lake ouachita camping adventure canoeing

For years I’ve dreamed of taking my children on a paddle and camping adventure, solo. Now that they are old enough to help me manage a canoe and our gear, I decided to make it happen! Lucky for us, Arkansas is home to one of the cleanest lakes in the US and it’s full of islands! 

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A new adventure.

Recently, our sweltering summer heat took a dive and the opportunity came up to take on a new challenge. Camping alone with my kids is not anything new, however, a paddle trip would be a new adventure for us. Arkansas is home to many beautiful lakes, especially in the central and northern part of the state. Our Wild + Free homeschool group decided to have our first meet-up for the year at Lake Ouachita State Park and it seemed like the ideal jumping off point for our first canoe trip. Did you know it’s one of the cleanest lakes it the US? We’d only been once and I couldn’t wait to jump into our next adventure.

lake ouachita canoe camping arkansas adventure

First things first: do your research.

The first step of any adventure is to do your research. I never walk into any endeavor blindly and I call it being Responsibly Brave. Taking on a canoeing and camping trip requires an abundance of planning, even more so when it’s the first time out for your kids. Initially, I had considered camping at the state park or one of the Army Corps of Engineers sites at various sites around the lake. But then in my research I realized that the entirety of the lake is within the Ouachita National Forest and (free) dispersed camping is allowed on most of the shorelines and on the islands! I spent time studying this map to decide where to park and put in and where to paddle.

A few reminders for Lake Ouachita camping.

A few things to keep in mind: the boat ramps and marinas can get very busy on the weekends and you should take time to consider a safe space to park your car overnight. All of the islands are open for camping with one exception: Bird Island. Bird Island is a designated Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society. Hotel Island is the largest and most popular island, especially on the weekends. For our canoeing and camping adventure, I decided to keep our paddle distance to two miles or less and we would launch from the state park marina since we would already be there.

NOTE – Please adhere to LEAVE NO TRACE principles when camping, especially when camping in dispersed camping areas! Please pack out ALL of your trash (that includes toilet paper!) and leave the place better then when you found it!

lake ouachita camping adventure canoeing

Headed out for adventure.

In the days leading up to our trip, we scrubbed our canoe and got her lake ready, dug the paddles out of our attic, and gathered up life jackets. Lucky for me, I found the last canoe tie down kit at our local sporting goods store. It took some research to decide how to tie down the bow of our canoe to the front of my Subaru Outback, since there isn’t any metal anywhere to be found on the front bumper anymore. We decided to use these hood loops as a way to secure the canoe without scratching the car. They bolt down easily under the hood and make safe attachment points.

We also opted for ratchet straps for both sides of the front bow supports and the stern tie down, which we secured to our hitch. The morning of our departure, I’m quite proud to say I managed to get the canoe loaded and strapped down all by myself, proving yet again to my kids that Mom can do it!

A secure tie down is critical for safe canoe or kayak transport. Don’t rush through this step! It’s to ensure your safety, the safety of your boat, and the safety of everyone else on the road around you. 

lake ouachita camping adventure canoeing

A loaded canoe.

I left the morning of our adventure rather quickly, and ended up packing up just as hurriedly. We keep all of our camping gear in totes organized by type of camping, so “grab and go” is easy to do. For this trip, I grabbed our backpacking camping gear plus waterproof dry bags, our cooler, and our hammock (complete with a bug net!). This all packed easily into the back of my car, along with the paddles, life jackets, towels, and my kids’ snorkeling gear. The water at Lake Ouachita is so clear you can see to the bottom in most of the more shallow areas!

Unloading the car.

At the marina, I unloaded the canoe and my kids worked to unload their backpacks. Our tent, all of our sleeping bags and Thermarest pads, cooking supplies and food were packed into our dry bags. I attempted to distribute the weight by putting the large dry bag in front of my son, the cooler in the middle, and our backpacks in the middle by my daughter; I would be sitting in the back. Tipping the canoe was a worry I had, but I didn’t mention that to my kids and tried to trust that they could handle it. Plus, we would all have life jackets on and they know how to swim.

I lashed all the gear in the boat to the crossbar with a long ratchet strap. I put the sunshade up on the car, locked it, and we shoved off! Just ahead of us a sailboat was slowly slipping away from the marina and my heart swelled with excitement at our adventure ahead. Within moments my fears eased as my son proved to be an able and worthy paddler and my daughter was content to take in the sights from the middle, calling out directions to us if we swayed off the course she plotted in her mind.

kids and canoe lake ouachita arkansas

Welcome to the island.

Well, the original plan was an island. We slowly cruised our way up the lake shore, watching turtles plop into the water as we slipped by. My daughter commented on the shapes she saw playing in the clouds. After a while we decided it was time to cut across the lake and I was impressed with my son’s bravado as he muscled his way across the wide part of the lake, keeping time with me as we paddled over. The first island we came to seemed like a good bet, but after circling it we noticed a hammock strung up on the western slope, so we paddled onward. Our spines tingled as the sun hit the water just right, and we could see the slowly swaying aquatic plants deep beneath the surface. Still, we pressed on without a complaint from either one of them.

The no complaining is a learned behavior from years of practice. We started with small adventures and I took them camping by myself starting when they were just three and six. Now, at nine and six they are able-bodied adventurers who aren’t afraid to do hard things. It’s worth the work in the little years. 

Not much later, my daughter spotted a small, somewhat sheltered, cove. It was east facing, but protected. I had hoped to pull up to an island on the western edge to take in the sunset but they had their hearts set on that little cove. My heart was set on making it a fun adventure so I let them lead and the little sheltered cove became home for the night. I’m not sure it was an island, but they never seemed to notice the difference.

lake ouachita camping adventure canoeing

Camp for the night.

The first thing I noticed was that the shoreline and area we would be camping was rocky. It was beautiful and full of white, milky, quartz fragments, but still rocky and hard. That meant sleeping would, to say the least, hurt. I only brought our backpacking sleeping pads to save space so the hammock was sounding pretty good. I let my kids have the canoe to play with and they spent the afternoon paddling across our small bay and playing in the beautifully clear water.

Getting to work on camp, I set up our tent first and found that one of the tent poles was broken. Rule number one: always bring duct tape. I forgot rule number one so medical tape from the first aid kit I brought along had to suffice. It worked and I had our MSR Elixir II tent up quickly, along with the hammock. Next up: get the kitchen set up ready.

lake ouachita camping adventure canoeing

Don’t forget the essentials.

Rule number two: remember the right fuel and always bring a lighter. In my hurry to pack up and leave I grabbed the wrong propane canister for our stove and realized I’d have to find a way to start a fire, otherwise it would be peanut butter sandwiches for dinner. There was a crude fire ring and spot where someone before us had made a fire, so I decided to use that same spot and after a few minutes of beach-combing I found enough dry wood, dry pine needles, and dried leaves to get a nice fire going.

Our cook set isn’t meant to go IN a fire, but when you’re adventure you do what you have to. I cooked our vegan “macaroni and cheese” directly in the fire and my son whittled a stick to roast our “hot dogs,” the frankfurters from Field Roast. We are a plant based family and luckily there are now plenty of items on the market for plant based camp food in a hurry. It was pretty great to hear my kids say how impressed they were with shouts of “Wow, Mom, you’re the coolest!”

lake ouachita camping adventure canoeing

A sky full of stars.

After dinner we all shared some chocolate I had hid in our cooler as a surprise. We sat near the fire and watched as one by one, the stars made their appearance, daylight fading into dark over the calm lake water. I don’t think there is anything more beautiful than the soft orange hue on the horizon just after sunset, or just before sunrise. My son was the first to spot Orion and my daughter pointed out the Big and Little Dippers. Those magic moments will be etched in my memories. Always. Pretty soon after that, my kids realized how exhausted they were and they climbed into our tent, which prompted complaints about the heat and how tight the space was. It was too warm for the rain fly and I shouldn’t have put it on.

My son declared that he would sleep in the hammock, which surprised me. When I was his age, I would have been terrified that all the things of the night could see me through the mosquito mesh. But he was thrilled and when I tucked him in (zipped him in) he was beaming and staring up at the starry sky. I took one last walk, sans headlamp, along the beach, pausing to just stare upwards. There was little to no light pollution out there and the sheer number of stars I could see was enough to stop me in my tracks and steal my breath. If you head out to Lake Ouachita to camp, be sure to take some time to look up once the sky is dark.

lake ouachita camping adventure canoeing

Sunrise swim and day old coffee.

“Good morning, Mom!!” my son shouted through the vent of the tent. It jolted me from a sleep that had finally come to me after a night of half awake listening and repeatedly covering my daughter back up again. She’s a wiggly one and a slippery sleeping pad combined with the slippery sleeping bag for a restless night for her too. Within moments they were both outside, ready to greet the sun just before it peaked through the trees on the other side of our bay.

A few moments more and they were in their swimsuits again, diving into the warm water with excited screams about “swimming in the fog.” I got the fire going again to reheat my left over coffee from the day before. Another silly mistake – forgetting coffee. I had freshly ground my favorite roast and left it sitting on my counter at home. Day old coffee would have to work.

My favorite way to make coffee while adventuring or even on the road, is to bring water to almost boiling using our backpacking stove, then gently pour using a pour over method and my GSI Ultralight Javadrip. NOTE – please Leave No Trace and pack out your coffee grounds with you. 

lake ouachita camping adventure canoeing

Pack it in, pack it out.

After a breakfast of gluten free granola cereal (yeah, I’m that Mom) with oat milk, I started packing up camp. It made my heart so happy to hear my kids; happy shouts as they swam and played. After I had camp mostly packed up, I took off with them for a swim. My son became our free diving marine biologist, while my daughter and I set up a floating “lab” on a life -jacket. I held her while she sorted the samples my son brought up. Clams, rocks, plants, he went for it all. For one last hurrah, my son attempted to catch a bluegill with just his net and a crumb of bread, and succeeded. You should have seen his smile. What a thrill. After naming the fish and observing it for a while, we let it go and changed into dry clothes.

Time to head out.

I was a little worried that the lake would be busy with big boats since it was a Friday afternoon, so we left our little bay just before lunch to beat the crowds. Those big boats are great, but they also make big waves for a little canoe with two kids. The paddle back was hard, especially crossing the lake as the sun was directly overhead. But, we powered through. I even showed them the trick of getting their hat wet to cool them down as we cruised along.

When we paddled into the marina I think I saw both of my kids sit up a little straighter, with a sweet pride of accomplishment showing as we neared the boat ramp. Exhausted, sweaty and sunburned, we worked together to unload the canoe and I muscled it back onto the roof of the car. It wasn’t pretty. But it was done. And it was beautiful. And I’ll remember that trip as long as I live.

In an ever more virtual and screen filled world, give yourself and your children the gift of an unplugged adventure. 

lake ouachita camping adventure canoeing

The short of it.

The things to remember:

  • Do you research! Know where you’re headed and when. Have a plan A, B, and C or at least be prepared to alter you plan A if you need to.
  • Store an offline version of your map on your phone or take a waterproof hard copy map of the lake. Cell phone service is spotty.
  • Check the weather before you leave, and again just before you shove off/or lose phone service.
  • Please practice Leave No Trace. Pack out what you pack in, and maybe even a little more by picking up any trash that you see.
  • Be considerate of others and if a beach is already taken, find another place.
  • Start small and build your way up.
  • You can rent kayaks or canoes from several marinas on Lake Ouachita.

Things to bring:

  • I have a complete list of all of our camping gear HERE.
  • Sunhats, sunglasses, sunscreen.
  • Water-proof dry bags – we like Seal Line.
  • A cooler
  • Headlamps or a lightsource
  • A lighter and back-up lighter
  • Camp stove or means to cook over a fire
  • Food that can be secured away (I keep ours in a dry bag in the overturned canoe at night)
  • Sleeping bags, sleeping pads, hammock and/or tent
  • First Aid kit
  • If you’re headed out solo, I recommend a handheld mace and a reliable pocket knife.

family canoe trip lake ouachita

Thanks for reading.

If you made it this far, hey thanks! I hope you enjoyed this adventure story. Curious for more?

Click HERE to read my tips for COVID safe road-trips.

Look HERE for tips for camping with kids.

Click HERE for a peak into our homeschool journey.

As always, follow along with our shenanigans on my Instagram page.

We will see you out there!

May you always see the wonder while you wander.

~Nichole

Special thank you to my husband, Ryan, for always being so supportive of our adventures and shenanigans.

Here’s to our next adventure, we can’t wait to have you with us.