The Crew Goes Overlanding

A Base Camp Birthday

For the past two years now, I have had the opportunity to spend a nice, relaxing weekend exploring a small section of the Ozarks for a whole weekend in November. We like to take this time of the year to celebrate November birthdays by eating lots of great food and enjoying early bed times as well as sleeping in past the sunrise. As usual, I’m surrounded by the best friends I could ever ask for. This year I got to take my buddy Shadow with me! It’s that one weekend a year where we pick a base camp and stay there for a few days with no real agenda. Just camping, eating, and wheeling a bit, strengthening friendships that will last a lifetime.

This year our crew consisted of myself and Shadow, Matt and Cara, Brandon and Haven with their kiddo Weston and the tiniest wiener dog I have ever seen, Gus, Justin, Ben, and his buddy Jack. Some of our friends were unable to make the trip due to various circumstances and we missed them greatly. All of these folks are fantastic people who I am happy to call lifelong friends now.

Shadow and I packed up Friday evening after work and pointed the ZR2 west. I had been itching to test out the new Carplay functionality on the Gaia GPS app! We stopped for some gas, firewood, and chicken strips, before hopping on the interstate for a few hours.

Matt and Cara had arrived at base camp earlier in the day with Matt’s Jeep and their VRV teardrop camper, and got a great location to setup by the Illinois Bayou. This turned out to be the perfect spot for base camp operations for the weekend. Justin, Brandon, and Haven set out in the late afternoon, with Justin’s 4Runner and VRV and Brandon’s Tacoma. We finally arrived at camp after dark around 10pm and quickly setup a few things before settling in around the fire for a bit. you get to know more about your friends and grow closer together around a campfire, like no other place in the world. Ben and Jack arrived in early hours of Saturday morning after driving for a while after midnight. Needless to say they were the last ones up!

After light rain showers and sprinkles all day Friday, after dark there was a light drizzle that maintained all night. The ground was wet and the tent was wet too Saturday morning. The overcast sky allowed just enough light to fill my rooftop tent so that I could look around and see Shadow ready to get out of this thing and go pee. So was I. I had already heard the footsteps and doors opening from others that had gotten up earlier than us. We rolled out of bed to get the day started.

Our base camp was one that we had passed a few times before but never camped there since we usually passed in the middle of the day. You can hear the rolling Illinois Bayou all night long and there’s a great water crossing just around the curve to get to the other side and continue on exploring. Water levels were higher than normal, but still lower than the last time we had come through this area. Nevertheless the blueish-green tint to Ozarks streams in always a fantastic sight to see. From Arkansas.com:

The Illinois Bayou has its origins high up on the south slopes of the Ozarks. As the stream works its way toward Russellville and the Arkansas River, there’s nothing slow and lazy about it. It may be the only bayou in the country featuring class II/III whitewater. From the backwaters of Lake Dardanelle to the headwaters in the Ozarks, the Illinois Bayou really is not one stream but four: 1) the North Fork; 2) the Middle Fork; 3) the East Fork; and 4) the main stem (downstream from Bayou Bluff).

After a breakfast of champions consisting of bacon and eggs in the cast iron skillet, I had decided it was time to replace the cover on my Smittybilt RTT. It was heavily worn from 1 year of use on my truck and 3 years from the previous owner, had a few patched holes and some rips along the seams. The Velcro was very dirty and not sticking as well as it should. I do have to say though, that for 4 long years of hundreds of miles of Ozark trails, it has stood up well. Luckily that didn’t take all that long and we all headed out to explore some of the forest trails in the area.

To start our exploration, Matt decided to take us across the Illinois Bayou through a water crossing that is a bit intimidating at first look, but one that we had done before when the water was much higher. All 5 of us crossed with no issues. Matt, Justin, and I all have snorkels. Ben and Brandon do not, but Ben’s Jeep is lifted and running 35” tires, so he has quite a bit more clearance than Brandon’s stock suspension Tacoma. Because of this, Brandon was of course a bit leery of the deeper crossings that were to come. But he conquered them just as well as the rest of us!

November is one of the most popular months of the year for deer hunting in the Ozarks so we had planned a few extra possible camp sites just in case the main spot we picked was already taken by a deer camp. Luckily it was open and we were able to claim it for ourselves. So our first stop the next day was spot #2 that we had yet to see. A water crossing and a few mud holes later we stumbled upon an epic spot that we’ll be stopping at for camp from now on. This spot was large enough for at least 10 rigs and right next to the stream, with huge boulders in the water and a nice rock bar to walk along and skip some rocks. The spot was clear and not too many trees, and far enough away from the main trail to offer a secluded weekend getaway. Nothing beats hearing the water flow by over the rocks all night long. It’s a wonderful lullaby and a peaceful easy alarm clock.

After exploring and marking the GPS location, Matt fired up the drone to take some shots up and down the stream, then we packed up and moved on down the trail.

The name of the game that day was “water crossings”. On the east side of the forest, around every corner is another stream to cross. The Illinois Bayou area takes this to another level. It’s a constant of back and forth trails that go over and come back on the other side. One can easily build their confidence with water in one day. Unfortunately we came upon one crossing that was just flowing a little too fast. It was not too deep, but the main section of current had some white water caps going over the deeper part with large rocks. Ben and Matt having the most well equipped rigs for this crossing decided to walk out into the stream a bit to see just how deep it was a gauge the current for the rest of us.

With the current moving so fast, we decided that the lower rigs, Brandon, Justin, and myself, wouldn’t fair well against the water pushing on our doors. With nothing to prove, we all turned around.

All of us except Ben.

Ben of course loves the challenge, almost too much sometimes, and dove off hood first into the water. And made it with little to no issues. His higher clearance with 35” tires helped to let the water flow underneath instead of catching the doors. A story he will love to tell from now on, for those of us stayed on the near side.

We turned around and checked out a few other trails in the area before heading back to camp. Once we arrived it was found that Brandons Tacoma had a brake issue that needed to be repaired before getting back on the trail or the road home. So he hopped in with Justin in search of new parts to mend the limping truck. Soon enough the brakes were fixed just in time to huddle around the campfire.

I had volunteered to make a big pot of chili for the group before our trip and decided instead of cooking it before and warming it up, it would be a good experience to whip it up on site on the propane stove. I had prepared for around 15-20 people including kids, but there were only about 10 of us. Still, at the end of the night, there was not a spoonful of chili left in the pot. I would say it was good, and Cara even said it was the best chili she has ever had. I do believe it might have been the best chili I’ve ever had as well, but only because of the people I made it for and shared a campfire with while scarfing it down.

This would certainly be a weekend to remember for years to come. I’m glad to be able to share the trails with these awesome friends.

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