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Cane Creek Park Kayaks
Lead to Wildlife on Water

By Jim Taylor, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

STAR CITY -- Slow and powerful wingbeats propel a pileated woodpecker over the wind-rippled waters of Cane Creek Lake to a landing on the barkless, sun-bleached remains of a tree. Punctuated with some 25 rather large holes drilled by this bird and others of its kind, the tree appears to once have been a mature bald cypress, likely drowned by the lake's creation in 1987.

I reach down and retrieve my binoculars from the floor of the rented kayak. With a red crest blazing in the brilliant sunshine of a late-May afternoon, the bird

bears a certain resemblance to Woody Woodpecker of cartoon fame. Some elder Arkansans refer to pileateds as "Lord Gods," and I can see clearly how the striking, crow-sized woodpeckers could inspire that expression.

Interpreter John Ernest of Cane Creek State Park and I paddle our kayaks closer, and the woodpecker plays hide-and-seek by scooting to the opposite side of the tree as we pass. As soon as we have turned our attention elsewhere, however, the bird begins hammering loudly on the tree. "Sounds like a machine gun," Ernest says.

We have been paddling along a lane of open water lined by standing remnants of dead cypress. "This was Cane Creek's channel," Ernest says. "It's probably about 14 feet deep here, some of the deepest water on the lake." The woodpecker's cypress likely once stood in the shallows on or near the creek. Like the other deceased trees around us, it could survive temporary flooding, but couldn't tolerate the lake's permanently deeper water.

"Now we'll go take a look at some live cypress," Ernest says.

The 1,675-acre lake was formed by the construction of a 4.8-mile levee just west of Bayou Bartholomew, damming a bayou tributary -- Cane Creek -- and impounding the creek's waters between the levee and a wooded escarpment to the south and west. The escarpment marks a boundary between two of Arkansas's major geographical regions. At Cane Creek the level Mississippi River Alluvial Plain (commonly called "the Delta") of eastern Arkansas meets the hilly terrain of the West Gulf Coastal Plain, which stretches across south central and southwestern Arkansas.

Since the lake is located in the flat Delta, its depth is limited. According to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, which manages the lake and regularly stocks it with bass, crappie, catfish and bream, the lake's maximum depth is 15 feet and the average is a mere six feet.

Ernest and I head to where the lake remains shallow enough for cypress to live, along the eastern, levee shore. The kayaks we're using are available for rent and are among the state park's newest recreational offerings.

Opened in 1992, the 2,053-acre park lies on the coastal plain, in the rolling woodlands of the lake's southwestern shore. Its visitors center serves as the gateway to 30 campsites, picnic sites, a playground, screened pavilions, hiking trails, a boat ramp, interpretive programs and other recreational assets that have combined with the lake's popular fishing to attract visitors from near and far.

I'd never set foot in a kayak before and wasn't sure what to expect. "These aren't whitewater kayaks, which are narrower and have a rounder profile," Jodi Morris, the park's assistant superintendent, assured me. "People usually don't turn over unless they're so comfortable they forget where they are or get a little overenthusiastic in their horseplay."

Not long after Ernest and I set forth, he points out two massive nests across the lake, both in the tops of trees along the distant bayou and rising far above the levee. One, he says, is used by bald eagles that winter on the lake. The other is home to osprey. "I haven't seen the eagles in about a week or so," Ernest says, "but we had four mature ones and one immature this winter."

En route to the live cypress, the interpreter sees a swimming snake and paddles for a closer look. "It's a diamondback water snake," he says.

Meanwhile, I've spotted in the distance a white egret standing atop a stump rising some 15 feet from the water's surface. Using the binoculars, I can tell by the black bill and legs that it's a snowy egret, even though I can't see the bird's characteristic yellow feet.

We emerge from the timber and cross a boat lane to an extensive field of water lilies. The surface is covered with countless pads and hundreds of exquisite white blooms with yellow centers. I tell Ernest I want to photograph one of the flowers. "You can paddle right up to them," he says as his kayak parts the pads.

As we travel through the lilies, a green-backed heron lands perhaps 30 yards away on a stump barely extending from the water. Morris has told me they frequent the lake from late spring to early fall. As I study the bird through the binoculars, Ernest says, "There are a lot of great blue herons on the lake, too."

Soon we are paddling through the living cypress brake, and Ernest leads the way to a massive beaver lodge that extends some six feet out of the water. "Sometimes you can hear the newborn beavers inside," he says.

Beaver, river otter, nutria, mink, deer and wild turkey are sometimes seen on the guided kayak tours offered by the interpreters, Ernest says. "But I never guarantee wildlife," he adds.

We head to a second, smaller beaver lodge. As I watch a great egret perch on a short stump and scout for prey, Ernest happens across a free-floating log with a living mystery atop it. "What's that?" I ask.

"A mussel," he replies.

I paddle closer. Yep, it's a mussel sitting on a log out in the middle of a lake. "Maybe something brought it there to open it," I suggest.

"It's still closed," Ernest says. He picks up the mussel and, unable to open it and from its weight, concludes that it still lives.

"Now that," I say, "is a puzzle."

As we paddle by the second beaver lodge, the wind finally becomes strong enough to present some resistance to the low-profile kayaks. We've been on the water almost two hours and the park lies on the far side of the lake. Though tired when we reach that shore, I've just enjoyed my best views ever of a pileated woodpecker, a green-backed heron and a beaver lodge, while not once becoming afraid that my kayaking inexperience was going to land me in the water.

"What did you think?" asked Ernest.

"A pretty enlightening way to spend an afternoon," I replied.

Things to Know Before You Go:

Cane Creek State Park rents year-round 10 recreational kayaks: four solos and two tandems of the traditional sit-in variety, and two solo and two tandem sit-on-top craft. They rent for a half-day (any four hours between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.) and for all day (8 a.m. to 5 p.m.). Life preservers and oars are included.

Morris said mornings and late afternoons are the best times for wildlife viewing. Scheduled evening tours are usually conducted on Saturdays from March through October, she said, and participants must sign up in advance at the park's visitors center. Private kayak lessons and guided tours for four or more persons can be scheduled with a few days' (preferably a weeks') notice. The tour/lesson fee is $10 per person and $5 for youths 6 to 12.

Star City is located 28 miles south of Pine Bluff via U.S. 65 and 425. The park is six miles southeast of town on Ark. 293 east from U.S. 425. For more park information, visit



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