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Floating the Fourche 

Look beyond the trash to see its beauty.

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Fourche Creek was to me what the Mississippi River was to Huck Finn: a place to escape, enjoy the freedom of the outdoors, and learn about the world.

Like other children who grew up in Little Rock in the 1940s, Fourche Creek with its tributaries was our playground, especially for kids who lived south of Asher Avenue. We swam there in deep pools we called "holes." Those holes had names that stick in my mind: Sibleyhole, Hooverhole and Recoyhole. Occasionally we swam in these pools with other children whose skin was a different color than our own. One "hole" had a bag swing where the daring could swing out and drop into the water — but I was called "skeeredy cat." We hunted, fished, caught crawdads, skipped rocks, gigged frogs, played cowboys and Indians and explored the deep woods along Fourche Creek.

My grandfather and his brothers once had a dairy farm there. Our neighbors — the Boyds, Terrys and Colemans — ran dairies, too. All our cows drank from the same water and sometime they drowned in Fourche Creek because the area was prone to flooding. Fourche Creek was not just our playground; it was tied to our livelihood.

When I became a man, I put away my foolishness on the Fourche and found adventure on other streams. In 1965 a friend and I built a raft from plywood, 2-by-6s, and a dozen 55-gallon drums. We floated that raft from Grand Tower, Ill., to Wycliffe, Ky., an eight-day, 92-mile trip down the Mississippi. I've canoed the Buffalo National River at least 20 times; once I went down it in an inner-tube.

I've kayaked, canoed or used a johnboat for jaunts down the Spring, Cossatot, Ouachita, Saline, White, Little Red, Fourche La Fave and Caddo rivers in Arkansas and the Current River in Missouri. I've ridden a rubber raft in big-time white water on both the Snake River and the Yellowstone. I've air-boated the Everglades, motor-boated the Rio Grande and dinner-cruised the San Antonio River.

However, none of these adventures was as captivating and curious to me as the "back-to-my-roots" float I made through urban Little Rock for five days on Fourche Creek in April and May.

Fourche Creek is a paradox. Its name is taken from the French for "fork" but locals drop the "r" and pronounce the name so that it rhymes with "bush" or occasionally "douche." It is a stream that many longtime residents of Little Rock do not even know exists, though it is the primary watershed for the city. It has great natural beauty and profound trashiness. The not-too-distant whine of interstate traffic is always in the ear of those who float down the Fourche, but the canopy of cypress forest along its banks allows the song of the faintest warbler to be heard over the din. Few humans are seen along the Fourche, though people are all around. Much wildlife is seen on the Fourche — more than you would ever expect to see inside the city limits. Fourche Creek is in the very shadow of the commercial center of Arkansas, but commerce no longer attempts to capitalize on its monetary potential. Much of the property along the banks of the Fourche has been publically owned for years, but only recently has there been civic interest in developing the Fourche beyond locating parks within its floodplain.

LILIES OF THE CREEK: Spider lilies grow along the banks of the Fourche. - JERRY BUTLER
  • Jerry Butler
  • LILIES OF THE CREEK: Spider lilies grow along the banks of the Fourche.

"Fourche Bottoms," as the area surrounding Fourche Creek is sometimes called, is an ancient forest set in an asphalt jungle. Fourche Creek has its source near Lawson Road in Southwest Little Rock and is navigable by canoe for at least 22 miles. It flows generally in an eastward direction and empties into the Arkansas River southeast of the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport. Its serpentine path takes it under bridges at Stagecoach Road, Otter Creek Road, Baseline Road, Interstate 430, University Avenue, Mabelvale Pike, I-30, Missouri Pacific Railway near the State Fairgrounds, Arch Street Pike, Springer Boulevard, I-440 (three times), Lindsey Road, Bankhead Drive, numerous electrical transmission lines and three large gas pipelines. Along its banks is an old growth forest of tupelo, cypress and mixed hardwoods. That forest is as large as 79,000 football fields.

I floated Fourche Creek with my friend Gary Hickerson in a two-man fishing boat made of hard plastic. It was equipped with comfortable chairs and powered by a small electric trolling motor. Hickerson is a retired microbiologist who lives in Searcy and has a keen interest in nature and outdoor adventure. We did not intend to float the entire creek, but after the first day we had enjoyed it so much we were curious to see what was beyond the next bend. We ended up floating for five days in the span of a month.

Others who float the Fourche have done so in canoes, kayaks and johnboats. We decided against those kinds of boats because ours was very comfortable to sit in for long periods of time. Its double-keel reduced the possibility of tipping over, and it provided us a hands-free way to take photographs and look at birds through binoculars. We took paddles to steer the boat and keep it in the current in places where the water was too shallow for the motor. The trolling motor was used primarily in places where the creek was wide and the current was gentle. Our boat also had the advantage of being very light. On numerous occasions we were able to lift it over logs, cypress knee fences that span the entire width of the creek, or portage for short distances.

To float the entire length of the Fourche requires that the traveler float the upper spans of the river shortly after there has been abundant rain and the lower stretches when the water is not at flood stage. Water conditions and weather this spring made it impossible for us to float on consecutive days or in sequential segments of the creek. We floated middle portions the first two days, then we floated two upper sections, and on the last day we floated the lower six miles to near where the Fourche empties into the Arkansas River. We did not see another person on the creek for the entire trip except at our "take out" spots.

Day floats

Five manageable daylong floats can be made on these sections of the creek:

Launch from the north side of the bridge on Stagecoach Road west of Otter Creek Park and take out near I-430. The upper portion of this 4-mile section has the clearest water you will see on the creek, and there is little of the trash you will find in abundance later on. This section also has washed gravel shoals that are easy to stop on for a rest or snack without getting muddy. After passing under Baseline Road, however, the number of logs blocking your passage increases. Water level determines the number of logs a boat has to be pulled over or can be floated under. We had to get out of the boat for short portages 11 times on this section and the trip took seven-and-a-half hours.

Launch near I-430 one mile south of the Stagecoach Road exit and take out above the low-water bridge in Hindman Park. This portion of the creek is the most isolated and maybe the most scenic, but steep banks make this launch a bit dicey. The clear water seen earlier becomes cloudy on this stretch. It passes under no roads. The elevation of the land drops a good deal on this section and there are a few mild whitewater rapids. We had to get out of the boat to portage over logs or cypress knee fences only seven times on this 4-mile, six-hour float.

Launch below the low-water bridge at Hindman Park and take out at Benny Craig Park. This section of the creek receives the waters from other tributaries, including Rock Creek and Coleman Creek, which turn the color of the water to coffee with cream. The stream widens and navigation is easier, but there is still enough current to allow you to drift without paddling so as to enjoy abundant wildlife. These tributaries receive an inordinate amount of trash that washes into the Fourche through the stormwater system of Little Rock from as far north as Cantrell Road.

TRASHED: Floating booms upstream of Benny Craig Park collect floating debris. - JERRY BUTLER
  • Jerry Butler
  • TRASHED: Floating booms upstream of Benny Craig Park collect floating debris.

Flotsam is debris that floats on top of the water after a shipwreck, or it is just trash on the water. In this case the shipwreck has been the careless littering in neighborhoods all over the city of Little Rock. Fourche Creek has thousands of Styrofoam cups, soda cans, children's toys and whiskey bottles that have been swept through the storm drains of Little Rock into its stream. Car tires, washing machines, old roofing and even a piano were dumped directly into the creek. Much of that trash collects on the banks during periods of flooding and lodges itself among the bushes, reeds and trees. On a recent boat trip down a 3-mile stretch of the creek, a pair of boaters retrieved 22 balls that had washed down the creek, mostly basketballs, but footballs and soccer balls, also. In less than 20 minutes they filled their boat with six trash bags of the flotsam to dispose in a dumpster. If the floating booms at Benny Craig are not maintained, the debris overwhelms them.

If you squint your eyes to obscure the bottles, washing machines and beer cans, you can see in your mind's eye how beautiful this area would be if a thousand volunteers would descend on the creek and pick things up for a day or two. It could stay that way, if half a million people would quit abusing storm drains and stop dumping in Fourche Bottoms. We only had to portage twice in this 5-mile, six-hour float, once over a log and another time over a gas pipe.

Launch at Benny Craig Park and float to Interstate Park. If you can only float one section of Fourche Creek, this is the one to choose. It probably has enough water even in midsummer to accommodate a canoe, and concrete boat ramps are at both ends. The surroundings are gorgeous on this section and much of the floating debris from upstream of Benny Craig Park is captured by a floating boom. A group called Friends of Fourche Creek has focused much of its cleanup efforts on this section, and the group's good work is apparent. After floating this section you will want to sample the others. There is a pipeline and a brushy logjam that will require two short portages. We traveled these 4.4 miles in seven hours.

Launch at Interstate Park and float to Remmel Park. This section of the creek has some of the largest and oldest cypress trees in Fourche Bottoms, and on this stretch the creek runs through three or four lakes so that the creek channel is obscured. In other portions the creek runs directly under I-440 so that the massive concrete piers that support the road and its ramps are planted in the creek bed. The creek has been channelized for about a half mile as it flows along the south side of the airport. A thousand or more cliff swallows have built their nests under the Lindsey Road Bridge. Near the end of this 6-mile, eight-hour float section of Fourche Creek you will pass banks that are mowed on the right with cattails growing on the left before coming to a wide boat ramp where you can take out. The creek continues for about a mile before it enters the Arkansas River just upstream from the Little Rock Port Authority Slackwater Harbor. The river was at flood stage when we arrived at Remmel Park and we deemed it unsafe to travel any farther in our small boat.

The creek less traveled

Floating Fourche Creek is not as commercialized, popular or easy as floating the Buffalo, Caddo, or Mulberry rivers in Arkansas because it has no canoe rental service. It has a primitive appeal to the adventurous that those other waterways lack. The canoeing skills required are not as great. The financial cost is minimal; the drive to get there for those who live in Central Arkansans is short. It is not for everyone, but it is the creek less traveled.

Fishing the Fourche can be productive. Catfish, bream, crappie and bass are taken from its waters. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission regularly stocks fish into Rock Creek, which flows into Fourche Creek just south of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Fishermen who prefer to drop a hook in places where other anglers seldom go would do well to try Fourche Creek.

The dominant species of tree along Fourche Creek is the bald cypress. The trees have large, gnarled, wide-based trunks and root structures called knees that grow above the surface of shallow water all around their bases. The needle-like leaves of the cypresses form a high canopy over Fourche Creek that shades the entire stream from bank to bank in most places. Willow, gum, wild pecan and honey locust trees are also found in Fourche Bottoms.

In addition to the trees, small dense cane brakes of native bamboo — which have been destroyed along many Arkansas waterways — regularly grow, a testament to Fourche's natural botanical history. A number of species of water-loving wildflowers, like spider lilies and wild roses, grow on its banks.

The variety of wildlife seen along Fourche comes as no surprise to those who have witnessed the wilderness-like nature of the surroundings. Deer, squirrel and rabbits are there in abundance as they are in many city parks, but also seen are mink, river otters, beaver and raccoon. Many frogs and turtles and a few snakes are seen along the banks. We saw an endangered alligator snapping turtle laying her eggs in a mound of loose earth on Fourche Creek near Stagecoach Road.

FEEDING IN THE MUD: A spotted sandpiper, a migratory shorebird. - JERRY BUTLER
  • Jerry Butler
  • FEEDING IN THE MUD: A spotted sandpiper, a migratory shorebird.

Serious birdwatchers post what they see on "e-Bird," a database for bird sightings. Birders call Fourche Bottoms a "birding hotspot" and have recorded seeing 114 species of birds in the area. Audubon Arkansas has a birding trail near its office just south of Fourche Creek and west of Springer Boulevard and some of Arkansas's savviest birdwatchers go there.

The Friends of Fourche Creek (find it on Facebook at facebook.com/fourchecreek), is a consortium of organizations and individuals formed to call attention to the treasure of the Fourche. The group organizes volunteers in cleanup efforts, searches for grants to preserve the creek's natural beauty and heritage, explores ways to make it more appreciated by the public, and publicizes the potential it has for becoming a source of pride for the people of Little Rock. Among the groups involved in Friends of Fourche Creek are Arkansas Audubon, Keep Little Rock Beautiful and the Arkansas Canoe Club.

The past is the best indicator of the future. Eighty years ago another group of individuals and organizations began a movement to save the Buffalo River from a proposed dam that would block one of the nation's last free-flowing streams. That movement has long since borne fruit and given the Natural State a crown jewel for outdoor tourism by preserving the Buffalo River. Neil Compton, who led the fight to save the Buffalo, wrote, "For those who feel in their hearts a compassion, whether inborn or acquired, for the beauty of our land, there remain a multitude of places, some hidden, and some well-known, in need of the attention of anyone willing to strive to preserve them."

There is no plan to dam the Fourche, but with continuing neglect, Fourche Creek could deteriorate into a trash-clogged muddy ditch that offers no sanctuary for fish, animals or birds and no opportunity for people to relish the wonder of the outdoors. It could be promoted as a destination for ecotourism. If a canoe rental service business could be set up on its banks, it would become more easily accessible and a source of employment and revenue. Those who floated it would learn to appreciate its beauty and, as the pattern goes, people protect what they appreciate. It could become what it was when I was a boy: a place to escape, enjoy the freedom of the outdoors, and learn about nature.

Jerry Butler is a freelance writer on topics related to Arkansas birds. Share your comments and stories with him at jerrysharon.butler@gmail.com

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