The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
Entrance: RBD 597.5
Exit: LBD 591
The Old Channel of the White River
Note: I have created a google map at the above below to view and use as reference for better comprehension while reading this section of the river through the Old Channel of the White.
Although its approximately 10 miles long as opposed to 6.5 miles on the main channel, this channel is highly recommended for paddlers continuing downstream. (Note: if you are planning a landing at Terene stay main channel). This wild channel separates 4,000 acre LBD Montgomery Island from 20,000 RBD acre Big Island, as you paddle along you will experience the river as it existed before man’s meddling.
The broad mouth of the Old Channel of the White yawns open right bank descending as you exit Scrubgrass Bend approximately one mile downstream of the Confluence of the White in its modern location, just past a small sandbar RBD. Water pours out of the White, as noted above, and shortly downstream it is seemingly divined back out of the river and retreats back into the Arkansas mainland.
The quick explanation for this situation is found in the big river’s appetite for new landscapes. Looking at map while reading the below geo-history will help your comprehension. Historically the mouth of the White was located ten miles downstream, near the location where this old channel today returns to the main river. The Mississippi used to cut south from near Henrico across Concordia, while the White meandered alongside parallel to the main channel. There was a high ground known as Victoria that reportedly has never gone under water, now located deep in the woods behind Smith Point. Several hundred years ago the river changed channels as it is wont to do and cut right across one of the bends of the White, severing its pulse, and then charged eastward and then southward around present day Victoria Bend to rejoin the Old mouth of the White as its present location opposite and below Terrene Landing RBD at mile 591. The modern day results of this open heart bypass surgery is an isolated piece of the White River that paddlers can enjoy as a thriving back channel that always remains open regardless of river level, from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs.
Below 4HG only a thin sliver of water enters the Old White so be ready for a slow slog through pools of almost deadwater and some shoals and shallows to negotiate. There is a narrow gravel bar adjacent the back channel just below the opening where you can pull over at low water and see the strange things exposed from the depths of the river since the last high water. Around 10HG the flow gets noticeably better, and by 20 its a full-running channel, you can count on at least 3mph. By 35 HG this channel is bank full is most places, which means its running along at forest level even with the top of the river bank. At bank full you can count on 5 mph current. When the river reaches flood stage most of the forest will be covered with muddy waters.
As you are rounding the first big bend of the Old White the current pushes outward with centrifugal force and piles up along a tall embankment left bank descending, along a hairy snag field that might require some quick maneuvering. Trees are falling from the forest into the river, or sliding down the muddy banks as the earth collapses around their root balls. This creates new snags throughout the year. Along the cut bank you might notice some distinct horizontal banding in the mud. Look for lighter yellow/orange layers alternating with darker brown layers in the cross-cut sectioning of the steep muddy bank. The layering you see is evidence of various epochs in the flooding of the big rivers, the lighter yellow layers indicating flood water carried by the yellower waters of the Arkansas, and the darker layers indicating flood waters of the Mississippi.
This is a living breathing dynamic place full of movement and change. I once witnessed a shuddering tree atop the collapsing bank in bend #2. I was with a group of paddlers on a winter expedition. We could see the leaves shaking in the distance. Hmm, that’s funny, we thought, there’s no wind. What’s this all about? We approached and then pulled over to watch as it became apparent that a tree was about to depart the earth and become one with the river. It was a medium sized hackberry. Ever so slowly it leaned over and then finally gave way and hit the water with a smack. Amazingly it was connected to another tree behind by a thick wild grape vine. As the hackberry fell it pulled the second tree over behind it, which later joined the first in the muddy cold waters. If before there was any doubt where these snags came from, we now had visual proof.
As you continue downstream through the Old Channel at medium water levels (or lower) you will pass by several prominent sandbars of yellowish sand, the first at mile 2 LBD below the first big bend, another one a mile so below it also mile 3 LBD, the third and most predictable is located at the top of the next bend below mile 5 RBD, and the fourth at the end of the last bend RBD near mile 7 (see map). There is a a fifth bar that becomes exposed at low waters below 10HG in the West channel around the island at the base of the channel. Of course other bars become exposed as the river drops lower and lower, and some of them become connected. All of these bars were regenerated from the Great Flood of 2011. Interestingly, after this flood the usually best sandbar (number 3 at mile 5) became more muddy and number 3 at mile 7 became much sandier and taller. At higher water levels most of these Bars go under except for number three. This bar, which is situated at the northernmost point in the giant north running bend of the old channel, stands tall above the water up to 37HG, when it is reduced to a sliver of sand with room for the landing of maybe three canoes. At 40HG it will be nowhere to be found. Above 40HG you might as well keep going on and out of the Old Channel of the White if you’re looking for a place to make a landing. Great River Road State Park (10 miles downstream on the Mississippi side of the river) is a good option to aim for.