On The Road: The Arkansas Big Woods

Canoeing the Arkansas bayou

Bayou DeView with Ed Wolff  Canoe Kayak Arkansas Big Woods
Photo by Ed Wolff

By Ed Wolff

I’m always on the lookout for out-of-the-way, extraordinary environments to stimulate my passion for adventure.  Exploring new and unknown surroundings invigorates me like an addiction.  Because I’m getting on in years, placid waters set the stages for my senses to drink in the landscapes, relax, yet be alert for wildlife.  I planned a 6 week expedition to the Southeast (traveled 6446 miles) to  experience the diverse ecological communities along the banks of Florida’s St. Johns and Suwanee Rivers, attempt Florida’s 100 mile Big Bend Salt Water Canoe Trail and stop to investigate the soils, climate and critters living in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp, but upon learning about Arkansas’ bottom land, flooded timber water trails, I added the Bayou De View Water Trail to an ambitious list.

In 1971 the Arkansas Big Woods was designated a “wetland of international importance”at the United Nations Ramsar Convention. The White River and Cache River systems also contain the second largest bottom land hardwood forest and the largest one that is still intact in the nation. Bayou Deview is in the heart of the Mississippi Flyway, which is the route along which millions of birds migrate north and south every year. In 1992 the Arkansas-Idaho Exchange Act was signed into law, which added to the federal wildlife refuge system 14,000 acres of bottom land hard woods along Arkansas’ White River. In exchange for the land,Potlatch Corporation, a timber harvesting company, received 17,625 acres of federal lands in Idaho.  The swap was a coup for conservation of the unique wet land resources in Arkansas.  The land exchange connected two existing protected areas, the 110,000-acre White River National Wildlife Refuge and the 57,000-acre Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, creating a wetland resource equal to the finest in the country, rivaling Everglades National Park and Georgia’s Okefenokee  Swamp.

Bayou DeView with Ed Wolff Canoe Kayak Arkansas Big Woods
Photo by Ed Wolff

With a month and 200 miles of paddling behind me, I was pounding down Arkansas’ Interstate 40 towing a 16 foot, wood trimmed Royalex canoe strapped to a custom trailer.  Lucille, a water loving, mix breed dog, of yet to be determined lineage, slept on the back seat.  She had recently been adopted from the humane society near home. The Bayou Deview Water Trail would be the final stop before busting for home in western Montana’s Bitterroot Valley.  I located Cache River National Wildlife Refuge on a road atlas but had no idea where or how to approach the water trail or the current status of the water conditions.  I made a cold call to Kirsten Bartlow who works for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission as a public relations person, who coordinates the development of water trails.  Kirsten talked to me like a long lost relative, suggesting I call Mikki White, a local volunteer and trail worker with the Arkansas Canoe Club. Mikki directed me to Hickson Lake primitive campground/ water access point and enthusiastically agreed to meet me there to discuss the trip.  Shaded under a thick trunked red oak, we ate fresh picked strawberries, while seated on the shore of Lake Hickson.  The 100-acre lake is bordered with stands of cypress trees, their dark green leaves swaying in a gentle warm breeze. Forests of alligator teeth shaped cypress knees sprouted at their buttressed trunks like attentive children.  Dappled sunlight, filtered through the oak’s foliage, dancing across a brown carpet of leaves.  I half expected to see a dinosaur step out of the trees.

The Bayou DeView Water Trail begins at Benson Creek Access off Highway 17 and flows 15.2 docile, serpentine miles to Bank of Brinkley Access off Cane Ridge Road.  Hickson Lake Access is approximately half way between these access points and a .8 mile spur trail connects the lake with the bayou.  There are two additional access points between Hickson Lake and Bank of Brinkley.  Except for Whiskey Island, a plot of land in the middle of the swamp whose size fluctuates with the water level, there is limited dry ground when water levels are high.  The island is located south of Hickson Lake and can be seen about 40 yards off the trail.  (The island was the site of a moon shine distillery during Prohibition.  Depressions in the soil still hold the faint remains of brewing stills and a few scattered shards of glass lay in the leaves, the remains of 5 gallon glass containers).  Because of the central location and camping facilities, I decided to make a base camp at Hickson Lake, paddling north one day and south the next.  And, to my delight, Mikki offered to act as a personal guide.  Excited to have someone knowledgeable about the nuances of the land take a personal interest in my voyage of discovery, I couldn’t express my appreciation enough.

Trees, wildlife, and water dominate the flooded bottom land hardwoods in Arkansas.  The intangibles are tranquility, solitude and a sense of profound contentment.  There is an aura of stepping back in time and place.  Overcup, water and Nuttall oaks, sweet gum and hackberry trees dominate the flooded forest .  The red fruit produced by the hackberry tree is half the size of a green pea and is a major food source for raccoons, opossums and birds.  Stands of bald cypress and tupelo trees are the premier tree species along the waterways.  In isolated pockets, giant, old growth cypress, over looked by extensive, early 20th century logging, boggle the mind.  

Eight hundred and fifty year old trees with buttresses 40 feet in circumference cause one to pause and reflect.  The watery environment provides fitting habitat for numerous bird species: barred owls, redheaded and pileated woodpeckers, great blue herons, bald eagles and varieties of song birds and waterfowl.  Mammals include beavers, muskrats, mink, whitetail deer and raccoons.  Over the years the bottom land hardwood forests have become fragmented due to ambitious logging, aggressive agricultural practices and human encroachments.  However, the north and south sections of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge join with the Sheffield Nelson Dagmar National Wild Life Refuge forming a contiguous corridor of timbered wetlands that are indeed a national treasure.

Except for extreme high water, river conditions permit leisurely travel of 1 to 2 miles per hour or less, depending on stops to photograph or gawk at the scenery.  The Bayou Deview Trail is free of rapids, but caution should be observed during periods of high water.  The main channel is marked but not always distinct.  With reasonable care, the blue diamond trail markers, attached at elevations on appropriate trees, delineate the trail.

Bayou DeView with Ed Wolff Canoe Kayak Arkansas Big Woods
Photo by Ed Wolff

The Bayou Deview Water Trail begins in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, crosses through the Dagmar Wildlife Management Area and back into the Cache River NWR. Staying over night is not permitted on Cache River NWR, however, there is free primitive camping at Hickson Lake in the Dagmar WMA. Numerous campsites in the WMA along the gravel road access to Hickson Lake and next to Robe Bayou are also free. All camping is permitted on a first come first served basis.

Depending on water level, the flooded timber offers fishing for catfish by sinking worms or stink bait to the bottom. Crappie can be caught using live minnows or small lead headed jigs.  Panfish can be tempted with worms. Other permitted activities are environmental education and interpretations depending on water levels and time of year.

Safety is always a concern.  Reporting a float plan to a reliable person is an excellent tactic; tell the person where you are going and when you expect to return.  Check weather forecasts and current water levels, and plan a trip so your paddling skills are sufficient for water conditions.

Shafts of sunlight pierced the oak canopy, enveloping my camper while a melodious chorus of birds, many unfamiliar, greeted the morning.  Mikki arrived, a red solo canoe strapped to the roof of her vehicle. Mikki’s dog, Minnie, peered through the front window, eager to begin our trip.  Mikki’s constant companion also serves as an ambassador for shelter dogs.   To my delight, I learned that Debbie Doss, conservation chair person for the Arkansas Canoe Club, and dedicated advocate for wet lands conservation, would lead us for the days exploration.  Her personal, life-long commitment to the conservation of wet land is exemplary.   It suddenly occurred to me that I would be guided by two individuals who were intimately familiar with the flooded waterways.

Bayou DeView with Ed Wolff Canoe Kayak Arkansas Big Woods
Photo by Ed Wolff

An .8-mile water trail exits Lake Hickson, accessing the Bayou Deview Water Trail.  The stately, gray pillars of tupelo and cypress trees, the languid, coffee colored water, the mottled splashes of sunlight dancing diamonds across the water’s surface brought an instant feeling of serenity, like being in a magical cathedral.  Strange bird calls echoed from somewhere deep in the forest.  The buttresses, the expanded bases of the cypress trees that provide stability in the soft soils, are surrounded by cypress knees, club like smooth, woody growths 1 to 4 feet in height that act as flying buttresses and add even more stability to the tree. Each cluster of knees has a distinctive architectural arrangement. The trail twisted and turned through and around random stands of tupelo and cypress trees.  Bull frogs croaked in the distance.  Turtles plopped off logs.  Birds flitted among the sprouting green leaves like shards of colored glass buffeted by the wind.  I was awe struck by the stunning surroundings, yet at peace.   My eyes and ears were alert, processing the surroundings.  Unusually quiet, Lucille sat in the bow sniffing the air, interpreting the new atmosphere.

Using GPS, Debbie took us off the trail to inspect a heron/egret rookery.  (To leave the marked trail any distance, without a guide or GPS, would invite spending nights in the swamp).   Flimsy stick nests, swaying in a stiff breeze, perched precariously on pencil thin branches 300 feet off the water. The birds displayed their nuptial finery in the form of long, lacey tail feathers.  Great squawking and squabbling over territorial rights could be heard at some distance.   At noon we nudged our crafts on to the leafy shore of Whisky Island.  The rich soil nurtures a variety of trees: slippery and winged elm, hickory, white and red oaks, persimmon and the common hackberry.   The island rarely floods completely, offering sanctuary for deer, raccoon, squirrels, and opossums.

Just off shore grew a tremendous old growth cypress at least 10-feet in diameter, a monarch of the forest.  A seedling before Columbus arrived in the new world, I could not help but wonder: how many storms had lashed its trunk, how many animals and birds had walked under its bulk or perched on its massive limbs, countless sunsets and sunrises had come and gone and grizzled moon shiners had worked under the tree’s watch. We ate lunch then toured the island, inspecting relics of the moon shining era.

By late afternoon we reached Bank of Brinkley Access.  We shuttled back to camp at Hickson Lake, arriving just as the leaves of the oaks, backed lighted by the setting sun, were aflame with alpenglow.  It was here that we had the pleasure to meet 88 year old Chuck Volner and his grandson; the pair had set camp, intending to fish Hickson Lake.  The chance meeting was one of those rare moments an old time swamp rat spins his yarns, entertaining a rapt audience.  Egging him on while we sipped whisky and coke out of fruit jars, he related stories about guiding folks through the water ways looking for the fabled Ivory Billed woodpecker, and how in the 1930’s, during  the Depression, he scratched out a living by hunting squirrels and rabbits, spending weeks camped in the swamp, sustaining himself by eating one sweet potato a day. With a look of nostalgia in his eyes, he related the not so good changes he has witnessed in and about the waterways. There is an intangible delight in learning about some of the romance and hard times in rural America. Currently, Chuck operates Chuck’s Guided Tours and Shuttles of Bayou De View, having spent his entire life in and around the swamp.

Bayou DeView with Ed Wolff Canoe Kayak Arkansas Big Woods
Photo by Ed Wolff

Next morning my intent was to explore the section of Bayou De View between Hickson Lake and Benson Creek Access. Debbie and Mikki had other commitments and I was on my own. I looked forward to finding my own way at my own pace, stopping when the mood struck.

This stretch of water had its own charm. The tupelo and cypress trees were less numerous but were more colossal.  Their massive trunks, limbs and height were eye-popping. Many had unusually shaped woody growths protruding from their trunks, while others had huge cavities in their buttresses, while still others were surrounded by miniature forests of oddly shaped cypress knees.  One especially large cypress had a cavity well up its trunk suitable for a hibernating bear.

This section of the trail is known locally as the maze, because the trail flows over a low, flat, ridge, causing the water to flatten and spread in a convoluted, shallow sheet. By using due diligence, I had only minor difficulty locating the trail markers. Occasionally I had to back track to the last recognized marker and regroup.  Debbie and the Arkansas Canoe Club worked in Partnership with Arkansas Game and Fish and USGS to have a flow gage installed at the bridge at the Highway 17 access.  Unless prepared to do a difficult portage, it is not recommended to attempt the waterway with flows under 14 feet.

For my trip, the water depth was adequate, with a slightly perceptible current.  There were areas where the trail passed through less impressive sections of closely packed trees.  Wood ducks, considered by some birders to be the most beautifully plumed bird in North America, were numerous but flighty. Lucille and I stretched our legs on a small patch of dry ground.  At Benson Creek access I reversed course, paddling back to camp. It was time to head home.

A trail map of the Bayou De View Water Trail
A trail map of the Bayou De View Water Trail

There is a committed group of volunteers who partner with several organizations; Nature Conservancy, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Arkansas State Parks and Natural Resources Commission, and the managers of National Wildlife Refuges. The agencies and volunteers are vigorously pursuing the conservation of priceless flooded timber wetlands and developing water trail recreation throughout the state.  Providing an exceptional outdoor experience by maintaining water quality, and conserving the area’s natural resources is their mission.  Much of the work is being done by dedicated volunteers who scout proposed trail routes, plot, maintain and mark trails and monitor trail conditions.  Arkansas flooded timbered bottomlands are becoming a destination for boating enthusiasts who desire a comfortable journey into relatively unchanged, pristine environs, an area of extraordinary charm.