It’s late afternoon and boats are pulling up onto gravel. The light is pinkish gold, and the sound of distant frogs floats eerily through the air. The adjacent bluff line is streaked bluish grey limestone marked with its namesake skull. Above, the recently conquered Nars—a thin exposed pathway of rock sitting far above the river—slowly fades into darkness. Tonight, I’m on boat duty. The last few hours of light will be spent playing after the boats are clean. In the distance, teams of three attempt to throw water-filled milk jugs into opposing canoes to score points, while others bat them away with flailing paddles. On the gravel bar, a long shelter made of canoe paddles, rope and tarps is pulled taut, awaiting the slew of kids that will bunk inside. Slight smells of taco salad waft toward the river as plastic and paddles fill the dimming sky. It was the yearly Millsap Buffalo river float trip, and summer had just begun.
My real introduction to the Buffalo happened in my early teens. I had grown up visiting the river, skipping rocks on my way to Ouachita Mountain campouts with Dad, but I had never done an overnight float on the majestic river. I was 14 years old, and my friend BJ Hollis, who had been floating for a few years with the Millsaps, thought it was time I join the fold. Every year since 1976, Dave and Carolyn Millsap would take a group of kids on a five-day float trip on the Buffalo River. The kids ranged in age from elementary to high school, with upwards of 30 kids along for the ride. For some of them, it was the first time they had floated. Many kids became repeat floaters, coming back year after year. It was the kind of experience you never tired of. And that’s how it was for me. After my first year, I was hooked.
The exact details of my first year are hazy, as memories have tendency of changing with age, but I remember feeling utterly terrified at the prospect of being on a river for five days. Excitement eventually won out over fears of the unknown, and in 1997 I attended my first Millsap Float trip—a decision that led to a lifetime of admiration for the Ozarks waterways.
On these trips, we did as much playing as we did floating. We stopped for every rope swing and bluff jump we encountered. We would hike trails that were only accessible from the water. In the earlier years, we would haul our own water. I remember hiking to get water from generous locals midway through the trip and carrying heavy jugs back to the river for what seemed like miles. There were stretches of river with pits of mud that we would use to cover our bodies—river exfoliation at its finest—which, as a kid, was pretty much the coolest thing ever. We would wrestle on sandbars, trying to throw each other into the water. If your hand touched the sand or you fell in the water, you were out. It was like summer camp, but way cooler than any camp I had ever heard of. I was taught responsibility and hard work, but more than that, I was taught to appreciate and love the great outdoors—a passion that has shaped much of my life.
In addition to cultivating a lifelong appreciation of the river, I made lifelong friendships that still enrich my life. Millsap floaters have a special kinship; it’s hard for people who didn’t experience it to truly understand how magical it was. Today, the Millsaps still float, but it’s evolved. Dave and Carolyn no longer charter the yearly trip for new floaters, but for the larger family it’s created. The last time I went was 10 years ago, and my experiences as an adult, although slightly different, are just as memorable. Some of the kids who grew up going on these trips now bring their own children, passing on the experiences and traditions of the mighty Buffalo River.