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Fall on the Arkansas River

Sunset in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Sunset in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Joseph Marchese

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Our Arkansas River trip began the latter part of September 2011 at Three Forks Harbor Marina in Muskogee, Okla. We’d made arrangements to leave our truck and trailer there for the month we expected to be gone. After we topped off the fuel and water tanks of our Nomad 25 houseboat and went 24 miles downriver to Brewer Bend Park, we tied off at a dilapidated but serviceable dock for our two-night stay. The armadillos could be spotted at twilight, coming out of their burrows to root for food. When approached, they’d dart for the nearest cover, emitting high-pitched squeaks.

The next day, the Arkansas Parks Department introduced us to their version of musical docks. We were told we had to move to another dock to maintain space for the campers’ boats, which were all pulled up on shore anyway. We were directed to a dock we’d seen when pulling in and rejected as less than desirable. The approach was littered with sunken logs, and the dock was so flimsy the campers wouldn’t use it. It was too late in the afternoon to leave, so we carefully threaded our way in and tied off. Not 20 minutes later, our host was back, explaining that the Head Ranger checked the rule book and decided we couldn’t stay there either. We were then directed to a third dock in an area closed off due to tornado damage; there we finally stayed.

Ozark at mile 257.8 LDB is a stop that shouldn’t be missed. We tied up at an old cement dock at Aux Arc State Park, directly across the river from the town. In case anybody is wondering, “Ozark” derives from the French pronunciation of “Aux Arc,” which means “at the bend.” Oddly enough, the locals now pronounce aux arc as “ox arc” and Ozark as we all know it today. We had the ideal barbeque meal at River Town BBQ — pork ribs, collard greens, French fries and coleslaw. Transportation was not a problem. The local campers generously offered us rides across the bridge as soon as they realized we were in a boat.

We met Neal and Lorraine when they showed up in an identical boat as our Nomad. They’d purchased theirs years before, when the model was still built by SeaArk. As it turned out, they had a home downriver off Lake Dardanelle. After two days of gabbing and socializing, it was time to shove off. They were going upriver, while we were pointed downriver. Since we would be passing their home, Neal generously offered us the use of their dock for a night. Their next-door neighbors, Dennis and Carol, took us under their wings, and we had a delightful evening, sipping coffee and enjoying the sunset.

The Waterfront Marina at Spaadra Park is an adventurer’s destination. We had to go past the railroad trestle to mile 229, then turn to the shore and shadow the starboard side, backtracking upstream a half-mile. The old geometry theorem that states the shortest distance between two points is a straight line is true enough, but it says nothing about the depth. The channel takes you right across from the railroad trestle. We thought we had it on good authority when a local boater told us there was enough depth to navigate it. The depth finder told a different tale, and we soon found ourselves nestled in a mud berth. We reversed out and headed for mile 229. Crossing under the trestle, we found a channel that dead-ended at the fuel dock, where we availed ourselves of a courtesy car and made a grocery run into town.

We rediscovered Charlie’s Hidden Harbor Marina (mile 177.7 RDB), where we’d stopped 10 years earlier. It’s aptly named because you have to hunt for the entrance. It can’t be seen until your boat is just abeam of it, and you have to swing a 90-degree turn to go through the narrow opening. Charlie is the quintessential, laid-back, Southern good ol’ boy. He doesn’t have a fee schedule. Boaters are told to pay what they please or stay for free. It was like that 10 years ago, and it’s still like that now.

Between our “civilized” stops — otherwise known as marinas — we opted for sandbars or the shore itself. Anchoring can be a bit dicey on the Arkansas. It’s fairly narrow in most spots, but there are numerous coves and inlets you can enter if you have the gunkholer’s spirit, a shallow draft and a good depth finder. Most of the inlets are silted up and full of snags. We found that the best spots were on the inside of curves. There was always a good buildup of clean sand to beach the boat, and we felt secure tied off to the land.

Cadron Settlement Park is at mile 158 LDB. For those who wish to improve their skills at placing fenders about their boat, this stop is for you. It has a 100-foot by 8-foot cement wall. Rusty, broken bolts stick out along its entire expanse, and it’s fully exposed to the channel. By careful jockeying, we inserted the Bobbie Jean between the broken bolts. Don’t look for cleats, as there are none, but there are some bollards. It would be useful to wait for a wake to see if your fenders are adequately placed. Our poor second mate, Newfie the dog, had to climb up the deck ladder to the cabin roof and hop over to the top of the dock to discharge his land duties.

There’s a hiking trail that leads to two reconstructed buildings and a historic cemetery. Founded in 1814, Cadron Settlement was at one time in a rival with Little Rock to be the state capital. Just downriver is Toad Suck Ferry Lock and Dam. History tells us that it got its name from the riverboat men who complained of there being “nothing to do but suck on a bottle and swell up like a toad.”

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