First posted on 07-14-2011
The aim of Arkansas Water Trails, a program initiated by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission (AGFC), is to highlight Arkansas as prime paddling territory. The project is at the forefront of creating a system of water trails throughout the state.
So what exactly is a water trail? “A lot of times people think it’s a trail along the water,” said Kirsten Bartlow, director of the program and Watchable Wildlife Coordinator for AGFC. “It’s kind of a new concept. Some states call them blue trails, some call them paddle trails. Basically it’s paddling some kind of riverway or bayou. And it’s such a great way to view wildlife. We can be so much quieter in a boat. And really ease up on wildlife. Hiking you might make a lot of noise on the rocks or crunching through the leaves. Also you can paddle in the heat of summer…it opens up a longer season for folks to get outside.”
Trails are added to the program, which was created in 2009, as site assessments are completed and maps developed. Unlike hiking or biking trails that have to be built, water routes are already there and infrastructure such as route signs and trail maps are created via the project.
“I have led groups of paddlers on trips through some of the most amazing waters in the nation right here in Arkansas,” said Debbie Doss, Conservation Chair of the Arkansas Canoe Club. According to Doss, marked trails will make some of these areas accessible to people seeking quiet places to enjoy the forest and view or photograph wildlife without the risk of getting lost. “Large tracts of flooded forest can be a challenge for even the best backwoods tracker,” Doss said.
According to Doss, the Roanoke River Trail in North Carolina is one of the most successful water trail system in the nation. “I spent four days camping along the Roanoke and all I could think was, the Big Woods of Arkansas has no rival,” said Doss. “If we get behind this idea we can build the best water trail system in the nation.”
There are currently two official Arkansas Water Trail routes open: the Wattensaw Bayou near Des Arc and the Arkansas Post Water Trail.
Bartlow said they are close to adding three other trails. Two (which have tentative opening dates of fall of this year) will be on the Dagmar Wildlife Management Area (WMA) near Brinkley at Robe Bayou and Bayou De View. “Dagmar has cypress trees that are more than 850 years old,” said Bartlow. “ And Bayou De View is where the woodpecker was spotted…whether you believe in the Ivory-billed Woodpecker or not it is that classic bottomwood hardwood forest that supports really neat wildlife. Both trails are flat-water paddles in cypress and tupelo and bottomwood hardwoods.”
So how do they choose which trail to add? “We definitely are trying to pick places that are good wildlife viewing opportunities,” said Bartlow. “Places that have fishing and unique habitat. We want to introduce new paddlers to the sport. That’s not to say advanced paddlers aren’t going to enjoy this. For instance at Bayou De View beginning paddlers can just do the part that we sign and advanced paddlers that have good GPS skills can continue on.”
Bartlow added that at this point they aren’t planning on developing any whitewater streams since white water is a seasonal sport and they are trying to focus more on the wildlife viewing aspect. One of the overall goals of the project, she said, is to help smaller communities. “The whole goal of the Watchable Wildlife program, which encompasses these water trails, is getting people out to our rural communities,” she said. “We really hope to see some sustainable economic development happen in conjunction with these projects.”
Another trail in the works is located on 24 miles of Crooked Creek. “I’m excited about Crooked Creek, people love to paddle those Ozark streams,” said Bartlow. “For the most part I just see anglers out there. So I think it’s going to be a new opportunity for paddlers that they might not be aware of.”
Other planned routes include Grassy Lake on Bell Slough WMA in Mayflower, St. Francis Sunken Lands WMA and Cutoff Creek WMA.
“I don’t think that many people realize the treasures we have in eastern and southern Arkansas or why trails are needed,” said Doss. “Because of the well known struggle to save the Buffalo River many people realize the importance of Ozark Mountain streams. However, few know the White River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and its surrounding Wildlife Management Areas is listed by the Ramsar treaty as a wetland of international importance for the preservation of the largest mature intact bottomland hardwood forest in the US. It is completely unique in the world. Stepping into these areas is like stepping back in time to a period before the arrival of Europeans. Until recently it has only been accessed by hunters and fishermen.”
Doss said the best way of getting into these areas to view or photograph wildlife is by paddling a canoe or kayak. “Within the Cache River NWR, Bayou De View, the White River NWR, the Felsenthal NWR, the lower Arkansas River and many other wildlife management areas are hundreds of miles of potential water trails,” she said. “For many of those who have been there it is easy to envision a network of water trails stretching across eastern and southern Arkansas with local events promoting the trails, bringing much needed business to delta communities.
Bartlow added that the project naturally promotes exercise, getting people more involved in conservation and helping the state’s rural economies. “I think it’s a pretty neat program that benefits different aspects of our lives,” said Bartlow. “Paddling is one of fastest growing sports and there are more people getting into canoeing and kayaking. And we want them to get out and enjoy Arkansas.”
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