect spot to try it out (too large and heavy for me to carry into the woods normally - this would mostly be used near the van).
Finally I hiked on over the river to check on that big sycamore tree I had to skirt around just a couple of days ago in my boat. The mighty Buffalo was going at full force and must have made quick work of that giant tree - it was no where to be found. There was a nice waterfall on the bluff just upstream of it, and I took a few photos, but mostly just stood around and marveled at the scene of giant painted bluff, giant waterfalls, and raging muddy river.
And then it sounded like a car had just crashed into something upstream - WHAT? More than likely it was an aluminum canoe that smashed and got wrapped around a giant rock. Then I realized as the sound continued on a bit, that it must be some large boulders being pushed around by the force of the river. Kind of like the rocks on beaches in Nova Scotia - THAT sound they make when a big wave crashes and then rolls the rocks against each over as the waves retreats. It’s a sound I’ve only heard a handful of times on the Buffalo - always going on underwater. WOW, if only we could see it!
The total rainfall for us was 4.5” - but there’s more chance of rain Friday, with maybe a little snow too. One thing is for sure - we’ll have lots of great WATERFALLS!
02/13/23 It was a perfect day to be out on the trail and get a little work done! Clear blue skies and 65 degrees - in the middle of winter - don’t ya just LOVE Arkansas!
The volunteer organization that maintains the Ozark Highlands Trail (OHTA, a group I started in 1981) sent out an urgent message requesting mountaineers get out and attempt to clear off each section due to massive downfall from recent heavy snow and ice damage. One section that had been hit really bad was the one right next to ours - YIKES!
So my lovely bride and I headed out to the trailhead - passing a zillion downed trees and limbs along the roads - with each mile we drove we got more anxious - had no idea how bad our section would be, but we’d do our best to cut out any damage and try to at least lay eyes on the rest of our section to see how bad it all was.
We set out with only one tool - a giant folding hand saw with razor-sharp double-direction teeth (this saw will cut in both the forward and backward strokes, so it’s literally twice as effective as a regular saw. Why no chain saw? We’re not certified by the government to operate one - the OHTA group has several certified volunteer “sawyers” with the equipment to get the job done, but we only need call them out for specific downed trees that we’re not able to clear ourselves (and I’m sure those guys are mighty busy right now).
Turns out the first section of our trail - it runs high above the mighty Buffalo River with terrific views - was almost totally free from storm damage - WOW, that was GREAT! (we moved maybe 50 branches that were blocking the trail, all small enough to simply drag off the trail, plus a few small tree tops that had to be cut off and drug away, but all pretty easy work for our two-person power team!)
We began to find a few larger issues as we hiked, and then a really giant mess - large cedar tree tops that had fallen and entangled several smaller trees along the way. Took both of us to figure out the best way to approach each one - often we had to mentally go back to a childhood game of “Pickup Sticks” to figure out how to unravel the mess. The fact that many of the trees/limbs were under pressure added a degree of difficulty, but could also make the work a lot easier. More than once it only took two or three swipes with my giant folding saw on the back of a tree or branch that was under pressure and the entire mess would fall to the ground. Other times we’d work ten or fifteen minutes cutting one branch after another, dragging huge sections out of the way before we could get to the main tree or limb ball in the middle. Always satisfying when everything had been removed from the trail and we could see daylight in all directions!
Much of the damage was from cedar trees getting just too much snow (more than a foot of snow 2-3 weeks ago), when many branches and even entire trees would split and come crashing down, bringing others with them. And while these piles of evergreen tangles were tough to work, sometimes they were also a joy to be handling - oh my the aroma of fresh cedar, split right down the middle core of the tree and releasing all that sweetness!
We passed by Saw-Whet Owl Falls, which had a tall cedar tree felled over the top and would most likely be hung up there for decades (cedar takes a log time to decompose, especially when hanging over a bluff like this one was doing - so many of those will become twisted icons and their beauty will guard the waterfall and add even more to the scenic locations.
We passed by a GIANT white oak tree that had been an issue for hikers ever since the trail was constructed, but finally had been felled by the volunteer sawyer crew back in December after we’d reported that it was time for it to go. The crew did a terrific job!
Hoot-Owl Hollow was sparkling with sweet running water, then we made it up to Christmas Hollow, and another spot the volunteer sawyers had been directed to in December. A huge oak tree had brought down several other trees, all clogged right at the edge of the creek crossing, and the guys cut out a textbook route through the mess to make it easy for hikers to pass (see photo below). (the waterfall just above this spot was the December 2022 photo in my ARKANSAS SCENIC WALL CALENDAR - BUFFALO RIVER WATERFALLS that was just one the wall a couple of months ago.
My lovely bride and I parted ways at this point - Pam turned back towards the trailhead to work some areas we’d not entirely cleared off the trail; while I headed on towards the far end of our trail section. Like everything we’d done so far this last mile of trail was a complete unknown since no one had hiked it since we maintained it in December. Of particular concern for me was one part near the end that was nothing but a solid cedar thicket on a steep rocky slope. With cedars being the most effected by the heavy storm, I was mentally prepared for the worst, and probably would only be able to access the damage for later work. My best-case scenario would be to be able to clear enough of the damage so that hikers could pick their way through. I hoped...
But FIRST, I had not one, but two major piles of trees blocking the trail along the way, each taking me a good bit of time to cut out. At one point I thought back to a conversation we’d just had at the last major messy point - while dragging a tree backwards off the trail my bride pointed out the fact that only a few steps behind me was the top edge of a large bluff - “be sure to stop before you get to the edge!” I could hear her sweet voice in my head with each branch I drug off the trail - now along the top of a different bluff.
There were a few more piles of mess along the way that took a few minutes to cut and drag off the trail, but soon I had entered the cedar thicket - as I held my breath. I decided to hike as fast as I could in hopes maybe the cedars would simply part and let me through. Hahaha - doesn’t work like that. And then - son of a gun - I’d reached the end of the cedar thicket without so much as a SINGLE downed tree! WHAT, how could that be?
As I counted my blessings and made my way to the end of our section, I came upon not one, but two major damage areas - in an area without any cedar trees! OK, so these two guys made up for some of the clear path through the cedars, and I was a happy camper as they only took about ten minutes each to clear. The second pile required mostly mental energy to figure out which branches to cut out first (thinking of my lovely bride the entire time - WHAT WOULD PAM DO?).
And then I reached the end of our trail section, a beautiful spot where two creeks come together in a thick mature forest all around. Funny, while both creeks are pretty much the same size and length, one was bone dry - filled with limestone boulders. The other was up and running wide, free, and clear! All stunning in the late evening light. With three miles to hike back to the van I saluted this wonderful spot and headed back up the trail.
At one point the trail switchbacks sharply to the right and goes up into the cedar thicket, but I missed that turn and instead a few steps later was standing at a most spectacular overlook of the Buffalo (there’s a short spur trail that leads to this - noted in my BUFFALO RIVER HIKING TRAILS guidebook #7 on page 133). Deep breaths and a few moments to reflect. Then back to the trail.
Uh OH. right in the middle of the cedar thicket I discovered a giant cedar tree had come down right on top of the trail, although it hadn’t completely landed on the trail yet, and was entire hanging in the trees above. Somehow I hiked directly below this one on the way in. And it would turn out to be the worst spot for me since I’d left Pam. A few calculated cuts here and there, and lots of dragging (sorry, but I forgot to remove one of the larger limbs from on top of a large boulder beside the trail - maybe a big gust of wind will push it on over), and then one final drag down the hillside and off the trail and I was DONE - YEA, TRAIL CLEAR!
We were SO lucky this was the only major downfall in that cedar thicket. Thank you weather gods...
Knowing my bride had probably reached the van by then I kicked it into high gear and the next 2.5 miles reeled off almost effortlessly - even though most of it was uphill (I prefer uphill for some strange reason). We did it - the trail was now back in great shape and ready to hike - though this particular section of the Ozark Highlands Trail/Buffalo River Trail doesn’t get hardly any traffic.
We drove back through Searcy County as the gently rolling hills and ridges were kissed with the setting sun - just beautiful. AND we got McDonalds for dinner on the way - my chocolate milkshake was the BEST I’ve ever tasted!!!
02/14/23 The big event here yesterday was a 90-minute podcast I did with some long-distance hiking folks in Colorado yesterday. I’ve only done a couple of previous podcasts, and have never been much of a zoomie. (though have done literally hundreds of radio and television interviews and shows over the decades so am quite comfortable in front of a mic)
Their podcasts are generally about long-distance hiking trails and general discussion about such things. The OHT doesn’t get much attention on the national scale (ARKansas? Who would ever want to hike through that place? Never heard of it.), so I was thrilled they wanted to speak OHT for 90 minutes.
First issue was - they needed me to have a USB microphone. Ahhh, no such thing around here. Oh well, just speak at the computer and it may work out. Just before showtime I wondered if I actually did have a USB mic - from a decade or two ago when I did a few podcasts myself (about nature photographers - short lived series). I climbed up into the gallery attic where things go to be forgotten, and at the top of the very first box of stuff I opened - there it was - a USB microphone! I plugged it in and it actually worked! (my podcast setup below)
The other issue came up at the very last second - literally - when I clicked the link the producers had sent me to join the podcast - the podcast recording software was anti-mac and said boldly right up front - WILL NOT WORK WITH SAFARI! (which is the default Mac computer internet browser). I had to download an entire brand new browser and get it setup, but somehow the internet gods were on my side and I was up, running, connected, and waiting for my hosts to join in.
Kind of funny - there were two hosts, and they quickly realized that when they asked a question it might be 10-15 minute before I took a breath, haha - there’s a LOT to say about the Ozark Highlands Trail! We went through the history and layout of the trail, the terrain, the weather, bugs and wildlife, water sources and resupply locations - just a lot of great info for a typical “thru-hike.” (hiking the entire trail from one end to the other)
I tried to emphasize the merits of hiking in the WINTER vs. summer, and the fact that this is a very remoter trail and that you might not see a single building along the way. There seem to be issues with not having any resupply points along the route, and snakes seemed to be a concern, along with bears, chiggers, and in general the jungle that is the Ozarks in the summer.
Anyway, seemed like just when we were really getting into it all the clock struck 90 minutes and we were done! Whew, where did the time go? (easy - you asked Ernst a question and he wouldn’t shut up...)
Just as I got back to the cabin for a lovely feast my bride cooked up (after she got home from Yoga at the historic Boxley Valley Church), Pam screamed out "look at THAT!" - there were many lights in the sky, like bits of fire falling, and then it was dark once again. The local "chit chat" social media page then lit up with lots of other folks who saw the same thing (and many that didn't see but added their two cents). I'd accidently photographed this same thing several years ago back at Cloudland, and the best story back then was that they were flares being dropped by military jets or choppers during training. Or Chinese balloons melting? Don't know for sure, doesn't matter - just wish they lasted longer - was exciting to seee!
On our early morning hike today it appears that the heirloom daffodils at the historic homesite along our trail are about to POP. Two days ago they weren’t even out of the ground yet, and now there are hundreds of them 6-8 inches tall with yellow heads - I bet they’ll be in full bloom by the weekend.
I circled back to the cabin and returned with a shovel and couple of small pots, then dug up a two bunches of the flowers - including what I realized was very rich dirt - no wonder they love it around the old homesite! One of the pots was too heavy for me to carry very far, so I ended up ferrying both pots out to our driveway and will pick them up later today after a quick trip into town.
Temps are in the 50’s here today with some lovely rainfall, low 70’s. I have to agree with Fireman Jeff who remarked the other day that we’re headed for an early spring - time to get your waterfall guidebooks and get ready for a beautiful springtime in Arkansas - one of the very best seasons on the planet!
02/16/23 It was 56 degrees when I got up early this morning. Next time I looked at the temp it had dropped to 38! (in less than an hour) We had two different tornado warnings during the night and got about 3/4” of rain - YEA! As I sat in the dark on the couch I kept seeing a flash outside somewhere. Since it was only 5am my eyes were still kind of blurry, but after a few minutes to staring out the glass prow and not seeing any stars, I was thrilled to be looking when another bright flash filled the room - it was the crescent moon - just a few days away from being a “new” moon (not illuminated at all), but bright enough to light up the sky. Then it was dark again. The heavy clouds from storms were breaking up and screaming past the moon-turned-lighthouse in the sky.
The pups and I made a quick lap as it began to get light and found several of the heirloom daffodils had opened up overnight during the storm - these flowers that are most likely 100 years old or more are really tough! And then I was thrilled to discover one of them that I’d transplanted into mom’s (grandmom’s, great grandmom’s) historic iron kettle (brought over from Europe in the 1800’s, used on the farm in Minnesota for more than 100 years) had also bloomed overnight. Pam has had some flowers in her flower bed in bloom since DECEMBER, but these daffodils are the first “native” flowers from our property here to open up - always a bright, happy, and sure sign of spring on the way (though it may be another month or more).
There are a ton of these flowers at the historic homesite along our trail and I hope to transplant more of them as time goes on.
02/19/23 Normally when I hike at night here after dinner it’s mostly just to walk off the steps I didn’t do during the daytime to meet my watch’s goal - a total of about eight miles a day minimum. (I used to just hike for fun, but these days it’s often to satisfy my darn watch!) Those end-of-day miles are usually along our driveway - out to the mailbox and back (about 3/4 mile round-trip or so).
Unless it’s really pitch black (rarely) I hike without flashlight - once my eyes get dark-adapted there’s enough light from stars or the moon to easily follow the road. That was the case last night - I did a couple laps to the mailbox and back, almost on autopilot, one stride after another, after another, leaning into the slight uphill on the way out, gearing down to hold myself back a little during the return downhill (I prefer to hike uphill, but ya gotta do an equal amount of downhill at some point to get back to where you started).
After the second or third lap (I had to go about four miles) the pups insisted that I start using the trail instead of the road - they get bored on the road easily - seems like they aren’t able to slip into the ZEN mental mode like me while on the road. So we hung a left and headed out into the deep forest. It was much darker in there, especially since most of the forest was pine trees and so what little starlight was showing through the cloudy sky didn’t make it through the pine needles. I switched on the low beam of my secret bennie light (an inexpensive stocking cap with build-in small light that my sister gave me a couple of years ago.
INSTANTLY the landscape all around me changed - oh my! When you hike in the dark with no moonlight you really just pay attention to what’s directly in front of you - so that you don’t run head-first into a tree for instance. The rest of the landscape around you simply doesn’t show up in your brain. But as soon as you turn on a light not only lights up the clear path ahead, but the light I use has a wide beam and illuminates everything on both sides, sometimes far out into the forest.
Even though I hike this trail through the tall pine forest numerous times each day, in both directions, I was shocked to discover so much that appeared in the light of night vs. what I noticed during the day. Trees mostly - not only giant, towering trees, but also a LOT of downed trees, right along the trail and far out into the woods too. And everything was monotone - not exactly black and white, but kinda all the same color (brown?).
What I figured was happening was that during the day my brain sees way far out into the landscape, and usually the trees and bushes kind of blend into the background of other trees and bushes, and since most of them are basically the same color, individual trees don’t stand out as much.
In the dark, with my light only going so far, the trees and bushes are lit up against a darker background so they stand out a lot more - in fact many of them really POPPED, monotone or not. So it was like I hiked a mile or more through a magical forest I’d not seen before. I’m not really allowed to “recommend” people do such things, but if you’ve never hiked through a dark forest using only a dim headlamp with a wide beam I highly recommend it! (oops, SCRATCH that - I can only speak for myself - I had a wonderful time in the forest at night...)
As I approached the cabin at the end of my hike (I did about four miles in the dark - total of eight for the day -and made my watch happy!), I stopped to take a snapshot with the phone - for some reason I switched an outside light on the front of the house as I was leaving - or perhaps my bride wanted to make sure I knew the way home). The scene looked wonderful with some of the forest on the other side of the cabin all lit up. A special thanks to my watch for forcing me out into the darkness to hike!
02/22/23 SPRING has sprung at the historic homestead along our trail - yea!