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Rollin’ On The River

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  • Written By: Dwain Hebda
Rollin’ On The River

Unwinding on the Waters of Arkansas’ First National River

Every year, thousands of Arkansans and out-of-state visitors flock to a wooded north-central spot for an annual rite of spring — floating the Buffalo River. For generations, people of all ages have enjoyed the soaring bluffs, clear water and hidden swimming holes of the state’s crown jewel waterway and the country’s first National River.  

Some of these guests pack their own gear, but the vast majority visit one of the outfitters that dot the area for their canoes, rafts or tubes, renting a cabin and getting some well-worn advice. One of the oldest and most established of these outfitters, Dirst Canoe Rental & Log Cabins, is a must-stop for river veterans and rookie paddlers alike, and Dr. Melissa Dirst-Roberts is there to serve them with a smile. 

“The Buffalo River became a national park in 1972,” Dirst-Roberts said. “My family received one of the first permits when it became a national park. We moved here in 1976, and that's when Dirst Canoe Rental was started by my parents.  

“So, I’ve been a part of this since 1976. When my dad retired, my husband and I took it over and this will be our eighth season to run the canoe rental.” 

Having been here that long, there are a lot of familiar faces and perennial groups which make the trek every spring to the outfitter in order to gear up when the water is high. Dirst-Roberts, whose day job is with First In Service Hospitalists at Baxter Health and Chief of Staff-elect, envisioned a Baxter employee group among them. So, last May, she sent out invitations for just such an excursion, a call answered by 14 individuals to float the Lower Buffalo.  

“I knew there were some physicians that in their off time enjoy floating the Buffalo River,” she said. “I noticed some other groups at the hospital were organizing outdoor activities, and I thought this would make a great addition to that. We ended up with several physicians and their families, and everyone seemed to have a really good time. 

“We had a good mix of experience and even included one family who were first timers. They enjoyed it so much, I think they’re going to be regular Buffalo River lovers.” 

Dr. Maureen Flowers, Chief of Obstetrics at Baxter Health and OB/Gyn at the Comprehensive Women’s Clinic, was one of the physicians who joined the group. A native of Flippin, Flowers is an old hand on the water. She called the activity a great stress relief and the outing a good chance to connect with coworkers.  

“I think this is the second or third year I’ve done this with this group,” she said. “The activity is very relaxing; we all just kind of get out there and float down the river. We hang out, we talk, we vent. It’s a great little relaxing thing for us to do. It also gives me a chance to get to know other people who I ordinarily wouldn’t see on a day-to-day basis at work.” 

Flowers said the fact that Dirst-Roberts knows the life of a physician firsthand lent something to the spirit of the trip itself. 

“She really does accommodate us,” Flowers said. “We pick the day together, figuring out which of us are not on call, and she and her husband do the rest. We just kind of show up and enjoy ourselves, which is really nice. It’s really, really awesome what she and her husband do for us.”  

Due to the range of ages and experience levels, Dirst-Roberts chose a 9.5-mile route on the Lower Buffalo from Dillard’s Ferry to Rush.  

“The Upper Buffalo is for people who want to be in kayaks and go through rapids and flip upside down. It’s where the adventuresome go and where you need a helmet on the water,” she said. “Up around Ponca, Pruitt and that area close to Fayetteville, you get a lot of the younger crowd, the Fayetteville college kids up there. It’s a pretty rowdy crowd up there. The Lower Buffalo is the section where you bring children.” 

Everything about the Buffalo River experience revolves around water levels, which is why a typical spring break can see the river clogged with watercraft. Levels drop considerably as the calendar moves into the summer months, making some stretches of the Buffalo too shallow to float, but canoes and kayaks can generally navigate most areas.  

As an outfitter, Dirst-Roberts rents various watercraft, provides shuttle service to and from put-in and take-out points, as well as imparts the valuable wisdom gained through a lifetime spent in the area. 

“A canoe is a large vessel; most of them are 17-foot canoes,” she said. “You can have two people, a big cooler, camping equipment, a dog, a small child sitting in the middle. You can put a lot in a canoe.  

“Kayaks are single sit-on-top kayaks. That’s where teenagers can have their freedom, but you can watch them closely. I even call them marriage savers because he wants to fish and I want to look at turtles, and we can both do it in our own kayak. I mean it; you may test your relationship in a canoe,” she laughingly stated. “Because it takes cooperation and teamwork to navigate the more challenging waters.” 

Another feature of the summer trips to the Buffalo River lies around certain bends which harbor swimming holes adjacent to the exposed sandbar beaches. These extend the river’s popularity as visitors cool off in the dog days of the year. 

“This is a favorite of school aged children and adults alike,” Dirst-Roberts said. “We are happy to provide advice and guidance for families on age-appropriate trips to take that can be safely floated based on current water levels.” 

The Buffalo River’s status as a National River means its protection as a wild waterway is assured. Even so, Dirst-Roberts said there are a number of amenities in the surrounding areas that make the river an affordable in-state destination. 

“We’re right next to the national park, which has over 100 campsites with sewer, water, electricity,” she said. “But if you just want to float from Point A to Point B down here or hike and camp on the river, it’s free. There are not many free things these days.” 

Dirst-Roberts said the reception her Baxter Health outing received was encouraging, so much so she’s looking forward to organizing similar trips in the future with the goal of working up to an outing per month. She said in addition to the scenery and physical exercise, the trips pay dividends in stress reduction and strengthening families. 

“You have no cell service on the river. Your beeper does not work. You get a whole day where you can focus on your family and no one else,” she said. “That’s really important to physician’s families because we don’t get to do that a lot. There’s never been a week where the phone doesn’t ring at least once when you’re home, for any of us. While that often means interruptions during dinner or time with our family, we have each made that commitment to our patients as providers, and our families are very supportive of that. But when we're on that river, there is nothing else you focus on.  

“That’s really important. In health care, our patients are our number one priority on a day-to-day basis. A river excursion on a day off gives you the opportunity to escape from these responsibilities and invest your time in friends, family and even yourself. And that's crucial, because time is the one thing you can never get back.”

This feature appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Pulse Magazine. To view the entire issue, visit