For many of us who live in western and northwestern Arkansas, the Ozark Mountains are our playgrounds, whether it’s mountain biking, backpacking, kayaking, rock climbing, or most other outdoor adventures, these nearby forests and hills provide the perfect environment to satisfy our outdoor needs.
However, the Natural State offers many other outdoor destinations. One area that has always attracted my attention is the Arkansas Delta Region. This section of the Mississippi River Alluvial Plain encompasses the eastern portion of the state as far north as Blytheville, then stretches south to Eudora and west to Little Rock. When Hernando de Soto, in 1541, he became the first European to set foot in what is now Arkansas, there were about 24 million forest-covered acres in the Mississippi Delta. After centuries of timber harvest and agriculture, today fewer than eight million remain. One million lies within the Natural State.
For years, as I drove past the murky, wooded, black waters that border eastern Arkansas highways, I sensed something beckoning me to explore the mysteries hidden within this secretive world. But I had always motored on past.
One day, I shared my interest in exploring these wetlands to Bill Steward, an Ozark Society friend with whom I have shared many an Arkansas adventure. He told me about someone who “might be able to help”: Debbie Doss.
“Might be able to help,” as I’m sure he was aware, turned out to be a gross understatement, for Doss is the director of the Arkansas Watertrails Partnership. This nonprofit partnership provides volunteer support to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s water trails program. The group is dedicated to developing public paddling trails throughout the state, including well-mapped, accessible routes for day and overnight paddle trips.
Also, lucky for me, their focus is on slow-moving bayous, backwaters, and sloughs. Eager to promote the state’s lesser-known waterways, Doss enthusiastically replied to my email and then jumped aboard to help plan an adventure.
The Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge (WRR) has been on my list of “places to explore” in the Delta Region for some time, so this was the area that first interested me. However, with learning that during the spring months the area was usually underwater and would remain so until late May and that Buffalo gnats begin to swarm in late May, I decided to adjust my initial plans.
During my early research of the Arkansas Delta Regions, I had discovered numerous dirt roads dissecting these wetland environments, offering visitors a great opportunity for exploration.
However, when Doss informed me, there were more than 100 miles of water trails meandering through the heart of these Delta wetlands I quickly realized that the best vehicle for experiencing the heart and soul of this natural outdoor mecca was via boat.
After reviewing the locations of these water trails a new destination quickly rose to the top of my “places to explore.”
A CHANGE IN PLANS
Located 70 miles east of Little Rock, just off Interstate 40, the Bayou DeView Trail is part of an 83-mile bayou, and it offers more than 15 miles of signed water trails. With the trail crossing prime flat-water wilderness it sounded ideal for a bayou adventure.
I did have one area of concern with this trail. The literature I had read explained for this water trail to be float-able, the bayou’s depth should read 14 feet or higher at the Brinkley water gauge, and with only eight days remaining until the date I planned to begin the float, that gauge was reporting merely 12.5 feet.
Doss shared my concern; but she noted that with rain currently falling in the bayou’s northern watershed, and with that water requiring about six days to make its downhill journey to the section we would be floating, it should be floatable by our scheduled date. She suggested I monitor the water gauge at Morton.
Mother Nature must be a water trail fan. The northern watershed received 5 inches of rain eight days before the float, and the area of the water trail also had precipitation of its own. On the first day of the float, the Brinkley gauge read 14.6 feet and rising. Perfect!
LET THE ADVENTURE BEGIN
With several friends joining Doss and myself, under sunny spring skies, our group of five launched our kayaks and a canoe at the Benson Access, just off Arkansas 17. Our “Bayou Adventure” began under this bridge in a 50-foot-wide body of water. Doss veered her canoe to the right, and the rest of us filed in behind.
Shortly into our float, the lush green forest began encroaching on both sides, and I saw the first light blue marker mounted high on the trunk of a tree, designating the main channel of the Bayou DeView Trail.
As we followed the channel to the boundary of a seemingly impenetrable forest, the current gradually grew, pulling our boats toward a small opening between tree trunks. Leaving the open blue skies behind, we were drawn through the narrow passageway under a canopy of trees, and an image of Alice being sucked down the rabbit hole flashed across my mind. Once we entered the tunnel of trees directly ahead, there would be no turning back, not until it spat us out somewhere further downstream.
Well, not really. The current was barely perceivable, and it would be no problem at all to turn around and back paddle to the vehicles. But my active imagination was enjoying the thought of entering our own Wonderland.
What a Wonderland it was. Inside this unique ecosystem, everyone ceased paddling to drift along at natural bayou pace, our heads on a swivel, not wanting to miss a thing. For as far as the eye could see there was no land, just water and tall, healthy trees bearing crowns of near-florescent green foliage. The flooded forested bottomland included various hardwoods, such as oaks and sweet gums. But the majestic tupelos, with their wide buttresses and often twisting and oddly shaped trunks, and the mighty bald cypresses, surrounded by jagged knees, stole the show.
It was such an up-close-and-personal experience I felt as though I was hiking within an old-growth forest, via a kayak. But unlike hiking on terra firma, our view was unobstructed by underbrush. Peering between and around tree trunks we had all-encompassing views of even more distant trees and water pools.
As Doss had floated this trail more than 100 times, I was concerned she would be bored by our slow progress, as we regularly paused to absorb the experience. But as I circled a particularly large trunk and she came into view, I noticed she too, was rubber-necking and swept up in the adventure.
Most of the year the main channel would be obvious and have been easy to find even without the plentiful blue markers. At this high water level, however, there were navigable routes between tree trunks that made for many interesting side trips to check out abstractly shaped trees, search for the famed Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (whose last recorded sighting had been in this very area in 2004), or to follow a path less traveled.
Doss explained how she and the partnership’s crew had made many float trips to install the blue trail markers. After navigating a general route using maps and GPS, they would return to determine a navigable course during low water, and then later they returned at swollen water levels to install the signs high on the trunks where they’d be easy to spot.
It seemed to me the deeper we entered the bowels of the bayou, the larger the trees became. Doss said this could be true because the deeper into the wetland, the more difficult it would have been to harvest the trees. Some of the giant tupelos and bald cypresses we were in awe of could be virgin timber, dating back more than 800 years.
After floating through the trees for a couple of miles, we once again emerged into an open area. Doss said we would paddle several wide pools along the trail, areas where the water backs up near earthen embankments or a buildup of debris among the trees. But then the channel would narrow once again and resume its path of least resistance in and around the dense forest on its way to join the Cache River.
With lunch break approaching, Doss steered us off the signed route to enter an opening through bordering trees. To me, this looked just like the hundreds of narrow openings we had been passing all morning. But along came a patch of dry land where we got out to eat. Doss explained this was the Benson Creek Natural Area, which, with the help from the Nature Conservancy of Arkansas, was being restored to original hardwood bottomland.
On our return to the main channel, I quickly realized why literature for floating a water trail advises boaters to carry a map and GPS. The open channels between the trees all looked the same. Without a guide, or a map and GPS, I might still be out there.
After a few more miles of floating, we reached a sign for Hickson Lake Access campground, our home for the night. We followed red signs for less than a mile to reach the access. The campground is also accessible by road.
The Bayou DeView is well suited to accommodate a weekend bayou floating adventure. By putting in at the northern terminus at the Benson Access, it is a 6.5-mile float to Hickson Lake Campground. Although it is primitive camping, with no facilities or potable water, it is an excellent camp area on the banks of a beautiful lake, its shores lined by tall tupelo and bald cypress trees.
After a restful night of serenades by baritone bullfrogs, we launched our boats from the campsite and retraced the red route to the main channel. Doss’ husband, Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”) Chadbourn, had joined us. He is a member of the Arkansas Canoe Club’s “Black Ops and Trash Recovery’ team who work tirelessly to keep Arkansas’ waterways trash-free. Their specialty is the removal of large items, such as the 6-by-10-by-4-foot dumpster they once pulled from the Buffalo River.
Although it did not seem possible, the second day’s float was even more impressive than the first, with still larger trees distorted into even more creative dramatic shapes. If Nature had an art gallery, this is where it would be. I marveled at how the trees could be distorted into such abstract positions. Trees were sprouting from the water with their trunks twisting and bending in unison, as though they had paused during a Dance of Life exhibition.
Many of the large buttresses, some 20 feet in circumference, had decayed cavities at their base. Even with cavities over three-quarters or more of the trunk, the tree still sported a crown of healthy foliage. In this unique natural wonderland I saw trees, completely separated at their base, that had grown together to touch for an everlasting kiss.
Once again, for our midday break, Doss steered us off of the main channel to a plot of dry land. Known locally as Whiskey Island, the land had harbored a moonshine still during Prohibition. Scrounging around, we found broken shards of thick glass that we assumed had stored the whiskey and a metal barrel rim. After our break, we returned to the main channel to resume the float toward our takeout at the Apple Lake Access. At the pace we were going we decided not to tackle the additional 4.3 miles to the Bank of Brinkley takeout.
However, before ending our adventure, we did paddle around Apple Lake in search of the cypress tree that graces the cover of Tim Ernst’s 2006 Arkansas Nature Lover’s Guidebook. And yes, it was as beautiful in life as it was in the picture.
Note: To reach the Hickson Lake Access/campground, take Exit 202 off Interstate 40, then go right on Arkansas 33. After 2 miles, turn left on U.S. 70. Ignore the sign for the “Sheffield Nelson Dagmar W.M.A.” that shows up about 5 miles along; it stands with another sign for “Conway George Waterfowl Unit.” Drive about 7 miles on U.S. 70 and then go left on Dagmar Road. There is no road sign here, but there is another sign for “Sheffield Nelson Dagmar W.M.A.” From there it is about 7 miles on the gravel road to Hickson Lake.
At the end of your float, continue another four miles west on U.S. 70, past the intersection with Arkansas 33, to treat yourself to some local flavor and the finest southern vinegar style Bar-B-Que in the state at Craig’s BBQ, located in De Valls Bluff.
For more information on water trails within the Natural State go to arkansaswatertrails.com.
PREPARATION FOR BAYOU DEVIEW
Preparation for your Bayou DeView Water Trail Adventure should begin at the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission website //www.agfc.com/en/explore-outdoors/wildlife-viewing/water-trails/bayou-deview-water-trail/
The information at the website will provide everything needed to plan your float, including water levels and conditions, mileage for putting in/takeout locations, safety, and in general what to expect on a float trip.
Both kayaks and open-boat canoes are well suited for floating the bayou. Kayaks are more maneuverable in the tight narrow passageways and shallow waters, however, canoes provide easier exit and entry of the craft for portaging blocked waterways and more space for storing camping gear. I recommend using whatever boat you are familiar with.
Your first aid kit should include standard items such as gauze, bandages, aspirin, antibiotic ointment and gloves. The differences being these supplies need to be stored in either a waterproof or watertight container. A water-resistant flashlight should also be included. And, don’t forget the compass!