By Sara Dacus
We built a day with a kayaking adventure as the anchor. My husband Casey’s boating experience is extensive, mine is minimal, and Case’s (our eight-year-old son) was zero, so we set out to make a new type of family memories.
The greater Hot Springs area offers a trio of lakes (Hamilton, Catherine and Ouachita) and several options for kayak, canoe and boat rentals. We selected Ouachita, Arkansas’s largest lake, for its reputation for being one of the cleanest lakes in the country, and Ouachita Kayak Tours, who welcomes inexperienced kayakers and children.
We departed from the Buckville ramp. To get there, we drove through a secluded, green area of the Ouachita National Forest that made us feel that we had truly stepped out of our daily routines and had perhaps experienced the Japanese phenomenon of “forest bathing.” Lisa, our guide, had everything waiting for us at the water’s edge. After a few instructions, we embarked on the pristine water and into a different world.
We chose a four-hour island-hopping tour, where we leisurely explored a few of Ouachita’s more than 100 islands and several of the coves that are within the 700 miles of undeveloped shoreline. The first island we visited was one of several on a quartz vein. A trail of white rock and wild purple flowers dotted the small landform, and Case enjoyed searching for a clear crystal even though he knew he would not be able to take it home with him. We found several in this Easter egg hunt and returned them to nature.
We returned to our kayaks. Case caught on fairly quickly, but Lisa also offered to give him a tow, which was a welcomed option that we took her up on during a few points in our tour. Case amused us with questions like “Is the lake a man or a woman?” and Lisa fascinated us with lake lore like the story of the underwater cemetery that was moved to dry land.
Visitors can pick any island and camp on it, and we saw hammocks hanging between trees and small campsites. Lisa said Ouachita is the only lake in the state where visitors can camp like this. As temperatures continue to warm, more people will engage in activities such as swimming, snorkeling, fishing, boat races, water football and skipping rocks.
We saw the head of the Rabbit Tail water trail. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission offers a downloadable georeferenced map that outlines this 8 ½ mile route. We searched for osprey, great blue herons and bald eagles and were rewarded at the end of our tour with the sight of a majestic bald eagle repeatedly gliding down to the lake to fish, and we could even see his catch in his beak. It was the perfect ending to our excursion.
For our late lunch, we drove around Ouachita to continue exploring nature and new-to-us places. We ate at Mountain Harbor Resort, where we drank in the lake view from the Lodge Restaurant. The hand-battered onion rings and chicken were just what we needed to regain energy, and we explored a portion of the property and saw the spa and rental cabins, boats and houseboats that make up the resort that the Barnes family has owned and operated for more than five decades.
To round out our day, we decided to catch the late horse races at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, where we continued to play outdoors. We headed to the infield, the park-within-a-park, to watch the action among the apple trees, red buds, shade trees and azaleas.
This season, I’ve been mesmerized by several infield trees whose leaves dance and shimmer in the wind. They seem magical. On one trip to Oaklawn, I saw about ten kids hiding in one of the larger tree’s branches. This visit, I stopped an Oaklawn employee who looked like he might be able to tell me more. His name is Johnny Breckling, and he’s been with the grounds crew for over fifty years. He told me the trees I wanted to know more about were zelkovas, and he showed me another tree near the six furlong starting gate he planted fifty years ago. He talked about working for Oaklawn’s late president Charles Cella, who he described as a good man who wanted things done right, and answered our other questions about infield beautification (including the care for the bushes that spell OAKLAWN). It was easily one of the most enjoyable conversations I have had in Hot Springs, and now Casey and I are in discussions about where to plant a zelkova at home.
Since the live season closed the following weekend, this was our last Hot Springs visit to experience thoroughbred racing until opening day on January 28, 2022, a weekend we already look forward to with great anticipation.
As we headed home, leaving Oaklawn and Ouachita in the rear view, I left wanting to spend more time in each place we visited and very satisfied with our outdoor adventures.
Sara Dacus was born and raised in Searcy, Arkansas, where she still lives with her husband Casey, their son Case and their puppy, Bode. She is an eighth grade English teacher and freelance writer who enjoys horse racing, reading and solving the New York Times crossword.