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Fall on the Arkansas River

Sunset in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Sunset in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Joseph Marchese

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.”


The next night, we chose a sandy shore for an early stop, about 10 miles from Little Rock. We’d planned on revisiting a free city dock that was there 10 years ago. It was right downtown and close to everything. But in case it was no longer there, we wanted to arrive with more daylight in front of us than behind us. The sand was a great place to tie off, and Newfie liked it so much he escaped and returned covered in burrs and thistles. It took three days of picking and brushing before his coat was clean again.

The next day, Little Rock hove into view with the sight of three railroad bridges and three highway bridges. All six bridges are within sight of each other in the distance of less than a mile. And, best of all, our dock of old was still there! We tied off and immediately started acting like tourists. The old State House Museum was on the river’s edge, and we lost no time in touring it. The newer, modern capital building is an easy walk. It’s built on a small hilltop to put it out of reach of floodwaters.

If you wish to minimize the amount of walking, trolleys operate all day and will take you all over the downtown area and across the bridge to North Little Rock. The fee is only $.50 a trip for seniors. Bobbie, the first mate, hopped on one to go over to North Little Rock and back to get groceries. It couldn’t have been more convenient — a fun sight-seeing ride with the driver commenting about the sights.

The area we were in was the middle of a riverwalk park, with a sculpture garden and a farmers’ market adjacent to the historic district. The railroad bridges had been converted to pedestrian use by locking the lift spans in the “up” position and laying walkways and installing elevators. We walked over to North Little Rock to see the U.S.S. Razorback submarine, the last remaining fully operational World War II sub. When the war ended, it was sold to the Turkish Navy, which kept it in active service until about six years ago. A veteran’s association saved it from the scrap yard and found its current home.

No narrative of Little Rock would be complete without recounting the story of the Peabody marching ducks. It began in the 1930s, when the general manager of the Peabody Hotel at Memphis and a friend returned from a hunting trip in Arkansas. They decided it would be a hoot to plant some of their live decoys in the indoor hotel fountain. From there, it evolved into a ritual march from the fountain, along a carpeted walkway and to the elevator, where they ducks are whisked away to their night quarters, all the while accompanied by marching music. In the morning, it’s repeated in reverse. All the Peabody Hotels have their own ducks. We were tied up under the shadow of the building, so it was a “must” to see this charming display.

A reality check might be in order here: As entertaining as the riverwalk is, and as convenient as our tie-up was to the heart of Little Rock, there’s the fact that this is a gathering place for the homeless. While we were never bothered, other boaters may feel more comfortable in a marina. We’ve made it a practice to never let this deter us. (We’ve tied up to public docks where the locals have warned: “You’ll need a dog and a gun to stay there.”) But each person must decide his or her own.

After three great days, we cast off our lines and headed downriver. Island Harbor Marina (mile 71 RDB) is the last marina on the Arkansas before the river meets the Mississippi. Check your fuel tanks. The next marina heading downriver is not until Greenville, and as of this writing, it was still recovering from last year’s flood. Water and electricity are available dockside. It operates on a cash-only basis.

After doing laundry and restocking the larder, we headed down the last miles of the Arkansas. At about mile 47, we found a sandy area where Newfie had a close encounter with the local wildlife. The reed banks were alive with little toads. Newfie, responding to his canine instincts, pounced and grabbed one in his mouth. He immediately spit it out and proceeded to approximate a weird dance trying to clear his mouth. This was a species of toad that secretes a vile chemical on its back as protection against predators. The toad hopped away unharmed, and in a few minutes, Newfie was back to his old self — but he no longer had an interest in toads. With a tip of the hat to Toad Suck, we christened the place Toad Spit Landing.

The grand finale was loading the boat in Greenville. A slight wind prevented Joe from being able to line up the boat onto the trailer. After an hour of doing doughnuts and many attempts, Bobbie, tired of waiting, waded into the water to the end of the trailer, grabbed a dock line, and was able to help guide the boat onto the trailer — all within a matter of minutes!

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