Parks—Places Where “Everlasting Moments” Are Born

March 8, 2010

If you asked me what I ate for dinner yesterday, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t remember. Yet, I can recall in such detail—and with such clarity—encounters I’ve experienced in Arkansas’s state parks over the past 37 years since that winter day in 1973 when I, like so many of my colleagues here at Arkansas State Parks, choose this park system to be my life’s work, too. Those myriad moments—personal, poignant and often profound encounters that I lived through—are always with me. Some occurred in solitude. Others were shared experiences with park visitors, or friends and family. But these encounters when I connected with nature or history, or with another human being whose life was being enhanced by that time in that park, too, are etched in my mind, and in my heart, forever. Like the parks themselves, these memories are something I can always reconnect to. George B. Hartzog , Jr, who served as director of the National Park Service in the 1960s and early 1970s, keenly called these heart-moving minutes in a park that stay with us forever “everlasting moments.”

I’m picturing some of those everlasting park moments right now that occurred in early September in 2002. Back then during the final years of my beloved mother’s life, she lived near my two older sisters in northwest Arkansas. I would often drive from Little Rock to spend a day or two with Mother on weekends. While traveling back to Little Rock late that September afternoon after spending the day with her, I couldn’t shake this sense that I was supposed to take a detour off I-40 and go across Petit Jean Mountain.  As I approached the Russellville Hwy. 7 exit, I gave in to the mountain’s pull, took the detour and headed towards Petit Jean State Park. I’m glad I did.

For over 75 years the overlook behind Mather Lodge at Petit Jean State Park has been a favorite place to watch the sunset.

For over 75 years the overlook behind Mather Lodge at Petit Jean State Park has been a favorite place to watch the sunset.

I hoped to watch the sunset from behind Mather Lodge, the park’s 1930s-era CCC lodge there on the bluff overlooking rugged Cedar Creek Canyon, but I missed being at that vantage point by just minutes. Instead, I watched the sunset through my rearview mirror as I drove along Ark. 154 from Centerville past Holla Bend. The months of August and September are when sunsets viewed from the lodge are often their most dramatic, and it was a spectacular sunset, although not viewed from where I hoped to watch it. I stopped briefly at the lodge, an Arkansas historic treasure where I worked in the mid-70s and which was the setting of so many cherished park memories.  Then, I headed through the park to Stout’s Point on the mountain’s east brow to enjoy the sweeping scenery from that overlook. I walked around the overlook’s elevated walkway and then climbed up a large rock so I could sit and enjoy the view of the Arkansas River and valley below. Twilight darkened to dusk.  As the minutes went by, the night grew darker. Far down below in Morrilton, located there alongside a big curve in the river, the lights of the city were shining brightly. As far as I could see, lights marked where other smaller communities were scattered through the Arkansas landscape.  Those lights were mirrored by stars shining in the clear sky above me.

Eventually, all the other sightseers left, but I was in no hurry to go. That time there in that park was so peaceful, and so perfect.

Then I noticed a man with long dark hair walking along the opposite side of the walkway. He didn’t see me. The man stopped and looked to the east at the view across the Arkansas River. He stood there perfectly still in that position for several minutes. As I watched his dark silhouette against the darkening blue of the night sky, I saw him reach down and pull something out of a long slender bag. He raised the long straight object to his face. Suddenly, I felt panic wondering if he was about to take his own life and I would be the silent witness to his act. Just as I was drawing my breath to call out and make my presence known, he began to softly play his American Indian flute. I sat there spellbound listening as he played the Cherokee courting flute. I’ve attended many a musical performance in my life. None were more memorable than this. I’ve sat in many a concert hall featuring acoustic ceiling panels and walls, but none were more beautiful, or offered any better acoustics that I can remember, than this park setting. He continued to play for, I guessed, well over half an hour. The only sounds accompanying his flute were crickets, cicadas and the wind rustling leaves.

Only two people were experiencing this park experience—a Cherokee playing his love flute in thanks to Mother Earth and Father Sky and an unnoticed Arkansas State Parks staffer who took a detour off a busy highway.

As he played, I quietly, and reverently, took it all in—his music, the view from the mountain, the night sky. I thought about the time I’d watched a sunrise from this same overlook almost three decades earlier with two park colleagues the day before I left Petit Jean to go work at another Arkansas state park. I can still remember every moment, color and detail of that sunrise. I knew I’d remember every detail of this starlit concert, too.

I finally made my presence known as he was heading towards his car, and we spent about an hour talking. The story he shared with me was as moving as the earlier sounds from his flute. He said that an elder Cherokee had dreamed about him and then sought him out to tell him to learn to play the flute. It would be part of his destiny. And so, this young Cherokee would drive from Russellville to Petit Jean Mountain in the evenings and play his flute from points north, south, east, and west there on the mountain in tribute to earth and sky. Ironically, because of the lure of the mountain and my detour that late afternoon, I was destined, too, to be there and witness his flute playing at the park’s overlook on the mountain’s east brow.

Stout's Point on the East brow of Petit Jean Mountain is a wonderful place to enjoy one a scenic views of the Arkansas River.

Stout's Point on the East brow of Petit Jean Mountain is a wonderful place to enjoy scenic views of the Arkansas River.

Arkansas’s state parks are here to protect natural and cultural resources.  They’re here for outdoor recreation and to support tourism, too. And the parks are here to connect us to those natural and historic resources, and to inspire those personal and profound “everlasting moments” that become memories we cherish a lifetime. As George Hartzog said as he reflected on the first time he stood on the south rim of the Grand Canyon and looked at that magnificent view in front of him, “These are everlasting moments that stay with you and influence your life all your life.”

The next time your travels present the opportunity for a detour to an Arkansas state park, I hope you take it so you can experience some everlasting moments, too.



Joan Ellison, Public Information Officer

Joan Ellison, Public Information Officer

Joan Ellison is a 37-year veteran of the State Parks Division of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. She has served as the Division’s public information officer since 1987. Prior to that she held positions as administrative assistant to the state parks director, state field naturalist, park naturalist at Lake Catherine, and in lodge management at two state parks. A creative force in the Arkansas state park system’s advertising and promotion efforts in print, electronic and outdoor media, she has written and produced hundreds of Arkansas State Parks television and radio spots. Her work is featured in state travel brochures, regional and national magazines, and the park system’s 12 Web sites. Ellison holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Park Administration from Arkansas Tech University. She has served in leadership and membership roles in a wide array of parks, recreation, environmental education, and government communications organizations including the Arkansas Information Coordinators Association, Arkansas Recreation and Parks Association, Arkansas Advisory Council on Environmental Education, the Southern Regional Environmental Education Council, Training Resources in Environmental Education, Project Learning Tree, Project Wild, Outdoor Biological Instructional Strategies, Arkansas Native Plant Society, and the Arkansas Herpetological Society.



Petit Jean State Park: A Place Where You Can Go Home Again

February 18, 2010

“Experiencing the changes in life over the years has meant more to me than simple aging.  It has meant watching the landscape and the world become more tame, drab, and developed.  Human life and wildlife are both losing their world.”   – Barbara Kerr

I have spent more than a few hours in January reviewing Ken Burns’ recent documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and have learned a great deal from it, both factually and emotionally.  The documentary has helped me to piece together some scattered thoughts.

A map was drawn up by the National Park Service of Petit Jean.

A map was drawn up by the National Park Service of Petit Jean.

I found it interesting, even before I ever served as a park interpreter at Petit Jean, that this state park has ties, and some similarities, to national parks: We have a lodge named for the first Park Service Director, Stephen Mather, who visited here in the 1920s to help strengthen a new Conference of State Parks. Our country doctor/park founder, T.W. Hardison, originally had the national park idea in mind when he first met with Mather.  They would meet again, and Hardison would come to know Mather as a friend and fellow conservationist.  Petit Jean State Park has a set of archived park plans (on display at the visitor center) drawn up by the National Park Service during the time of the Civilian Conservation Corps – another tie.  The idea of setting this beautiful, rugged area aside to be conserved for future generations parallels the notion that began the national parks.  It follows the same pattern.  As our Executive Director of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, Richard Davies, noted in a talk back in December, “Our state parks are the ‘child’ of national parks.”  It’s a pretty accurate metaphor.

Though I believed I knew the answer, I have asked myself on several occasions recently, “Why do I like parks so much?”  And the more I think about it, the deeper the answers run.  There are volumes.

One reason might be summed up by the title of a Thomas Wolfe novel, You Can’t Go Home Again.  Wolfe’s title refers to change.  In time, change may alter any place – even home, or maybe especially home – to a point that it is no longer the same place.  It’s not home as you knew it anymore.  You can’t go there anymore.  The sentence/title strikes a chord with me because it is so true.  But parks are, by nature, change-resistant.  The idea is to let them remain “home” to the people who visit them generation after generation.  A person who made the hike to Cedar Falls fifty years ago can return today, make the hike, and little has changed.  Somewhere, deep down, that must be a source of inspiration and perhaps a source of great relief as well.

Hiking the trails at Petit Jean State Park is timeless.

Hiking the trails at Petit Jean State Park is timeless.

When I was eight years old, a clever second-grader, I made one of my first organized hikes – a very special one.  It was not in a park, but it was in a place very much like a park – a natural area with an expansive reach and an interesting history.  Four generations of my family had just come back from a service at a small country church.  My grandmother provided music at the church’s piano.  There were my younger sister and myself, our parents, my father’s parents, and my father’s mother’s parents.  From my great-grandparents’ old country house, we all made an afternoon walk up our home stream, the North Fork of Ozan Creek.  This old creek sliced through the Gulf Coastal Plain of southwest Arkansas, revealing colorful rounded stones washed away from conglomerate outcrops and mounds of slate-blue clay the local people called “Indian soap.”  The creek’s water was clear and churned down riffles into long pools that again became lively riffles.  Caddo burial mounds dotted the countryside along the creek, and artifacts from that culture turned up everywhere.

We hiked for several miles that afternoon, on a pretty well-established trail, and for the first time I got to see places that would become an embedded part of my early life.  There was one spring, in particular, that flowed down a clay embankment, leaving multi-hued mineral patterns on a cusp that faced a small pool which emptied into the creek.  My buddies and I would later dub it “Buffalo Spring” because of its brown colors.  The trail builders, whoever they may have been, created bench paths that cut midway along the sides of the bluffs some thirty feet up over the creek.  Hardwood and pine canopied the creek corridor, and down along the creek bed were springs and more springs, feeder streams, canebrakes, and openings into fields.  Our final destination that day was a waterfall, about five feet high and twenty feet across, with a darn good swimming hole washed out beneath it.  And I found my eight-year-old self in love with a place.

Late that afternoon, I settled in warm by the fireplace at my great-grandparents’ house, thinking about it all.  I hoped that we would all do the hike again next week.  But it didn’t happen.  Then I wished that we would do the hike together again later on.  But time passed, and changes came.  My great-grandparents and grandparents grew older, my parents grew busier, and that group of eight would never make the hike to the waterfall again.  For the four generations, it turned out to be a one-time experience.  Later in my childhood, though, I became as intimately familiar with the Ozan and its surroundings as I was with each of those members of my own family.  Three other boy companions lived just down the road.  We kept the Ozan Creek company for years and, looking back, were pretty good caretakers.

We witnessed the dynamics of the stream, knew the scents and sounds and responses to seasons.  Spring rains brought the big, swift, brown water out of the banks.  When the creek settled down, expansive new rock bars appeared, newly washed out swimming holes were discovered, while other pools were filled in with stone and gravel.  One swimming hole, the flood-scoured floor newly-cleared to reveal a large deposit of blue clay, became known to local people as the “Blue Hole” or “Clay Bottom.”  I was baptized in that swimming hole one summer Sunday afternoon.  Afterwards, my buddies threw me off the diving bank and “re-baptized” me.  Summer droughts brought shallow pools laced with algae; riffles turned to dry rock.  Long-ear sunfish made nests in shallows and dutifully defended them.  Small chain pickerel darted beneath grassy banks.  There were cottonmouths all along the creek, a species that I would later learn defines a healthy watershed – but if you want to stay healthy, don’t let them get their fangs into you.

As we grew older, our territory expanded.  A few miles downstream, the Ozan ran into a wetland.  There was a beaver dam the length of a football field, and we learned of old natural caves that had been slowly eroded into the sandstone hills not far from the beaver pond.  Waterfowl flew in by hundreds.  One year, on my best friend’s birthday, we were set free to hike across the bottoms.  His mother picked us up at a pre-determined spot late that afternoon.  It was an unforgettable day.

By the time I was a senior in high school, “progress” was afoot, and there were plans for the North Fork of Ozan Creek.  Change was on its way.  The USDA Soil Conservation Service was in the final stages of building “watershed dams” on many of the streams that flowed into the rich farmland miles downstream – this theoretically to control flooding and to save crops.  I vividly remember hiking upstream one spring day and being wide-eyed to find dozers and earth movers beginning the process of building a huge earthen dam across the Ozan – a quarter-mile of dirt, dust and noise.  Once the dam was completed, the entirety of water in the creek was funneled down a chamber and fed through a pipe about three and one-half feet in diameter.  Only the heated top-water of the new reservoir made it to the other side of the dam.  On a summer day, the water that fed from the dam into the old creek bed was as warm as bathwater to the touch.  And, as several years passed, the living, changing creek that I had known for so long all but vanished.  Only a withered remnant remained, slowly filling with soil and fallen trees.  The Ozan had become a mere, winding overgrown ditch.

A wealthy rancher from the west bought the wetland area.  Before long there were more dozers and chainsaws busy clearing and draining the bottomland.  A new channel was cut for the stream to run through, a straight drainage ditch.  Being paranoid that someone would become injured or trapped in one of the old sandstone caverns, the landowner even had the bull dozers cave in and seal off the entrances.  In time, and to the amazement of some of the local residents, the wetland became a cow pasture.

Later still, when I was in my mid-twenties, I made a scouting walk up the Ozan.  I had a new son and had it in mind to make some of my childhood treks with him once he became old enough.  By then, a new housing development was beginning to spring up in the fields above the bluffs.  There were brand new, large homes being built for the upwardly mobile of the nearest town.  Once I came upon Buffalo Spring, I was dismayed to find, in the pool beneath the cusp, a large wooden cable spool, dumped along with lesser bits and pieces of leftover construction material.  Developers and new residents were using the creek as a garbage dump.  Further on, I found barbed wire strung all the way to the creek banks.  The old walking trail was gone.  The bench paths along the bluffs were eroded away.  As more time went by, the wealthy occupants of the Ozan estates began to use the creek for riding popular, new all-terrain-vehicles, scarring the creek bed and its banks with deep, muddy ruts as well as leaving litter.  It was a whole new change and not necessarily for the better.

Scenarios similar to mine have happened in many places during the past several decades.  I hear it from like-minded people all over the world: “I once knew this lovely place.  It’s changed now.”

Why do I like parks so much?  One reason is I can’t go home again.  Only in distant memory can I walk along the path that my family’s four generations took one Sunday afternoon long ago.  As I grow older, I look on and see, in real terms, what happens if an inspiring, natural place is not protected in some way.  There is certainty that it will be degraded or vanish entirely, especially with new populations, changing values, and a drive, by some, to turn natural resources into more wealth.

One of the most comforting thoughts that I can imagine is that when my granddaughter is grown and tall, and a force to be reckoned with, that there will still be a Boy Scout Trail at Petit Jean State Park.  I hope that she will be out on it with a daypack strapped to her back, testing strong legs against stone, sunrays still heating up the walls of the ancient slot canyons in the Seven Hollows.  And I hope I’m there, trying to keep up.  Parks such as Petit Jean, for us and even for those who exist out in the distant future, give special places and the people who know them a chance to endure.

“The legacy of Arkansas State Parks is to preserve our state’s diverse beauty and history, so that all Arkansans and visitors may find emotional and intellectual connections to their heritage.” - Theme Statement of Arkansas State Parks

“The legacy of Arkansas State Parks is to preserve our state’s diverse beauty and history, so that all Arkansans and visitors may find emotional and intellectual connections to their heritage.”

BT Jones, Park Interpreter

BT Jones, Park Interpreter

BT Jones is a park interpreter at Petit Jean State Park and has worked there since 2005.  He holds a master’s degree in education from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.  BT is a member of the National Association for Interpretation (NAI) and holds a Certified Interpretive Guide credential.  He is also a Leave No Trace (LNT) master educator and works as an advocate for Arkansas wilderness.  BT’s pasttimes are nature and wildlife photography, hiking and backpacking, and helping to preserve Arkansas’s wilderness and natural areas.  He most enjoys hiking with park visitors and presenting programs on Petit Jean’s natural and historical features.

The Mary Woods No. 2 – Life on the River

February 4, 2010
Boats help tell the story of Arkansas Rivers.

Boats help tell the story of Arkansas Rivers.

Yes, it’s true:  The rise and fall of the timeless Black and White Rivers shape life and history at Jacksonport State Park. It’s been a stressful and sad week here, and it’s only Tuesday as I write this. We began this week learning that, by alleged vandals or turn of fate, the beautiful Mary Woods No. 2 had sunk.

This wasn’t her first experience with disaster. Back in 1984, in another frozen winter, old water intake lines froze and cracked. She took on water and slowly, gently listed to starboard finally resting at an angle on the river bottom with 250 tons of White River water in her gut. Considerable damage was done, but she was righted and restored to continue her reign as the only sternwheeler on the White River.

The Tornado

Then in March 1997, an even more disastrous event struck: That day the clouds were black, the wind howled and rain flew sideways as a tornado took a diagonal path through the community of Jacksonport. Crossing the White River, it first slammed into the Mary Woods. She was severely damaged. Her stacks were blown down. Windows were smashed out. The pilot house roof was gone. But, the Mary Woods was afloat. She’d amazingly survived a direct hit.

Can't you just imagine yourself standing n the pilot house guiding the Mary Woods No. 2 up the White River?

Can't you just imagine yourself standing in the pilot house guiding the Mary Woods No. 2 up the White River?

Recognizing the value of the Mary Woods No. 2 and the values she represents, Arkansas State Parks returned her to life again. With emergency funds from the Governor’s office, FEMA funds and more, Arkansas State Parks entered into one of the most detailed, historical architectural investigations ever undertaken. This included document research, construction drawings and oral histories from those who piloted the boat during her glory days of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s when she worked the bends, shallows and bars of the White River. As a result, the original Mary Woods No. 2 and the stories she could tell were brought to life.

New Life

The painstaking restoration that took five years was completed in 2002 and brought the paddleboat as close to her actual operating appearance as possible. No details were overlooked in the exhibits telling the story of this work

Life on a working riverboat is reflected in the interior restoration.

Life on a working riverboat is reflected in the interior restoration.

boat.  Inside, shelves were filled with canned goods representing the era, bread was rising on the sideboard, and the captain’s table set for diner. The voice of captains past could be heard telling their stories of life on the Mary Woods No. 2. It was as if she was ready to back away from the bank and head upstream. Representatives of a nationally-known exhibit firm toured the steamboat and commented on her excellent condition and interpretation.

What Happens Now?

Her next renovation may be an especially challenging one. She sank in deep water and rolled completely starboard, leaving but a rim of her port exposed. Water has filled every niche, swallowed every exhibit, and shaken every rafter. Plans are underway to right her again and discover what damage was done. We’ll see what the next life is for the Mary Woods No. 2.

She Tells the Story of Jacksonport

The rise and fall of the timeless Black and White Rivers continue to shape the life and history at Jacksonport State Park. Rivers made Jacksonport. In the 1800s steamboats provided the fastest and most dependable transportation in this state blessed with many rivers. Steamboat pilot Thomas Todd Tunstall piloted the first steamboat up the White River in 1831, and soon established Jacksonport as his home and a shipping point.

Life, prosperity, failure and growth ebbed and flowed with river travel and trade. Residents had access to all the finery of Boston and Philadelphia, London and Paris by way of the river. Steamboat excursions headed upriver to Ozark places like Batesville and Calico Rock, and steamboats carried passengers downriver to Memphis, St. Louis and New Orleans. Jacksonport was such a lively place that it almost became the capital of the state. Then, when trade turned from graceful steamboats to the iron horse or the railroad, Jacksonport slowly slipped into the past.

The Mary Woods No. 2 in her working days.

The Mary Woods No. 2 in her working days.

Those of you who have walked the decks of the Mary Woods No. 2 know that she is an icon of the White and nearby Black rivers, and of river life across North America. She is the visible connection between Jacksonport’s stately but landlocked 1872 courthouse, and the river that made Jacksonport the county seat and the courthouse possible. She is the tangible connection to our intangible past of danger, expectation, courage, promise, and hope.

The Mary Woods really isn’t an old boat. We often think of steamboats during their heyday in the late the 1800s, but steamboats and sternwheelers were commonplace into the 1960s. The Mary Woods No. 2 was built in 1931 by the Nashville Bridge Company in Nashville, Tennessee.

Designed for river travel, her flat hull draws less than four feet of water, making her able to work shallow water passing sand bars and operate close to riverbanks. She is 136 feet long and weights 157 tons. A powerful sternwheeler, her two, 300 horsepower steam engines allowed her to confidently work the Mississippi, White, Black, Cache and other rivers moving logs from cuts to mills. The Mary Woods No. 2 worked with two barges which could each carry 85,000 board feet of logs.

In 1949, the Mary Woods No. 2 went from oil-burning to diesel engines.

In 1949, the Mary Woods No. 2 went from oil-burning to diesel engines.

Originally a coal-burning steamboat, the Mary Woods No. 2 was converted to a fuel burning steam vessel in 1937. She burned Bunker C fuel, which, was described by Captain Claude Ashmore as “crude oil with everything taken out that could be used for something else.” In 1949 the Mary Woods No. 2 was once again transformed, this time from oil-burning steam power to diesel engines.

In 1967, the Mary Woods No. 2 was donated to the Arkansas state park system and was moored at Jacksonport State Park. Forty-three years have passed since that day when she came around the bend heading to her new home on the White River at Jacksonport.

Today, we wait with anticipation, and a sense of urgency, to see what will happen next.


**UPDATE** Unfortunately, the Mary Woods II is no more. Due to the amount of damage sustained to the wooden superstructure of the boat the Mary Woods II is beyond repair. Any attempt to reconstruct here would be a fabrication of the historic vessel. The ships bell and pilot wheel were saved for future exhibits in a new visitor center for the park that is being planned.


Jay Miller, Chief Interpreter

Jay Miller, Chief Interpreter

–Jay Miller is chief of interpretation for Arkansas State Parks, based in Little Rock but working statewide. He began his career with the department in 1976 and has seen the Mary Woods No. 2 in several stages of disrepair and restoration. It is one of the unique resources entrusted to the care of Arkansas State Parks. Under jay’s direction, the Arkansas State Park interpretation program has received awards for excellence in exhibits, publications, and interpretation.  In 2006 Jay was named NAI’s National Interpretation Manager of the Year, and in 2008 he received the Region 6 Lifetime Achievement award. Jay has been a consultant to parks here and overseas and leads workshops on interpretation training, planning, and exhibit design. He holds a Masters Degree from Utah State University and is a Certified Interpretive Planner and Trainer.

Eagle Eyes

January 25, 2010

Each year, hundreds of bald eagles find their way to the Natural State to winter.  Arkansas State Parks have numerous programs and special events to help you explore the fascinating world of these and other birds of prey.  Bull Shoals-White River State Park hosts such an event:  Eagle Awareness, held annually in January. This special weekend features a variety of activities and presentations from guest speakers.

One of these activities is the Eagle Watch Van Tour.  Bull Shoals Lake and the world-famous White River are havens for these wintering birds and ideal locations to catch a glimpse of these majestic creatures.  Our van tours take you to parts of the shoreline along the lake and river.

Writing of these van tours brings to mind an experience I had on one such outing in recent years:

Eagle Watches are among the most popular programs in Arkansas State Parks during the winter.

Eagle Watches are among the most popular programs in Arkansas State Parks during the winter.

Our Journey Begins

My story took place on a cold January morning. I was riding along in Van #2 with a group of excited would-be eagle spotters.  Three vans were on the hunt, scouting different locations throughout the state park in search of these sometimes elusive birds.  Our group was an eclectic one, ranging in age from early twenties to, well let’s just say “up in their years.”  Small chat filled the van as each rider had one eye looking out of the windows to the cloudy sky above.

After a short drive into the campground we began scanning the bluffs above the crystal-clear waters of the White River, which flows right alongside the campsites. Up ahead, we noticed some activity from Van #1.  The vehicle had stopped and the riders had piled out. They were hastily approaching the river’s bank afoot, pointing to the bluff across the river.  Their binoculars in position and their fingers pointing to the bluff told us they had hit the jackpot!

Our van had barely come to a stop when the first of our group sprang open the doors. Each followed closely behind, binoculars and bird checklists in hand.  I look back, now, and imagine that sprint across the grassy field as a hazy, dream-like jaunt in slow motion.  I see binoculars flopping around the necks of grown men and women as they hold their hats on their heads as they run in an attempt not to lose them. In this almost-Olympic event, such an occurrence would cause one to have to stop and pick it up, only placing them even further behind in the heat.  Had Vangelis’ theme from Chariots of Fire been playing, nothing could have been more fitting.

We arrived riverside next to group #1 with our whole group slouching over, gasping for enough oxygen to ensure our brains could fire a message to our hands to raise our binoculars and place them to our eyes.  Something had caught the eyes of our companions and we were going to get in on the action.  After looking in the direction of the pointing fingers I noticed something white in a tree high above the river.  “It’s a bald eagle!” someone exclaimed. I placed my binoculars against my eyes and after a little focus adjustment I spied the anomaly.  There it was…..a white plastic grocery bag.

Quietness overcame the group and disappointment was on the faces of all standing there.  A plastic grocery bag, deposited outdoors by an obvious non-environmentally-conscious shopper, had been the cause of untold elation and then sadness.  Do you know how long it takes those things to decompose?  But that’s another story.

The easist way to see an eagle in the wild for your self is with the help of a park interpreter.

The easiest way to see an eagle in the wild for your self is with the help of a park interpreter.

A Second Chance

I’m unsure if it was disappointment from not seeing an eagle or embarrassment from mistaking a polyethylene bag for the symbol of our great nation that silenced all in the group.  But in that silence a faint static was heard.  It was coming from the radio held in my hand.  I raised the radio closer to my ear and adjusted the volume.

“This is Van #3…we have a sighting at”…..then static.  Everyone in the group stopped in their tracks and leaned forward, holding their breath and turning their heads so their ears could catch every nuance of the transmission.  “This is #2…please repeat.”

More static then… “This is Van #3.  We have spotted and eagle just below Bull Shoals Dam.”  Silence filled the air as each redeemed bird spotter looked around at the reaction of the others.  Then in a flash of excitement, the previous “run for the roses” was repeated but in the opposite direction.  You would have thought a blue light special had just been announced in the electronics department of a discount store on Black Friday.

In record time the vans were once again filled and ready to go.  As Van #1 quickly pulled away I found myself sitting shotgun in a van full of over-zealous, bird-crazy adults with no driver.  My colleague, the driver, was still on the bank of the river standing in awe of several species of waterfowl paddling in the water.  In an attempt to maintain my composure and a desperate sense of professionalism I yelled out the window across the field.  “Hello…there’s an eagle at the dam….didn’t you get the memo?”  I could sense the tension in the van as the driver scurried toward us, but to everyone’s credit nothing was said.  Finally we were on our way.

The Sighting

After another short drive, we safely arrived at the dam site in time to share what would be an incredible experience with our companions.  There across the river, perched high on the limb of a tree, sat a bald eagle.  As I peered through my binoculars I could see the detail of its beautiful iconic coat, which consists of an amazing 7,000 feathers.  Its yellow eyes stared directly at us, as if to acknowledge our presence there.  Its huge, powerful talons gripped the tree limb, while the winter breeze made its way through the pristine White River valley.  We all have seen photographs or video of a bald eagle at some time in our life.  But standing there observing, with our own eyes, this magnificent animal was an experience which can hardly be put into words.

Everyone stood quietly in adoration as they viewed the spectacle.  I looked around the group; smiles were everywhere.  Some of the couples even held hands as they shared the moment.  Then, without notice, the bald eagle left its roost as its 6-foot wingspan lifted it into the air.  A few gasps and exclamations sounded from the group as we watched the eagle soar above the river.  All eyes, some filled with tears, watched the bird as it flew high out of sight.

We all just stood there for a moment, reflecting on what had just happened.  It was as if the whole world had just stopped and nature, in all its beauty, reached out a touched each of us.  It was a moment that I, and all who were there, will never forget.

* * *
Click here for a current listing of eagle tours and programs at state parks across the state.
Randy Pearson, Park Interpreter

Randy Pearson, Park Interpreter

–Randy Pearson is a park interpreter at Bull Shoals-White River State Park. A native Arkansan, he was born in northeast Arkansas and moved to the Mountain Home area in 1992, where he worked in management and bookkeeping before diving into photography. After six years of owning/operating a digital imaging business, he decided to make a change, which included taking a job as a seasonal employee at Bull Shoals-White River State Park.  He enjoyed it so much that he returned for several seasons and began volunteering to present programs for campers. In 2007, Randy officially became a park interpreter.  “Coming to work every day for Arkansas State Parks is a very rewarding experience,” Randy says. “For the first time, I feel I am working for something instead of for someone.  The wonderful people I have met and the experiences I have had make me look forward to the years to come.”

A Wild and Scenic River

January 21, 2010

Stop! Listen!

Do you hear that sound? Something is pounding. Do you hear the music? What could it be? You are standing approximately 130 miles southwest of Little Rock, Arkansas, in 5,600 acres of one of the most rugged and spectacular river corridors in the central United States. It is made up of steep wooded slopes, outstanding geological features, and cascading clear water. Not only is the water quality high, but the river features Class III, IV, and even Class V rapids (this is dependent on rain events), making it a favorite with skilled canoeists and kayakers.

Cossatot Falls is one of the most picturesque places in the state.

Cossatot Falls is one of the most picturesque places in the state.

Little-disturbed cedar glades and forests cover many of the steeper slopes. Two species of fish that are found only in the southern Ouachita Mountains–the leopard darter and the Ouachita Mountain shiner–live in the river. Bald eagles winter in the area. Waterfall’s sedge and Ouachita Mountain twistflower, found only in a few counties in the Ouachita Mountains, and a number of other sensitive plant species thrive within Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area’s five natural plant communities.

The hillsides surrounding the river offer unique plants and wildlife to explore.

The hillsides surrounding the river offer unique plants and wildlife to explore.

The combination of natural vegetation, rugged topography, exposed rock formations, and sparkling water creates a scenic extravaganza. You can easily access the river in several places throughout the park, meaning you don’t have to be a skilled kayaker or advanced hiker to enjoy this scenery. Those who want that further challenge certainly have it available to them, but really, this park is open to everyone. Click here for more information on the park’s trails, river access points, floater tips, etc.

The Story of Cossatot:
The idea of establishing a Natural Area along the upper Cossatot River first surfaced in 1974, not long after the Arkansas Environmental Preservation Commission (AEPC) was created. In October, 1975, the staff of Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission (ANHC; formerly the AEPC) contacted Weyerhaeuser Company (WEYCO) to discuss acquiring the Cossatot Falls area and other portions of the Cossatot River corridor. A few months later, in January 1976, the ANHC presented a written proposal to Weyerhaeuser. The Company’s response to that proposal, while positive in many ways, was tempered by concerns over the Commission’s limited manpower resources for overseeing such an intensively-used public recreation area.

Discussions continued off and on until 1984, when productive negotiation began in earnest. By that time, the Division of Arkansas State Parks (ASP) had joined in the effort to protect the river corridor, enabling ANHC and ASP to prepare a joint proposal that addressed the WEYCO’s concerns about the State’s ability to manage the property. Once a tentative sale agreement was reached, the ANHC requested that the Arkansas Field Office of The Nature Conservancy assist with the negotiations and acquisition.

The Nature Conservancy agreed to acquire and hold in trust the acreage identified for the proposed Cossatot River State Park Natural Area (CRSPNA) until funding was available for its purchase.

Negotiations culminated on November 19, 1988, with Governor Bill Clinton’s announcement at a joint meeting of the State Parks, Recreation, and Travel Commission and the Natural Heritage Commission that the State of Arkansas, in cooperation with The Nature Conservancy, would acquire an 11-mile segment of the upper Cossatot River. On December 23, 1987, The Nature Conservancy acquired title to the 4,254-acre park-natural area. Final approval of state park designation was granted by the Legislative Council, per Act 512 of 1975, on February 19, 1988. In May of 1987 the Arkansas Natural and Cultural resources Council approved a multi-year grant for the purchase of CRSPNA. The Council also awarded a first-year stewardship grant for the project.

The Nature Conservancy transferred management responsibility for the area to the State in July, 1988. State Parks and the Natural Heritage Commission entered into a cooperative management agreement.

In 1990 Arkla Gas Company acquired the 160 acre Brushy Creek access tract from private individuals and donated it to CRSPNA in compensation for crossing the park with a 36 inch gas pipeline. With the addition of other land acquisitions, the current size of CRSPNA is 5,600 acres.

Cossatot River State Park’s Mission:
Our mission at Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area (CRSPNA) is, “to provide resource stewardship for the 12 mile CRSPNA river corridor and to sustain the natural integrity of the river and its riparian forest; to enhance public awareness and understanding of our natural resources through environmental education and interpretation. This includes natural resources such as endemic, rare, or threatened plants and animals of the Ouachita Mountains; and natural history of the Ouachita Mountains and the Cossatot River.”

The unique and beautiful geology of the river and its watershed lures many photographers.

The unique and beautiful geology of the river and its watershed lures many photographers.

Cossatot River is one of a kind it is unique in the fact that it is a river that offers Class V rapids (which is dependent on rain events), it is one of the cleanest rivers in the State of Arkansas (the pH average level runs around 6.7), and the river runs north to south, while the surrounding Ouachita Mountains line up east to west.  It is also a state and federal Wild and Scenic Rivers “extraordinary resource” stream.

When weather and water conditions allow, we offer kayaking classes and guided tours down this amazing river.  Here is a blog, written by one of our participants, about camping and paddling on the river with his son.

Enjoy a short movie clip of a part of The Wild and Scenic River:

Of course, when the water wants to get a little rowdy, it can. At these times we recommend only the most experienced kayakers venture out on the river:

Shelley Flanary, Park Interpreter

Shelley Flanary, Park Interpreter

–Shelley Flanary is a park interpreter at Cossatot River State Park – Natural Area. She has worked for Arkansas State Parks since 2001, stsarting out as a seasonal interpreter at DeGray Lake Resort, Lake Catherine, and Petit Jean State Parks. Shelley earned her degree in Parks and Recreation Management from Henderson State University in 2005. She is also an NAI Certified Interpretive Guide, recreational kayak instructor, and emergency first responder.