The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
I guided National Geographic Adventure through here in 2006, an experience which produced their story Where the Big River Gets Lost. This title is misleading, because of course the big river never gets lost – whereas people often get lost on the big river! In fact, with Nat’l Geo I decided to cut behind the Arkansas Bar using the above described southwesterly route, where we got bewildered by the crowded willow thickets with water flowing through, and had to haul ourselves armful of willows at a time, through the conflagration until finally emerging into other hidden pools of muddy water — to get submerged again in more willow thickets. Unfortunately this confounding (and very adventuresome) experience did not get included in the final story (printed in the August 2007 issue).
The Floating Sensation
However you do it be sure to stop paddling at some point and enjoy the sensation of floating along in the meeting of the big rivers. If the wind is contrary you might only be able to enjoy this for one minute. But on a calm day with no tows to navigate around you can float for miles. Floating with the flow of the river will enable you to best appreciate the dimension and scope of this landscape as you silently roll over the curvature of the earth and are buoyed along by the big waters. With a little imagination you can dwell upon all of the places this water has travelled from to reach here and visualize the big bends upstream and downstream that come together at this location like the forks of the world’s largest peace sign.
Circumnavigation of Big Island (52 miles; 5-7 days)
A complete circumnavigation of Big Island could be a challenging week-long expedition in of itself, not recommended as an addition to your Mississippi River journey, but to be done as an entirely separate adventure in of itself. It might take upwards of 3 days of hard paddling to get up the Arkansas, one grueling day for the portage to the White, One day of moderate paddling back down the White back to the Mississippi, and One day of downstream paddling back down the Mississippi. Add two days for exploration, bad weather, bear sightings and unforeseen circumstances. Approximately Fifty-two miles total.
The best place to start would be the Rosedale Harbor, although you could also initiate this adventure from Terrene Landing — or on the Arkansas shore from the Montgomery Point Lock & Dam or the Ozark Hunt Camp. Secure your vehicle, or better yet arrange shuttle from some safe place for parking. Carry extra food and water, good maps (USGS 15 minute topos cover this region with great detail), compass, GPS, cell phone. Cell phone coverage spotty at best. Bring your satellite phone if you have one. Be prepared for one week of hard paddling.
Leg 1: Out of the Harbor and down the Mississippi. 2.5 miles in harbor. One hour. Flatwater paddling two and a half miles to the mouth of the harbor. Look both ways before crossing (possibly busy towboat activity — monitor VHF channel 13). 4.5 miles to the mouth of the Arkansas which might be one hour of paddling. Follow strong downstream current around the Arkansas Bar and then angle in right bank descending for the approach to the mouth of the Arkansas River. Look for tell-tale change of water color. Cut in RBD wherever the face of the water opens unopposed to the north.
Leg 2: Upstream the Arkansas River. 20 miles. 2-3 days. Now the big challenge. You have at least twenty miles of hard paddling to get up the biggest tributary of the Lower Mississippi River. At low water the mileage might be more, but the time required might be less. At high water the mileage might be less (due to the smoothed out river bends) but the time might be doubled or tripled with added challenge of fighting fast moving water. If you’re not an expert paddler, this kind of experience will make you into one!
Best route upstream shallow rivers with frequent shoaling in general is to hug the inside of the bends where the water is slower, jumping out of your vessel for cordelling when favorable. Coming out of the bend find the best place to make your crossing and position yourself for the next bend and the next place to hug the inside of the bend. After several days and 19 miles of upstream paddling start looking for the entrance to Owen’s Lake right bank ascending (ie: left bank descending). If unfamiliar with region use google maps or GPS entrance. Paddle north up to low water road crossing.
Leg 3: Portage through Owen’s Lake to White River. 1.38 miles. One day. 2 portages are necessary using this shortest route to the White River. Portage canoe or kayak over retaining dam (low road). Paddle one mile across Owen’s Lake to its dead end. Scout best route to the White River, which lies to the east. Make your second portage several hundred yards through the woods and over gravel road to the banks of the White River. Watch carefully for bear tracks. In warmer months watch for poison ivy and snakes.
Leg 4: Down the White back to the Mississippi. 6.28 miles. Half day to one day of easy to moderate paddling, including possible delays at lock & dam. After you’ve reloaded your canoe from the Portage set off down the White RIver in its normally placid waters, but infrequently full of runoff from the Ozarks or the Arkansas Delta. Leave the Truster Holden State WIldlife Management Area and paddle through the bottom end of the White River National Wildlife Refuge. Watch for bears, wild turkeys and migrating birds. At low water, passage through Montgomery Point Lock & Dam will be necessary. At medium and above you can slide over the dam unimpeded. Watch for the color change in the water as you rejoin the Mississippi River.