Island getaway in Arkansas? Here's how campers are making the most of popular lake

Posted: August 27, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

At the edge of an island in Lake Ouachita, camper Jill Skaggs enjoys a moment of Zen as the sun sets July 28.

At the edge of an island in Lake Ouachita, camper Jill Skaggs enjoys a moment of Zen as the sun sets July 28.

It was typical Arkansas July weather, the creeks and rivers so dry, saplings grew head-high in the main channels, and it was so hot I knew I couldn't begin to carry enough water to stay hydrated on a backpacking trip. Then I received a Facebook event invitation from a friend, Sabrina Bradley, to go island kayak camping on Lake Ouachita.

It was like someone had thrown me a lifeline.

Drought is a downer for boating adventures on flowing waterways, but for lakes like Ouachita, lower water levels mean more to explore. During low water levels, more than 200 islands emerge in the lake.

Lake Ouachita is the only U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake in Arkansas that allows camping on some of its islands. A kayak is the vehicle of choice for visiting secluded destinations where wildlife shouldn't be hassled. And if you aren't aiming to cover all 40,000 acres of water surface at once and the 700 miles of undeveloped shoreline, paddling is a fine way to go.

Rick Hammerle had spent the previous five weekends exploring the lake by kayak, so he had picked out the perfect island paradise for our weekend. He normally prefers camping on smaller islands that offer 360-degree, unobstructed views, but to provide tent sites for our group of eight he selected a larger one. Also, with storms possible, the large stands of trees on that larger island offered protection against the winds. The partly enclosed cove where we pulled our kayaks ashore would also be protected.

Several campers had arrived that Friday evening to paddle out and set up. When Brad King and I met at the Buckville Recreation Area boat launch on Saturday morning, a heavy rain had just passed through. As we paddled across the open water to rendezvous with the others, wispy cloud remnants lingered in the crevices of lush green hillsides.

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Beverly Walker, Jill Skaggs and Bruce Ehrman make a colorful flotilla July 28 as they take their time approaching an island in Lake Ouachita.

We passed a pontoon boat anchored in the cove of a small island to create its own lakeside retreat, complete with a private beach. If they tired of this location tomorrow, it would be no problem to weigh anchor and seek a new site.

At our destination, we were met with greetings and hugs. Then, as I began scouting a tent site, I made a very important orientation decision: Did I want a view of the sunset or sunrise from my tent door? What about ants? Hammerle had warned us about fire ants. So I was down on all fours rummaging through leaves, small gravel and dirt before erecting my tent.

Then I grabbed a flotation device and cold adult beverage to join the swimming party at the island's north beach. As we drifted about, the day's agenda took shape. Island exploration was top of our list of activities.

There was one place in particular I had wanted to see for some time: Bird Island. The island is Arkansas' largest known purple martin roost, hosting anywhere from 8,000 to 50,000 migrating birds during late July and early August. The National Audubon Society has designated the island an "Important Bird Area" because of its strategic spot on their annual migration to South America.

Thousands of these birds approaching or leaving Bird Island is quite a sight to see. I heard there are boaters who prefer not to get up in the early morning to witness this natural phenomenon. Instead, they have been known to goad roosting birds into flight with the blast of an air horn. To discourage such harassment, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission enforcement officers monitor the island.

Camping is not allowed.

BEACH TO BEACH

Our flotilla of brightly colored kayaks began crossing open water to the nearest neighboring island, each paddler with an agenda. There were those who made it a competition, their paddles spinning like propellers on a steamboat, and those who drifted along with the blade barely dipping in on each stroke.

Most of us were in between, neither racing nor drifting, just steadily closing the gap separating the islands, our pace leisurely enough to enjoy the beautiful scenery.

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It’s a good idea to wear bug spray if you plan to walk around on the islands in Lake Ouachita.

After pulling our boats onto the beach we began hiking about, comparing this little island to our adopted island. It didn't have trees to provide protection in case foul weather arrived. But with no trees it did offer a 360-degree view, which was pretty nice. Plus, earlier visitors had built a makeshift table, which would come in handy when preparing meals.

Hammerle made a mental note of the island's assets for future reference, and we moved on to the next one, which we could have reached on foot using the shallow land bridge.

This island had a lot to offer, more views, nice beaches, a smattering of trees, a fire ring and another makeshift table. But there was litter: aluminum cans, partly burned plastic plates, toilet paper and even a twisted aluminum frame from a pop-up tent. Someone definitely neglected to honor the Corps' "leave no trace" principle.

We put what trash would fit into our small kayaks and continued to explore.

We didn't make it to Bird Island that trip. As the sun was beginning to dip on the western shores, we paddled back to home base to enjoy another swim before dinner.

SPARKLES

Wearing snorkel and mask, I swam around to the east end of the island to investigate a quartz fold I had viewed earlier while circling the island in my kayak.

On the lake floor, the soil had been washed away by the currents to expose the blunt edges of uplifted rock, revealing several layers of colorful orange, yellow and brown quartz. Small fish hid beneath the rock ledges.

The water in Lake Ouachita is crystal clear, providing great visibility for snorkeling.

I returned to camp just in time to join a hike down the bank on the island's western shore to witness Mother Nature's end of day celebration. Mere minutes before sunset, dense clouds stretched across the horizon, blocking any view of the sun. But just as we were about to give up, a sliver of sun peeked beneath the clouds to touch the treetops on the opposite shore.

The clouds continued their southerly drift, unveiling a bright blaze of orange that painted the surrounding mountains and surface water a surreal bronze -- a magnificent climax to a wonderful day on the lake.

THE DAY'S END

Several members of the group had foraged a substantial stash of firewood. Even though the heat wasn't needed, it added ambience to the evening festivities.

Several campers had been assigned items of food to bring that, when all were combined, would create a feast. They had rice, homemade bread, marinated and cooked chicken breast, and assorted sliced vegetables in foil to grill over hot coals. And lemon pound cake.

It did look tasty. I'm more of a "keep it simple" guy. Good old Mountain House Beef Stroganoff With Noodles was a welcome meal after a day of paddling. I recently had listened to a podcast about a scientific study that concluded that food does taste better when consumed outdoors. I could have saved them a lot of money if they had come to me, because even though I truly enjoy my freeze-dried packets on a campout, the thought of eating one at home has never appealed to me.

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Jill Skaggs spots fossils in rock folds on an island in the middle of Lake Ouachita.

With full stomachs and a crackling fire casting dancing shadows on the tree trunks surrounding our circle, each of us leisurely sipped our beverage of choice. We laughed and shared personal pages of our life stories. Some were great stories. However, as everyone who has camped with friends knows, what's said at camp stays at camp.

DAY TWO

Thirty years of tent-orienting experience paid off when I opened my eyes to peer out and witness the first light of day peeking over distant Ouachita mountaintops. As I lingered on my sleeping pad I witnessed the delicate pink dawn sky be washed out by bright morning sun.

Collecting my chai tea and packet of instant oatmeal I joined several others around smoldering coals within the fire ring.

The topic of conversation was the weather radar on their phones, which showed a dark front rolling our direction from the northeast. There was no denying that if we stayed on the island we were going to get wet. After enduring a rain-drenched camp the morning before, no one wanted to be on the island for the approaching storm.

It wasn't a hurried exodus, but it did take a lot less time to tear down and pack our gear away than it had taken to set it up. Soon we were paddling back toward the Buckville Recreation Area boat ramp.

Although I regretted cutting the outing short, we made a smart decision. Less than 30 minutes after we'd said our goodbyes, the rain came down in torrents . And it didn't let up during the rest of my two-hour drive home.

Moral of this story? Rather than whine about the Arkansas heat, make lemons into lemonade and head to Lake Ouachita for an island getaway.

ActiveStyle on 08/27/2018