Weekend Expeditions: Small Detour Means Big Fun at Big Piney Creek in Arkansas

A kayaker paddles through a rapid
Mike Bezemek

The first one caught me off guard. I was staring beyond my kayak deck at the milky turquoise waters of Big Piney Creek in the Arkansas Ozarks. Just sort of marveling at the fact it’s here at all — a Class II-III Wild & Scenic River smack in the middle of the country. A region, fun fact, also known as the Interior Highlands. After two and half days driving across the South with my wife (one of which felt like just crossing through Atlanta), I’d hopped from truck to kayak and couldn’t believe my luck.

On a Tuesday in mid-May, the lower four-mile run was basically empty. At the rapid below put-in, I’d passed three local playboaters doing the thing playboaters love second-most, which is hang out on shore talking about playboating. After that, it was just white splashy holes, cold blue-green water flowing from limestone springs, and me. Until a black water snake sprinted like a whip across the pool.

A kayaker paddles through forest
Big Piney Creek near Long Pool Recreation Area

The snake zipped past so fast, I almost felt mildly offended. Like I’d arrived to a river party and everyone immediately left. Then two more water snakes sped across the river, going the other direction, and I was no longer upset about their speed. Please continue your commute, there, impatient snakes. Don’t stop on my account. Just an itinerant paddler with an out-of-town accent paddling a Rasta-colored creekboat with absolutely no food or petty cash on board. Sure, maybe I’m a bit over-equipped for this Class II section — what, with the sprayskirt, helmet, and bent-shaft paddle that resembles a curly-cue mustache from a paddling-themed Mister Potato Head set. But I’m trying to remind myself I know how to kayak on my way out West to kayak.

It had been a long off-season for me, and the longer I go without whitewater paddling, the more I started to wonder if it would ever come back. I’d spent the past six months exploring the blackwater rivers , swamps, tidal channels, and barrier islands near our new coastal home. It was a relaxing and fun half-year, which had me thinking about those times I strap myself into a plastic torpedo to go chaotic water-luging and wondering if I still had the bug. Whenever this happens, I need to just stop thinking about kayaking and actually go kayaking.

As we crossed Mississippi, the state and then the river, the American Whitewater flows page showed Big Piney was running in the green. One of my favorite whitewater streams I knew from 10 years of paddling in the Ozarks was at a perfect level for a little weekend expedition within our week-long drive across the U.S. Since we’d previously lived in St. Louis and came south on rural Ozark highways, I’d never thought much about how Big Piney is only a 30-minute detour north from I-40. This corridor had become my own cross-country commute while completing a book about the John Wesley Powell Route, so the location was perfect.

Big Piney Creek makes a sweeping bend through the Ozarks
Big Piney Creek makes a sweeping bend through the Arkansas Ozarks

After setting up our two-night campsite in the pine trees at the scenic Long Pool Recreation Area, my wife decided to read by the river while I took off for a bomber run down the lower. After the playboaters, I saw only two other kayakers. The topic of our brief conversation being how so few paddlers catch this run during its winter and spring season, with most of the use now belonging to weekend party floaters.

I was still thinking about these off-radar qualities when I put in the next morning for a run down the 10-mile Class II-III stretch from Helton’s Farm to Long Pool. This section has a decent amount of surf spots, plenty of easy pool-drop rapids, and a half-dozen more challenging spots like Mother Rapid, where you can throw in some fun boofs. The scenery is top-notch Ozarks, with shale and limestone bluffs topped by overhanging pine forest. There are some great beaches to stop at, plus some short hikes to hidden waterfalls — if you’re into that sort of thing. Along the way, I encountered four river-crossing snakes, including a cottonmouth, aka water moccasin, who clearly thinks he owns the place. No argument here. Plus, three friendly rafters. Two soaring raptors. And a bewildered young fox, who just stared at me like my brightly colored ensemble was overkill.

A cottonmouth, aka water moccasin, swims accross the river
A cottonmouth, aka water moccasin, swims across the river like he owns the place. But no worries, it’s public land.

My wife and I wrapped up our little weekend expedition within a week-long drive with an evening float down the lower. She took our inflatable and I took the paddleboard. She had a great time. I fell off a few times and don’t really want to talk about it.

We visited briefly with the nice folks at the takeout outfitter, Moore Outdoors. They offer shuttles, guided trips, rental boats, and operate a small river store. One of the spring-time employees was a raft guide who would be heading west—once Big Piney was done in early June, for whitewater season on the forks of the Payette in Idaho.

He was heading up the mountain, as he called it, which I imagined didn’t mean the Rockies but high above Big Piney Creek where he lived. He hopped in his van and sped away. While we packed our truck, he waved and honked as he crossed the bridge by the takeout. Then, I guess he forgot something? Because moments later he re-crossed the bridge going the other direction and waved and honked again.

A hiker reachers for a waterfall
A paddler hikes up to inspect one of Big Piney’s hidden waterfalls. Mike Bezemek

After paddling 20 miles in 24 hours, my arms were a bit tired the third time he crossed the bridge and waved and honked. But who am I to leave fellow boater hanging? So I waved back, anyways.

Full disclosure, I was running low on enthusiasm the fourth time he crossed the bridge, and I did not wave back. At this point, I began to wonder if he just didn’t want to leave Big Piney Creek — who could blame him? It’s pretty great here.

But I will say that the fifth time he crossed the bridge, honking and hollering, we were pretty much ready to hop in that dude’s van and go to Idaho with him for what would surely be a hilarious and circuitous ride.

But no rush. The West will still be running when Big Piney is done for the year.

Mike Bezemek is a contributing editor at Canoe & Kayak and the author of Paddling the Ozarks. More on the region’s best paddling.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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