Best Midwestern Sailing Destination: Lake Quachita

Photo by Tiffany Sineath; CC 2.0Lake Quachita, Lake Ouachita

Lake Ouachita: Few camping restrictions, dozens of islands, clear water and miles of good sailing.

Sprawling across Garland and Montgomery counties in west central Arkansas, Lake Ouachita (or Lake Quachita to us old-timers) offers some of the best scuba diving in the state, as well as fishing, camping, water sports, and surprise of surprises! some of the best sailing in the middle United States. Three miles across at its widest point, there’s enough open water here to create some good waves when the wind is up. Rent a yacht if you’re into big boats, or if you’re a canoe sailor like me, just back up the Hyudai to a convenient shoreline and launch the Mirage.

I decided I’d try Lake Quachita after a few years of battling my way across northern Arkansas lakes like Bull Shoals, Tablerock and Norfolk — fun but extremely challenging, and with quite a few unfriendly camping rules which newcomers to the area would find difficult to circumvent. Lake Quachita seems too good to be true when you’re used to difficult water, so I had low expectations when I arrived late one Sunday evening in October. But, I’m hardcore when it comes to outdoor vacations, and no matter what the situation I’ve never had a bad one. If I can just get out on the water I’m free for a few days, and this time I had a little more than a week to spend. Can’t go wrong with that.

Because Lake Ouachita isn’t far from the tourist town of Hot Springs or the capitol of Arkansas, Little Rock, in nearly any weather you could expect some shoreline crowds. That October the summer seemed like it wouldn’t quit — I’d expected cool weather but when I set out through the beach camps and waverunners the air temperature was nearly a hundred degrees, and it stayed there for most of the week. There was enough breeze to fill the sail and I made camp on one of the first islands I saw, only about a quarter mile from the main shore. After a noisy motor-filled night I woke up to a nearly empty lake. Time your visit correctly and you should have the same good luck.

satellite view of lake quachita or ouachita

Satellite view of Lake Quachita (Lake Ouachita) from NASA WorldWind

At the eastern end of Lake Quachita you find the biggest expanses of water, the largest group of islands, and the best sailing. The terrain surrounding the lake is low, so wind rolls in steady and straight. Because the lake is so big, that wind has time to make rollers, not just choppy whitecaps. Canoeists can get trapped on the island camps in bad weather and often have, so it’s always a good idea to take extra provisions and gear up for a longer stay than you’d planned.

Water conditions in the lake are amazingly good. Lakes in Arkansas typically turn murky green by late summer but you can usually see about fifteen feet in Lake Ouachita’s depths even at the end of the season when visibility in other area lakes is less than arm’s length. Hydrilla covers much of the lakebed and gives the lake a nearly tropical appearance, contributing to its popularity with divers and spearfishermen. I had ample time to cruise the hydrilla beds the first couple of days, because the air was dead calm and instead of sailing I resorted to paddling. Of course if you intend to travel by manual methods that’s a good thing — Quachita is a great place for kayak and canoe touring although I didn’t see any parties out on the water that week.

One of my first destinations was the middle of the lake, just because I wanted to know what it was like to sit that far out in a tiny boat, and it turned out to be pretty cool — well, cool in mental terms. I felt glad I’d brought my compass and topo map (which I always do anyway) because with the summer haze and the heat distortion shimmering off the water the shoreline wasn’t even visible from there. I sat for a long time just enjoying the isolation, far enough away from everything that there wasn’t any noise except for the tiny creaks of the rigging in the heat. The heat was intense, and maybe you have to be from the south to actually enjoy 100 percent humidity and a temperature of 102 degrees F. I basked in it. That’s the kind of weather when sunblock is probably not enough. I wore a long sleeved cotton shirt, jeans and socks, with UV blocking sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat for eye protection. You can still get serious burns in places you can’t even see — light reflecting from the water sometimes blisters the inside of your nose. If you fish you need to keep the sun at your back when possible.

A week at Lake Quachita turned out to not be enough. I caught several good bass by fishing at dawn and dusk, although daytime fishing was a complete bust for me. I’d brought plenty of food so I released everything I caught, reluctantly at least one time because the black bass I hauled in was at least a personal record. Sailing was good most of the time, although the wind wasn’t usually strong enough to make big waves. There was enough breeze to cruise, and steady enough to keep going without worrying about tiller or rigging constantly. If I got the urge for a soda I’d sail over to one of the marinas and buy a treat, without even needing to talk to people unless I actually wanted to. Privacy was available, but the signs of people were everywhere.

Campsites are heavily used on Lake Quachita, but so plentiful that unless you hit the lake at the peak of the season you shouldn’t have problems finding one that’s open. Since there’s no private land on the shores everything is potentially a campsite, with the usual restrictions on fires and toilet activities. Most people pay attention to those rules, but cat-hole latrines are omnipresent on some of the more popular islands and streamers of toilet paper aren’t rare. This isn’t a lake where you’d be wise to swallow the water straight, but with purification systems and backup boiling it’s safe enough.

Arkansas State Parks & more.

I did find a small community of fellow travelers on the lake that week and got to know many of them even without meeting more than a few. You might want to know that sound travels a long long way on Quachita and if you’re having an argument with your mate, everybody for the first mile or so is going to hear every word. I was happy not to be having the vacation some of these people had. One couple seemed completely miserable, using the days of their summer vacation to explore the reasons neither one was happy, and everything they tried to do seemed doomed to trouble — like the morning fishing trip when the outboard motor failed to run at more than idle speed while the young fellow trolled gloomily toward the marina three miles away with his wife explaining nonstop that they never did anything she wanted to do. Surprisingly they did come back together.

One night I woke to a voice calling “Angel! Angel!” intermittently for hours and wondered finally if I was starting to get spooky from the heat. The next morning as I was making breakfast a fellow ran his boat up to shore to ask if I’d seen his pit bull. Two of his dogs, one a pit and the other a Labrador retriever, had taken off swimming and only the Lab had come back to camp. Labs are built for swimming but pits aren’t, and it appeared that the pit sunk somewhere along the way. He searched shorelines and islands for the next couple of days without any luck. If you take pets, keep them around.

Takes me a few days to get over being irritated at people in general, but towards the end of the week I was getting pretty happy. Possibly the change in my attitude brought in a change in the weather, because one of the last nights there pulled in a storm front and a steady wind of about 35 mph that hit the tent in the middle of the night like a big sack of flour and kept on hitting. As soon as it was light I crawled out to see what sailing I might do, and things seemed pretty rough, with rollers three or four feet high coming in from the east and absolutely no boats out on the lake itself. I could see a few yachts tied up in the lee of a distant island, sails down. Going out seemed unwise, since the gusts were coming in higher than that already good wind.

So I unloaded all the essentials I had stored in the boat and replaced them with rocks, adding about a hundred and twenty pounds of ballast to the centerline of the boat, and headed out fully prepared to swim home again. If I beat a course into the wind, any accident would just blow me back to camp, or close to it, so I wasn’t worried. Beating into that wind was about as much as the Mirage could do, and it took me quite a long time to work upwind far enough to turn about for the really wild ride. That turned out to be scarier than I’d expected, since the run took me west almost as fast as the waves, and when I rode the crests the waterline crept up to within an inch or two of the gunwales. Any little shimmy or sudden shift of wind would have swamped the boat. It was tricky sailing and right on the edge, but the kind that makes you whoop and holler as you go. That put an end to my plans for sailing the Great Lakes in the Mirage, at least without some special gear. I hadn’t considered how easily the boat could swamp in larger waves.

But, it was all great and mildly dangerous fun, and I did the course half a dozen times before feeling satisfied and hungry. Forty five minutes out was an average beat, spending about half the time tweaking the rig and putting breaking things back together again as the wind and the waves took them apart; and about five minutes screaming back to camp on the run. I wouldn’t recommend trying that without at least the gear I had, which included outriggers on both sides of the boat. If you’re traveling by paddle in an open canoe, you’ll just have to sit out a storm like that one.

Last morning on the lake, the weather had dropped off to cool again with an intermittent light drizzle and patches of mist drifting through the islands. As I put the boat on a convenient reach and sailed back towards the car I was glad I’d brought the map and compass with me. The entire aspect of the lake had changed with the weather and all of it looked strange. I wound up resorting to the map to get back to the Hyundai, because even when I looked at the right landmarks nothing looked right — one of those times when you have to ignore what you see and go by the piece of paper and the compass. Finally you get close enough to see the car onshore and it all makes sense.

To the credit of the Park Service in the area, no one had towed away my car while I was gone (I’d left a note on the dashboard explaining why it was there and when I’d be back) and no one had slashed my tires, either. I loaded up the rig and left the place feeling good. I think it was about three hours before I encountered somebody who really pissed me off, way beyond the boundaries of the park, which is about as good as I’ve ever done on vacation.

If you plan a trip on Lake Ouachita, just be prepared for those possible emergencies — take extra food and enough gear to camp comfortably, because in a storm like that, or worse, it isn’t sensible to abide by a schedule and try to go home through it. Take a map and compass, and add a GPS if you like. Changing conditions do cause disorientation and poor visibility might demand navigating by instruments. The number of islands and the convoluted shoreline become a beautiful hazy maze where getting lost is easy. Bug protection and sun protection are essential unless you enjoy total misery. In October the mosquitoes were few but deerflies were abundant. Tough little buggers like tiny horseflies, they land and bite almost immediately and rarely hit a place without a nerve. A good slap just stuns them and they come back mad unless you locate them while they’re down and smack them with something hard. DEET works on the mosquitoes but the deerflies just bite and spit before they drill. I had both a tent and a separate mosquito net with me and I used both. Now and then you just need a few moments without having to defend yourself against the hordes — small price to pay for an otherwise flawless vacation spot.

For some excellent photos of this popular vacation spot visit the following link:
Lake Ouachita Photo Tour

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