Ruthie and I finally made it back to the Ouachita Mountains in southern Arkansas for a hike around the Eagle Rock Loop. We arrived late on thursday night and realized it had been a year and a half since getting back to the Little Missouri River and it's surrounding cliffs and streams. We set up the tent with the help of the car's headlights and slept in the parking lot adjacent to Little Missouri Falls.
The nights were cool and just barely warm enough to justify using our summer bags. We woke up the next morning damp in a way that only sleeping right next to a flowing steam can do. We headed out from the falls to do the route clockwise. Our goal was to get as many of the water crossings out of the way in the first day just in case a night time shower rose water levels to an unweary depth. The weather was bordering on hot and the trees still hadn't grown a canopy to shade the trail form the mid-day sun. As we approached the Albert Pike section for lunch I spotted a fly fishermen drifting his flies through a pool around a bend in the river and catching small, stocked rainbeaux trout regularly. A quick shout from the trail informed me that olive wooly buggers in size 8 or 10 were inticing the little guys to eat. Note to self: DO NOT FORGET FLY ROD NEXT TIME!
Every time we'd hiked the trail in previous years the Langley river gauge had been below 3.5'. That offers safe and easier water crossing that litter the trail throughout. The gauge was at 4' for the day and i'd never realized how much of a difference that half a foot can make. The tops of rocks that we'd previously been able to hopscotch across were submerged in about 4 inches of cold, rushing water. Gravel rock bars that used to be exposed shortening the always wet crossing were shallow pools of water making the crossings that much longer and more fun. After 5 wet crossings, a dip into an icy stream, and numerous other rock hops we settled into the tent streamside somewhere along the Viles Branch section of the trail. We ate and were both nodding off as the sun was going down.
The next day we'd set up to have a short mile warm up and then head straight into the Athens-Big Fork section of the trail. This section has all of the mountain passes that form the valleys the rest of the trail follows. There was little shade from the sun and the white rocks reflecting its rays back into your face. The first three mountains were behind us when we stopped for a break and to dip our feet in a cold stream.
I sometimes forget what it's like to gain elevation by foot living in southern Louisiana. It's not an unfamiliar feeling and these passes are quick reminders of what these mountains can do to your legs. We had finished the hardest section of the trail and it was about 3:30pm when we stopped to top off on water. It was only 4.1 miles back to the car and we had a decision to make about how much further we were going to hike for the day. We'd planned for a three day, two night and packed our food to match. With only four miles to go we made a decision to push it back to the car and make it home for Easter sunday.
We pushed hard for the next hour and a half and made to the car for a change of clothes and got on the road. The hike was fast but I never felt like we were overexerting ourselves. This weekend also taught me that this could be a legitamite weekend outing for anyone within a six hour drive. With a few extra cups of coffee, some discipline in miles and wake up times, and the will to finish in less than 48 hours, this is a challenging and beautiful escape. But next time, i'm bringing a fly rod and taking it slow.