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A friend and I backpacked in the Ponca Wilderness Area, in the western third of the Buffalo National River's park area, last week.
Our initial plan had been to head into the Hurricane Creek Wilderness Area, a bit further south and east of where we did end up, but we learned from a NFS ranger in the visitor's office in Jasper that much of the Ozark Nat. Forest's trails were still closed, and all of the Nat. Forest wilderness areas were still closed, all due to heavy, widespread damage to trees suffered during an extremely heavy ice storm in late January. Areas along the Buffalo River, although more or less equally hit by the storm, were brought back into service more quickly because, according to the NFS worker, the Nat. Park Service has more money, personnel, and priority for getting such done.
We did find on driving to the trailhead and along the roads of the area that the damage, while spotty, was in some places quite extreme. In one area, near the Kyle's Landing trailhead where we started, we witnessed from the road a valley wherein every tree--and yes, I mean every tree--looked as if the top had been mowed off. Trees were toppled, limbs hanging and littering the ground, etc. The damage varied according to amount of precipitation received during the onslaught, the specific temperatures, etc. These in turn were dependent on elevation, contours, relation to ridges and bluffs, etc. Some areas looked reminiscent of World War I footage of shelled forests, while nearby could be found areas in which the damage was no more than one might expect to find in the region in late winter/early spring.
The weather during our outing was splendid; highs in the 60s to low 70s, with overnight lows in the mid-30s. Plenty of sunshine. No rain. Not much in the way of flying insects, though there were a few mosquitos doing recon work. Lots of ticks, though.
Other wildlife spottings of note included a roadrunner (not in the wilderness area, but along the road whilst driving), a pileated woodpecker bigger than some hawks, a few deer, the usual winter-time assortment of birds (including one of my favorites, a ruby-crowned kinglet, showing off the bright red cap not often so well seen), and the normal allotment of turkey vultures and armadillos. Vultures down there are so numerous as to be almost a nuisance to the raptor-watcher.
The geography is wonderfully scenic, though we caught it before the spring leaf-out was in gear. There are multiple spots with scenic overlooks or great views, some noted on the maps, some not. Trail marking and signage was fair, though occasionally an additional or more obvious marker would have been appreciated, especially when doing river crossings. Also, signage at trail intersections was sometimes on the spartan side of explanatory. Finally, it should be noted that we encountered one trail emblazoned with markers that was apparently the "horse trail" down and north from the ridge-top Slatey Place toward Horseshoe Bend (or so we were told by the group on horseback we met nearby) that was not on the Nat. Geo. topo map of the West Half of the Buffalo National River. A bit annoying, that.
Water levels in the Buffalo River itself were not record-low, but definitely on the low end of the scale. Taking the lowland route from Kyle's Landing to Hemmed-In Hollow, which requries multiple river crossings, wasn't as risky at those points as it often is, especially in spring. The water was cold, clear, and fast, in most places, with temps. reported as being around fifty-five degrees. We didn't spot much in the way of fish, though we didn't bring any fishing equipment along, either.
Several of the trails in the area receive a fair amount of use. Especially on the trip up to Hemmed-In Falls, but also elsewhere in the Ponca W.A. we fairly frequently encountered other hominids. On the run up to the falls and back, it seemed like most everyone in the state who'd decided on a hike during spring break had chosen that trail. At one point I remarked that on that one day I'd encountered more people in a "wilderness area" than on all my other trips into designated wilderness combined. Just the nature of this particular beast, I suppose.
Horseback parties are also frequent users of the area; we encountered two groups in our three-day excursion, and saw sign of at least one other.
All things considered, a wonderful little outing, and an area I look forward to returning to in the future.