Ouachita (Wash’-i-taw) is a word I’ve heard all my life. As a child, I knew “Ouachita” as the name of my parents’ college. The Ouachita was also a large river that flowed through Arkansas and close to my home. It was imprinted in my memory due to a very cold dunking I took during a winter float trip.
With this hike of 70+miles, Ouachita’s Native American translation as “happy hunting grounds,” resonates with me. I would add “VERY BIG hunting grounds.” Again and again, I found myself pausing in awe of these massive woods.
After completing a very dry 51 miles of the Ouachita Trail using several pre-planted water caches, we decided to skip 37 typically dry miles and begin at the Buck Knob Trailhead close to mile 88. We had wished for rain during our last hike in hopes that creeks would collect water for our next outing. On this hike, our wish was more than granted!
Day 1 (Dec. 16) We placed one water cache with our names and dates of travel written on the side of the plastic jugs. Then we hiked from Buck Knob Trailhead to Big Brushy Shelter as the sun went down. I’d tossed an Arby’s sandwich in my pack for a quick supper. I threw the meat on the grill and toasted the buns. A fast food sandwich never tasted better. There was a light sprinkling of rain that night.
Day 2 – 3 (Dec. 17-18) Woke to a soft fog and hiked to Fiddler’s Creek Shelter with occasional light rain and drizzle. Temperatures were warm, so wetness wasn’t a concern. As the evening fell, Gage joined us at the shelter. He was thru-hiking from east to west, and we enjoyed visiting around a warm fire. He would be the only backpacker we saw during our eight days on the trail.
The next day was a short distance to Suck Mountain Shelter. We arrived at 1:30 p.m. after walking an extended ascending roadbed.
The Suck Mountain Shelter completed the series of structures covering the length of the Ouachita Trail. The newer shelters include extended front covers and shelves as well as gravel surface in the porch area. We marveled at the amount of work and funding it must take to prepare sites, transport materials and complete the construction. The final structure is solid and meant to last!
We considered ourselves visitors to the shelters. Permanent residents included mice, dirt daubers, and barn swallows. We saw evidence of wasps from warmer seasons. During the night stereophonic coyote calls bounced around in the valleys below.
Day 4 (Dec. 19) We had a rainy 14-mile walk to the John Archer Shelter. It was one of the earlier designs and perched unobtrusively on a hillside away from the trail. Dry clothes felt good when we arrived, and it didn’t take long to eat and crawl under my down quilt. It rained all night with periodic rounds of hard rain.
Day 5 (Dec. 20) We began our walk in a drizzling cloud wearing our wet clothes from the day before. Later in the day, we caught some of the only sun we’d seen in three days.
A concrete walkway across Irons Fort allowed us to cross high and dry. We spent a few minutes enjoying the views upstream and down. I later learned that in 1981, John Archer and a group of Ouachita Mountain Hikers came to this concrete bridge that had recently been built by two men from Mount Ida.
Archer wondered if the bridge withstood recent flooding of Irons Fork. He wrote, “When they came to the bridge the first comment I heard was, ‘Isn’t this a beautiful place!’ The hikers were looking up and down the creek. That made my day.” Read more in John Archer’s concise History of the Ouachita Trail 1970-1997.
Following Irons Fork crossing, we came alongside a tributary with small cascades that called for more exploration. I could have spent a whole day walking up that stream with camera and tripod, but we had trail miles to walk.
After covering 12 miles, we arrived at the long downhill spur trail to Big Branch Shelter. We were relieved to find good water, though I had to backwash my Sawyer Filter between every filtering session. During the night, we listened to distant coyote calls, but our thrill came from the howls within our very own Big Branch valley. Amazing sound!
Day 6 (Dec. 21) We had good weather for our hike from Big Branch to Blue Mountain, passing through great open woods. I was smitten with nostalgia during the climb as I thought back to hiking this section as a four-mile out-and-back over twenty years ago. I was surprised and a little disappointed in how difficult today’s climb felt. I chalked it up to carrying a loaded pack and the fact that I’m twenty years older than the last time I walked this trail. I looked forward to seeing the shelter that I visited then and was relieved that, unlike my body, it didn’t show its 20-years of wear.
Day 7 (Dec. 22) It rained all day with only one pause as we got our water cache close to the Ouachita Pinnacle. It was a cold walk but only 8 miles to Big Bear Shelter, next to a small seasonal stream labeled as having “fairly reliable water.” After the rain of the past four days, it was flowing nicely, but we were glad to have our water cache and avoid lost time filtering. I privately plotted another hike to this area in the future to explore rock outcrops in this valley and to place a new journal in the shelter.
During the night temperatures dropped, and rain raged strong. We were thankful to be inside the Big Bear Shelter! I slept warm under my down quilt with slight feelings of dread as I anticipated having to put wet clothes on the next morning.
Day 8 (Dec. 23) We enjoyed a 9-mile walk to the Highway 7 Trailhead. It was cold, and my feet were wet, but the big woods of the Ouachitas were beautiful every step of the way. The miles clicked off steadily as images of a big post-hike meal filled my thoughts. A hot, crispy catfish dinner from The Shack in Jessieville filled the bill as we planned our next excursion on the Ouachita Trail!
Equipment fail but high praise for True Grit Running Company: I’m sorry to report a shoe fail. I had high hopes for my Altra Timp trail running shoes, but with only 125 miles of the Ouachita Trail completed, they must be retired. I’ve liked the wide toe box, sticky soles, and platform, but they’re not built for dirt and rock trail hiking.
When I returned these shoes to True Grit Running Company, owner Melissa exchanged them without hesitation and set me up with another pair of shoes that will meet my needs. I’m thankful for locally owned businesses like True Grit, and helpful service-oriented people like Melissa!