#OptOutside on the water: Toledo Bend Reservoir, Texas

Cruising over the waters of Toledo Bend Reservoir, Texas.

Another Black Friday came and went, and for the third straight year, a good chunk of the masses decided to forgo the sales and head outside. Kudos to REI for kickstarting the #OptOutside movement, and everything it symbolizes (specifically, what it must mean to its employees).

For me, it’s usually meant hiking or trail running. But this year it was different. A good chunk of my family met up at a lake house on the shores of Toledo Bend Reservoir in east Texas for the holiday, and anytime you’re at a lake like this one, time on the water trumps all.

My niece’s husband is definitely a lake guy. Fishing, water skiing or just cruising around, he loves the water. Back when Liz and Mitchel were dating, he picked up a boat for $300, with some wondering if it would ever be seaworthy. Mitchel had it on the water that day.

The boat has been nicknamed the Black Pearl. Great name for this vessel, as it may be a bit worn, but pulls its weight and has a bit of a legend. You can fish from it, pull a skier and, amazingly, get some work done. As it turns out, the Pearl has a history that goes beyond being a reclaimed wreckage.

Back when Hurricane Harvey was busy dumping a year’s worth of rain on Houston, many neighborhoods were flooded. Folks were trapped in their swamped homes, with nowhere to get food, water and decent shelter. A call went out for people with boats to help these folks out.

Enter the Black Pearl, with Mitchel and Liz helping some folk escape flooded homes to safety.

Flooded Houstonians get a lift to safety on the Black Pearl after Hurricane Harvey.

Over the weekend, we used it to pull of 50-foot log off a beach, haul it to boat ramp and eventually cut it into sections that were used to line the out ring of a now under-construction fire pit.

Reclaiming some driftwood for a project at my sister’s lake house. It took some doing, but Mitchel and his trusty boat got it back to shore and ready for the job.

As it turns out, the Pearl is a good working boat.

But Black Friday on the Black Pearl was more about fun. We took the girls out for a cruise, checking out flooded trees on the lake where eagles had their nests. The lake is lined with houses of varying sizes, but it also is dotted with islands and surrounded by the Sabine National Forest and state park land on the Louisiana side. Toledo Bend is a popular destination for bass fishing tournaments, and plenty of anglers were on the water.

We mixed up our cruise with full-throttled blasts and slower runs to see the sights. Sunny skies and cold beer mixed nicely with the tunes playing from on-board speakers in the bow. It was a great way to kill a couple of hours before dinner.

Mitchel in his element, piloting the Black Pearl.

My turn at the wheel. I haven’t driven a boat since I was a kid.

The next day featured some free time and calm waters. I’d been eating a ton, so some exercise seemed appropriate. Poking around the garage, I found a flatwater kayak and all the gear needed to go out on the water.

The kayak was hot pink. All that was missing were some My Little Pony decals to complete the picture, but I didn’t care. That sucker was going in the water with me in it.

Something to keep in mind: I’ve never been in a kayak. Canoe? Sure. Many times. And rafts. But never a kayak.

This was a good time with a good view.

It takes some getting used to. Since this was a shorter boat, keeping it straight was a bit of work, but manageable. Every now and then I got into a rhythm, paddling outside the main boating channels and staying relatively close to shore, never more than a few hundred feet from the beach.

At times, I’d stop paddling just to listen. If there weren’t any boats speeding by, the quiet was interrupted only by the water lapping against the side of the hull.

What I found is that type of gentle quiet is very similar to what I experience when I stop in the middle of a hike just to listen to the sounds of the woods or the breeze atop a summit. With so much noise around us at all times, we need those moments of quiet. Life has been pretty noisy lately, so those couple of hours on the kayak were a soothing balm.

Even though I live close to a number of lakes, I’m more of a trail guy. I don’t think that’s going to change. But mixing things up has its perks, and there’s plenty of good to be found on the water. And just like those #OptOutside days on the trail, Black Friday on the water was way better than fighting crowds looking for the next-best deal on the next-best doo-dad. Gimme a power boat or a kayak any time.

Bob Doucette


Trails, hikes, museums and more: Exploring Bentonville, Arkansas

Hilly, wooded goodness awaits near Bentonville, Ark.

It seems a lot of my free time and time off is spent charging away at some trail, or hunkering down in a backcountry campsite. To be clear, I like it that way.

But not every getaway for yours truly is like that. And that’s a good thing. There is something to be said about mixing up some natural beauty with a more relaxed – and comfortable – break from the daily grind.

Earlier this fall, Bec and I did just that. Seeing how fun my last venture into northwest Arkansas was, a return visit seemed worthwhile. We made a bunch of stops: a huge lake, an incredible museum, some solid places to eat and, of course, a little time on the trail.

The locale this time was in and around Bentonville. Most people know the town as the headquarters of Walmart. And while this is true (and having a massive corporation anchor your city has its perks), there’s quite a bit more to be had. Bentonville and the surrounding towns have all benefited from the wealth a big company provides, but in many ways, this corner of the state has maintained some of its earthier flavor. And that, my friends, is also good thing.

Some of the highlights…


Beaver Lake and dam. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)

At more than 28,000 acres, Beaver Lake is massive. There are 12 parks located around the lake with 650 campsites. We stayed at a cabin near the lakeshore, and had easy access to boat docks. The lake is prime for fishing (it’s biggest draws are trophy smallmouth bass and stripers), water skiing and boating, and I imagine would be a great place to explore in kayaks or on stand-up paddleboards.


Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

It’s not unusual for smaller cities to have museums, but Bentonville punches above its weight with the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Funded by philanthropic endeavors of the Walton family, it’s a facility of jaw-dropping architecture, with airy, sunlit buildings laced together around a small lake. Glass walls let in natural light, and once inside, the collection of works from American artists dating back to the 1700s is impressive. Landscapes, portraits, sculptures and more modern pieces fill its galleries. My guess is any major American city would be all too happy to boast being home to a place like Crystal Bridges.

The museum has special exhibits, outdoor art, and is home to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman-Wilson House. The house was deconstructed from its former New Jersey site, moved to Crystal Bridges and rebuilt. It’s a fantastic piece of architecture, and maybe my favorite part of the visit.

A Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece.

Bentonville’s paved trails link Crystal Bridges to the rest of the city, and a walk from there to downtown isn’t too far.

One of the best parts of the museum is its free admission. There are paid, ticketed exhibits, but the main collection comes at no cost to visitors. The museum has a full-service restaurant and coffee shop on-site.


War Eagle Mill and Bridge.

This popular tourist destination is a working mill that dates back to 1832. The mill has been destroyed and rebuilt a few times, but it has persevered as an important site for nearly two centuries.

The mill itself still functions, powered by a paddlewheel that turns with the flow of an adjacent river. You can buy milled products there (as well as any number of touristy wares), and a café on the third floor is open from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.


Arkansas does its state parks right, and Hobbs State Park and Conservation District is a glowing example of that. The park is host to a number of trails and looped routes through heavily wooded hills, some with overlooks of Beaver Lake.

The trails are great for hiking – they’re well-marked and maintained. Some portions might include some elevation gain and steep stretches, but for the most part, you can hike these routes whether you’re a seasoned hiker or a just beginner.

They’re also very runnable. Trail running enthusiasts train and compete here regularly. If mountain biking is more your thing, you’re in for a good time. Long, flowy stretches of singletrack await. Northwest Arkansas is becoming well-known as a mountain biking Mecca, and now I know why. I’m definitely bringing my ride next time.


All that corporate affluence has made downtown Bentonville quite the scene, especially on weekend evenings. Several high-quality restaurants are located there (we tried Fiamma Ristorante and were not disappointed, and Table Mesa Bistro gets rave reviews). If that’s not your thing, an armada of food trucks is usually parked around the town square, and live music abounds. If you’re curious about the history of the world’s biggest retailer, a Walmart museum is also located here.

That’s a real quick overview of the area, and there is a lot we didn’t get to see. But I think you can get the gist. You can get your outdoor fix, clean up, and enjoy fine dining or a night at the museum if you please. Or just hang out at the lake. Either way, it might not be quite what you’d expect to find so far from a big city or more traditional resort town.

Bob Doucette