Exploring the White River Refuge with biologist Matt Moran
Where you'll find the largest bottomland hardwood forest in the lower Mississippi River Valley.
By Benjamin Hardy
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- BENJI HARDY
- WALKING ON WATER: A boardwalk trail behind the visitor center in St. Charles allows hikers to traverse a swamp en route to a patch of old growth forest.
Deep in the Delta, just a few miles north of where the White and the Arkansas rivers merge and pour into the Mississippi, you'll find the largest tree in the state. Arkansas's champion bald cypress stands 120 feet high with a circumference of 514 inches, big enough for seven tree huggers to wrap themselves around it. That's not accounting for the retinue of "knees" that crowd the cypress' base, some of them taller than a person.
Mighty though it is, the cypress is just the most prominent citizen in a vast woodland community hugging the lower White as it winds a course between Monroe, Arkansas and Phillips counties. This is the Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge, a sinuous island of bottomland hardwood forest rising from a sea of cotton, soybeans, rice and other row crops. At 160,000 acres, it's the largest such forest to be found anywhere in the lower Mississippi River Valley and one of the last remaining pieces of a world almost entirely lost to agriculture.
Hunters and fishermen know the refuge is one of the great natural jewels of the state, as do birdwatchers. But somehow, it's been neglected by most of the thousands of hikers and casual nature lovers who flock to the Ozarks and the Ouachita Mountains. Dr. Matt Moran, a biology professor at Hendrix College in Conway, has written a field guide that aims to change that.
Moran's "Exploring the Big Woods: A Guide to the Last Great Forest of the Arkansas Delta" (University of Arkansas Press) is an invaluable, first-of-its-kind resource for those seeking to explore the White River refuge and its smaller sister to the north, the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. He carefully documents 27 hiking and canoe trails in this Big Woods region and provides extensive context on its ecology, hydrology and natural history. Gleaned from countless hours of firsthand exploration and research over a decade, the book conveys a scientist's eye for detail and a conservationist's passion for the land in clear, accessible prose. It's available on Amazon or directly from the publisher.
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- BENJI HARDY
- FOREST PRIMEVAL: With a 43-foot circumference, the state champion bald cypress near Ethel is the largest tree in the state and a rare survivor of the timber boom that leveled the Delta’s once-vast forests.
One gray morning in late September, Moran, 49, took me to visit a few spots in the refuge. The 1.2-mile path to the champion cypress tree begins at a trailhead near the tiny unincorporated community of Ethel, about an hour's drive from Stuttgart.
"For natural areas, mountains get all the press," Moran said as we hustled into the forest. "The Buffalo River is beautiful — everyone knows that. This is a place to go for the biology, because there's so much going on down here. There's such abundance of life, such rapid growth. In terms of the number of animals, it's incredible. I think it's been overlooked by a lot of people."
Photography doesn't do this landscape justice; everything tends to blur together in a monochromatic jumble of chlorophyll. In person, the bottomlands just feelfundamentally different than other forests in Arkansas. I had expected a swampy tangle of brambles and brush spreading in all directions, but there's only sparse undergrowth beneath the overarching canopy of mature trees. That's because the White floods the land most years, Moran explained.
"If the water level rises above saplings' height, it'll kill them, because they can't respire," he said. "So, trees only get to reproduce during a series of dry years in a row. They have to grow tall enough to escape the flooding." That means the refuge is more traversable than one might expect. "I've walked cross-country across miles of this, and it's pretty easy."
Another perk of flooding: Ticks and chiggers are "almost nonexistent" in the bottomlands of the refuge because the annual deluge suppresses their populations. "If the mosquitoes aren't out, you're almost free of pest species," Moran said. That's a big "if," though — depending on the day and the month, mosquitos can be a severe hassle, so bring along bug spray.
Be warned also that snakes are common in the refuge, including water moccasins and sometimes timber rattlesnakes. (Wear boots. Even if you never see a snake, you will most definitely encounter mud.) So are cold-blooded creatures of all kinds: innumerable small frogs and toads, legions of turtles, the occasional alligator. Bass, crappie, catfish, gar and other fish crowd the hundreds of small lakes, ponds andrivers that speckle the region.
The flood cycle is one of the things that make the White River refuge an exceptional place. Once upon a time, most major rivers regularly overflowed their banks during heavy rainy seasons — century after century of floods in the Mississippi River Valley yielded the rich soil that makes the Delta such valuable farmland — but that natural pattern has been suppressed by means of locks, dams, levees and various other man-made interventions. Most rivers have been tamed, at least most of the time. This lower section of the White, though, still runs free and undomesticated, going where it wishes. (The closest dam on the White is the one that creates Bull Shoals Lake, in North Arkansas.)
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- BENJI HARDY
- THE AUTHOR: Biologist Matt Moran's "Exploring the Big Woods" is an invaluable guide to the White River refuge.
"Obviously, all rivers flood at some point in time, but to have yearly flooding that's roughly what it was before humans came along? That's pretty unusual," Moran said.
Not every tree likes being regularly drowned, so the bottomlands are home to a distinctive set of species: overcup oak and Nutall oak, sweetgum, water hickory, sweet pecan. In the swamps, water tupelo and bald cypress dominate. I could have been convinced this forest had stood here undisturbed for millennia, but Moran said that's not the case. This land, like almost every other acre in the Arkansas Delta, was harvested for timber within the century.
"None of this is old growth forest. ... Most of it was cut in the '20s. Most of it was clear cut, and some of it was cut two or three times," he said. "What's remarkable is how big these trees are already. Because the soil here is rich, and because it's wet here all the time, they grow extraordinarily fast. Probably all these trees are 50 to 80 years old."
There are a few exceptions. The champion cypress at the end of the trail is one such survivor of pre-European times, though Moran said it couldn't be dated with any certainty because it's hollow inside and the growth rings can't be examined. The tree could be anywhere from 600 to 800 years old.
Bald cypress — which is in the same family as sequoias and redwoods — can live up to 1,500 years, Moran said. (None in Arkansas are quite that ancient, though University of Arkansas researchers have found some individuals in an old-growth stand at Bayou De View, in the Cache River refuge, that are around 1,200 years old.)
The fact the champion tree is hollow may have saved its life. "Cypress was really valuable wood because it doesn't rot," Moran explained. "Before we had chemicals for termite protection and that kind of thing, it was really valued for building material. So, most of the big cypress trees in Arkansas were cut for their timber." Loggers likely didn't spare the champion tree out of pity; they probably just thought it wasn't worth their time, because it's a little malformed. "I think this tree may have been damaged when it was young — it resprouted and the trunks fused together. Maybe that's why it has this weird shape to it and maybe that's why the loggers decided to leave it."
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- BENJI HARDY
- THINGS GREAT AND SMALL: Matt Moran shows off a baby American toad.
The hollow interior of the tree serves another purpose: a maternity ward for mother bears.
Bears, Moran said, have an "interesting problem" in the Big Woods. "In the wintertime, female bears give birth, and they do it in hibernation. ... But there's no obvious place to den. You can't den here in the ground. Why is that? Because it's going to flood, most likely. So, they find a large tree that's hollow, they climb inside of it, and that's where they give birth. And when it floods, they'll be safely up the tree, above the flood zone." (Claw marks on the big cypress indicate it's almost certainly wintertime bear territory: "I'm not going to put my head in there and find out, but I'm sure they use it," Moran said.)
Bears were once so numerous in Arkansas that it was known as the Bear State, but overhunting almost eliminated the animals. "By the middle of the 20th century, there were only about 50 bears in the entire state — right here, in the Big Woods. [This is the] last place they survived," Moran said.
Then, in the '60s, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission made the decision to repopulate the Ozarks and the Ouachitas with black bears brought from Minnesota. "There's roughly three or four or five thousand bears today in the state total, most of them in the mountains. And those are all Minnesota bears. They had to adapt to the climate, but they seem to do all right. Down here [in the Big Woods], these are native Arkansas bears."
Both populations are members of the same species, he explained, but "the ones here are much more closely related to the Louisiana subspecies of black bear. They're smaller and they're adapted to these really swampy habitats." It's unlikely they've interbred with the Minnesota transplants, because the Big Woods is cut off from Arkansas's mountains by miles and miles of farmland.
Today, there are thought to be roughly 500 black bears roaming the Big Woods, Moran said — a fairly large number for a relatively small area. But don't worry about running across one on a casual visit. Though Moran has often seen scat or scratch marks on trees in the refuge, they're so skittish that he's never encountered a bear.
Other animals are more likely to be seen. White-tailed deer are abundant throughout the woods and attract hunters every fall (there are tight quotas on the number of permits distributed). Beavers, squirrels and other rodents are common, as are small carnivores like raccoons, foxes, coyotes, river otters and mink.
And, of course, the bird life of the region is legendary. Millions of migrating waterfowl overwinter each year in farmlands adjacent to the forest, and raptors such as hawks, eagles and owls crowd the woods, along with smaller birds. Woodpeckers fill the refuge in "extraordinary densities," Moran said.
Before heading home, we stopped at the visitor center near St. Charles. Though the day had turned sunny and bright, the parking lot was almost empty — a reminder of the remoteness and relative obscurity of this place. A 1.5-mile trail behind the visitor center led us on an easy loop that includes a boardwalk traversing a swamp and a beautiful overlook of the White River itself, running broad and wild and muddy.
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- BENJI HARDY
- UNTAMED: Most rivers in the U.S. have been partly sculpted and contained by man, but the lower White River still floods its banks most years.
The loop also bisects a small stand of old-growth bottomland forest — a few trees that somehow escaped the loggers a century ago. "It's hard to emphasize how rare this is," Moran said. "I'd say there are maybe 2,000 acres in the entire Delta that were not harvested." About 1,500 acres of that is swamp forest, leaving just 500 acres of bottomland old growth. The largest such patch is found in the wildest southern reaches of the refuge, in a spot called the Sugarberry Natural Area. (It's accessible by canoe or kayak; Moran's field guide tells you how to get there.)
The ancient trees aren't the only casualties. Several species that were once cornerstones of the bottomland ecosystem have long since been exterminated locally, including elk, bison and red wolves. Others, like the Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon, are extinct.
Still, the efforts of the local conservationists and government agencies that created the White River refuge have yielded monumental results. The forest has reclaimed tens of thousands of acres of clear-cut land, a testament to its resilience. Many species once facing annihilation have rebounded as well, from bears to bald eagles.
Work continues to expand the refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to buy another 125,000 acres from private landowners. But whether the refuge grows or whether its successes are one day retrenched depends in large part on whether Arkansans are invested in the survival of this remarkable landscape. To that end: Grab a copy of "Exploring the Big Woods" and go do what the title tells you.
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Other things to do while you're in the area:
The Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge hosts a Christmas Bird Count, an event in which experienced and amateur birders spend a day recording the birds they see and their number. Twelve-thousand ring-necked ducks? You betcha. This is a great way to really explore the bird life on the refuge, which in winter includes all manner of waterfowl, hawks and perching birds. It's set for Dec. 20 this year.
You don't have to wait until Christmas, however. Birders flock to the Cache River and Lower White year-round to see species that conservation efforts on the refuges are helping survive the Anthropocene onslaught. These include the swallow-tailed kite — a large black and white raptor with a distinct forked tail from the coast — that visits in spring and which biologists hope will begin to nest there. Spring also brings migrating warblers in their jewel-toned feathers, like the egg-yellow prothonotary and the increasingly rare cerulean, to raise their young. Owls, woodpeckers, flycatchers, swallows — there are all sorts of birds you've got to leave the house to enjoy in the rivers, swamps and sloughs of East Arkansas. The bird life is so significant that Audubon has declared the Cache and White River refuges as Global Important Bird Areas.
—Leslie Newell Peacock
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