What do outdoor lovers both naughty and nice wish for this holiday season? How about a 1.7 million-acre woodland present wrapped in solitude and tied together with a ribbon of river? If that sounds like your cup of holiday cheer, then try an early winter canoe trip on the Ouachita (pronounced wash-i-ta) River where it spills 70 miles through the Ouachita National Forest of western Arkansas.
The Ouachita is a popular summer playground for splash 'n' party folks, but by December the deer, turkey, mink, otter, and eagles have taken over. Floating from the Oden Public Access downstream to Fulton Branch near the upper end of Lake Ouachita is memorable any time of the year, but never so tranquil as in December. A few red and gold leaves still cling to tall hardwoods. Green pine boughs add a dark accent to the waning winter light, and 'tis the season to appreciate sculpted bluffs festooned with gnarled junipers draped with wispy strands of old man's beard lichen.
Expect daytime temperatures in the 50s and 60s and nightly lows just above freezing at this time of year. Water temperatures should be in the 50s, so a dry change of clothes is a must, in case you get wet. For anyone who likes to drop a line overboard, October through March is peak fishing season for largemouth and spotted bass.
A lovely stretch of the river worth running in early winter begins at the Oden Access and meanders downstream 17 miles through sun-dappled riffles and waterfalls (Class I at normal river levels) to the Fulton Branch's canoe access/campground. A trailhead here connects to the Womble Trail, a 38-mile ramble atop riverside bluffs.
Some paddlers end their journey with a dayhike at Fulton Branch, while others stop about halfway and explore the Womble at Rocky Shoals, another canoe access/camp-ground. Many simply stick to the river for bluff viewing and wildlife watching or find a quiet campsite on a secluded gravel bar. Either way, it sure beats holiday shopping at the mall.
QUICK TAKE: Ouachita River, AR
DRIVE TIME: The Ouachita River is in southwest Arkansas some 200 miles (4 hours) northeast of Dallas and 225 miles (41/2 hours) west of Memphis.
THE WAY: You'll find signed river access points along US 270 between Mena and Hot Springs at Cherry Hill, Pine Ridge, Oden, Pencil Bluff, Sims, and Mt. Ida.
TRAIL & RIVER FACTS: The Ouachita River offers 70 floatable miles above Lake Ouachita. Womble Trail, reached by spur trails of less than a mile with trailheads at Rocky Shoals on US 270 between Mt. Ida, and Pencil Bluff or Fulton Branch on Forest Road 568 near Sims, is 38 miles one way.
ELEVATION: Lowest point on the river is 655 feet at the US 270 bridge between Pencil Bluff and Mt. Ida. River gradient is 15 feet per mile.
CAN'T MISS: River bluffs between Rocky Shoals and Fulton Branch.
CROWD CONTROL: Floaters and hikers are rare in winter.
MAPS AND GUIDES: Maps and river information are packed into the Arkansas Floater's Kit, available free from Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, 1 Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201; (800) 628-8725; www.arkansas.com. For canoe rental, shuttle, cabin, or camping information, call Ouachita River Haven Resort, (877) 314-2836; Ouachita Jack's Place, (800) 993-5628; Ouachita Mountain Outdoor Center, (800) 748-3718. For a guide to the Womble Trail, get a copy of Arkansas Hiking Trails, by Tim Ernst (Wilderness Visions Press, 800-838-4453; http://wilderness.arkansasusa.com; $18.95).
PIT STOP: Check out the Ouachita Mountain Outdoor Center, Pencil Bluff. Canoes, rafts, shuttles, guides, camping equipment, and supplies are all under one roof.
WALK SOFTLY: Litter is always a problem, so pack yours out.
MORE INFORMATION: Arkansas Natural & Scenic Rivers Commission, 1500 Tower Bldg., 323 Center St., Little Rock, AR 72201; (501) 324-9159.