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
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
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
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,
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