VIBRANT GREEN duckweed whirled and swirled in the coffee-colored liquid with every paddle stroke. I hunkered deeper into the canoe hull, trying to make the little green plastic boat look like a log, closing the distance between me and a big something creating a lazy disturbance between two cypress trees.
Just moments before, I’d watched the something pull a wood-duck duckling under the surface with barely a ripple. It was a stealthy operation. Mom and siblings never knew what happened. There are few beasts that could perform such a sneaky maneuver, and as I drew closer, one of the usual suspects was confirmed. A large bowfin—a prehistoric fish common to many Arkansas backwaters—eased away from the cypress knees and eyed me with a cold confidence. Dorsal fin undulating, its Jurassic presence seemed even bigger than its physical size.
Being intimidated by a fish is not something that happens every day, but it happened that day. And I felt it best to leave—right then—as I sheepishly averted my gaze and pushed the paddle off a cypress trunk.
I was a hundred yards away before I stopped glancing over my shoulder.
Scenes like the one I witnessed happen regularly in sloughs across The Natural State. And one of the best places to potentially watch a primeval spectacle is along some of Arkansas’ designated water trails. But a toothy-fish encounter wasn’t the inspiration behind the creation of the Arkansas Water Trails Partnership, the organization established in 2016 and responsible for those trails. No, inspiration for founder and current AWTP Director Debbie Doss came in the pursuit of a long-gone bird, or rather, a bird we thought long gone.
The idea first bubbled up to Debbie in 2005 while she was leading a wilderness kayak expedition through Bayou De View in search of the ivory-billed woodpecker (once thought extinct but now federally listed as critically endangered after a Hot Springs kayaker claimed to have spotted the bird in 2004). Conversations with eastern-Arkansas conservationists who were also interested in trails through the flooded woodlands brought the concept even closer to existence. Then a chance meeting with Kirsten Bartlow, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission watchable wildlife coordinator (also working toward establishing water trails in Arkansas, though independent of Debbie) led to the first ever designated water trail in Arkansas: the Wattensaw Bayou Water Trail near Hazen.
That one trail began a collaboration between the AGFC’s water-trails program, The Nature Conservancy of Arkansas, the Arkansas Canoe Club, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, Arkansas State Parks, Buffalo River National Park, Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, White River NWR and Felsenthal NWR.
Voila: The AWTP was born.
There are now 13 water trails designated by the AWTP, with more likely on the way. Heck, you can designate a trail yourself. Sponsored trails must meet some specific criteria: Trails must have certain public access. They must be maintained. They must be contiguous. And they should feature natural or historical habitat, along with rich biodiversity.
Some designated Arkansas water trails—especially those snaking through swamps like the one where I encountered the bowfin—are marked with blue diamond blazes tacked to trees. Some others are virtual trails you can follow on downloaded GPS maps. And some, mostly in the highland creeks, simply follow the channels. Debbie says designated water trails basically operate on the same concepts as hiking trails—just add water and boats—and can be anywhere from 2 to 200 miles long. The Little Maumelle Water Trail even has a floating camping platform similar to a floating boat dock.
The mountain water trails are cool, sure. Arkansas has long been known for its spectacular Ozark and Ouachita waterways with cyan pools, silver rapids and umber shoals. But for a new perspective on Arkansas wildlands, the backwater floats offer views, sounds and smells you just can’t find in the hills.
Nestled in among the cypress and tupelo, you can encounter fish from another epoch or birds once thought lost forever. You can hear bellowing bullfrogs and whooping barred owls, maybe even a rumbling alligator. You can smell the swamp digesting what once was, sifting the nutrients with a calm and quiet elemental force, and you can float on the black-glass surface in the middle of it all.
I plan to visit all of Arkansas’ water trails, but out of the baker’s dozen (so far), I’ve got three marked as bucket-list trips.
Arkansas Post Water Trail
It’s only 5 miles long, but it’s an area crammed with Arkansas history. Native Americans and early European explorers once paddled through. In 1686, Arkansas Post was established as French traders bought furs from Quapaw villages. This is the site of the only Revolutionary War battle in Arkansas, Colbert’s Raid, fought in 1783. And the Civil War battle of Arkansas Post raged here in 1863.
Expect to float along at 1 to 2 mph, with some impediment from aquatic vegetation slowing you down. But that gives you time to view the abundant wildlife, such as bald eagles, waterfowl, muskrats and alligators—all from a distance, of course.
(For float conditions, contact the Arkansas Post National Memorial at 870-548-2207, or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at 870-548-2291. Launching or landing on Arkansas Post National Memorial ground is not permitted, so be sure to plan stops on public land.)
Bayou De View Water Trail
With an anticipated float speed of 1 to 2 mph and with various public access points offering float distances ranging from less than a mile to more than 15 miles, you’ve got a lot of options, depending on how much time you want to spend on the water.
I’m planning on being at Bayou De View all day, and it’s for the critters. Possible watchable wildlife include brilliant yellow prothonotary warblers, beavers, waterfowl, snakes, turtles, and—fingers tightly crossed—an ivory-billed woodpecker. (agfc.com/bayoudeview)
Little Maumelle Water Trail
I’m sure they’re incredible, but the actual water trails are not why I want to visit the Little Maumelle Water Trail.
An all-nighter while floating among the swamp things? That’s why I want to visit the Little Maumelle Water Trail.
Woodhen Haven is a floating platform built for camping on the trail. It can accommodate a recommended limit of six people, but I’m thinking the fewer the better. No fires outside of a charcoal grill are allowed for what should be obvious reasons, and everything—including the solids discarded by our bodies—must be packed out. But it’s a fair price to pay for a star-filled sky accompanied by the sounds of night creatures doing their thing.
(Woodhen Haven is available only through reservations and costs $25 per night. Folks interested in this unique experience may call Debbie at (501) 472-6873 and leave a message. Debbie says she will call you back.)
For a complete list of Arkansas water trails, along with details, visit agfc.com/en/explore-outdoors/wildlife-viewing/water-trails.