Row, Row, Row Your…Bike
With competition and travel both in limited supply for 2020, Scotti Lechuga has been looking closer to home and finding new ways to explore her back yard. Here she tells us how a bikerafting overnighter opened new terrain and sparked a new kind of adventure – at much slower speeds than she and her partner Ernie are known for.
It was only a little over a year ago I found out about bikepacking. At the time, I was a pure roadie who valued skinny tires and white bed linens.
Fast forward one year later, and I’ve undergone a complete transformation. Not only do I look to find the maximum width tires I can fit in my bike frame, but I also want the most remote place possible to lay my head for the night. I can’t get enough of the great outdoors, exploring, and crafting adventures. I’ve had to get creative with COVID, but my goal has been to connect places close to home, with the feeling I’ve gone somewhere far away.
Back in September, our bikerafting expedition was exactly that — an attempt to do something completely new and foreign, but in our own backyard. We were only two hours away from home, but mixing cycling with packrafting gave us the chance to step into another world.
Bikerafting unites two methods of man-powered transportation. When cycling, the packraft gets stowed away for the ride. At water’s edge, the bike then straps down to the boat. Bodies of water become extensions of the GPS track, meaning lands separated by rivers or lakes become easily accessible.
We live in Arkansas, a beautiful state rich with wooded forests and flowing rivers. We decided to take a couple of days to explore the Buffalo National River as complete newcomers to bikerafting.
Our bikepacking gear was quite similar to a normal cycling expedition, but we’d traded use of a front roll to give our pack rafts prime real estate. Secured to our flat bar mountain bike handlebars, the Alpacka rafts sat neatly rolled, along with our break-down paddles and life jackets. The tent and sleep gear stuffed down nicely into our seat packs, and we used half frame packs and backpacks for our plentiful stash of hydration (whisky included), bike maintenance gear, food, and electronics.
Our weekend trek began and ended in Jasper, a quaint Ozark town established in the 1840’s as a trading post. Nestled in the Buffalo River National Park system, visiting Jasper is like stepping back in time. Its small town square boasts a couple of restaurants and a courthouse, its population of 446 scattered among the surrounding hillsides. Things are quiet there, disrupted only by the rumble of the touring motorcyclist. We were able to depart Jasper from the north side of the river, and return to it from the south side of the river.
The sun beat down on our first day. We’d taken our time and spent about six hours on the bike before we landed at the Buffalo to drop in the packrafts. As we unrolled our rafts, disassembled bikes, and began inflating, we were a little hesitant to jump right in bike first. It’s disconcerting to trust a raft with your precious bicycle! But eager to adventure on, we strapped the bikes securely to the front of the rafts and waded into the river.
The Buffalo River levels were quite low this time of year, for which we were grateful — neither of us has any experience with rafting, only light canoeing and kayaking. We’re so green in fact, it turns out the whole weekend we used the packrafts backwards without knowing! Even with bikes on the stern end, the rafts were quite stable and actually balanced from front to rear once in the water.
We spent a few hours that first day meandering slowly down the Buffalo’s cool waters. Heralding from the peaks of the Boston Mountain range, the Buffalo River flows 153 miles to the east plateaus, through beautiful sandstone and limestone canyons.
The Buffalo National Park Service allows overnight primitive camping along the natural river gravel bars, with the warning issued that the area is prone to flash flooding. Since the water levels were low, and there was no chance of rain, we felt safe tucking in for the night along the banks.
Our private river corner was so magical as the evening settled in — so moody and ethereal I expected to see fairies dance out of the woods at any moment. The dense, humid air rising from the river began to saturate everything it touched with condensation, but the wind was just soft enough to dry our wool shirts and blow away the mosquitos.
Falling asleep to the sounds of the running river brought me a deep sense of stillness and definitely gave me the feeling I’d travelled far away from home. The stars were clear that night, a majestic canopy for making wishes and dreaming big. We woke early to watch the sunrise, and there was a cool mist hovering. The morning fog sat still with us for coffee, and we enjoyed its beauty while we started to pack up our gear on the boats for another day on the water and bikes.
In total, we rafted about 16 miles, at an average of about 2-3 mph. It was the slow life. After hours on the river the second day, we pulled the rafts out of the water and rebuilt our bicycles. From paddling to pedalling, it felt really good to be back on the bikes, doing what we know best. We had only 12 miles remaining between us and Jasper, and we enjoyed every last minute of our ride back into town.
Sunkissed and hungry from the long day of adventuring, we chomped down food at the Ozark Cafe. The drive back was spent commemorating the special moments of this amazing overnighter. In just two days, we’d experienced the ultimate sense of freedom, only a couple of hours away from our normal roads. The combination of bikes and rafts was a beautiful way to experience all kinds of landscapes and opened up endless opportunities for exploration. We’ll be sure to do it again soon.
For more details on Scotti and Ernie’s route, the kit they used and where to rent a packraft for the Buffalo River, check out Scotti’s blog post.