Frog Bayou: A Whitewater Playground
By J.P. BELL
Much as ducks imprint on their mother, people seem to imprint upon the landscape to which they are born. Transplant a Cajun from the bayous of Louisiana to the prairies of Kansas and he probably will feel uneasy, a little open and exposed. A young woman growing up on the beaches of Southern California may always prefer sunshine and sand to the concrete confines of Manhattan when she is a professional in the big city.
I believe this idea of imprinting explains why I feel most at ease drifting down an Ozark Mountain stream in the seat of a canoe, enjoying the beauty of towering limestone bluffs and the thrill of challenging rapids. At a formative time in my childhood, I lived in the Frog Bayou valley north of Alma. My dad taught me to fish with a fly rod for smallmouth bass on this creek.
We often swam in the evenings at the old Silver Bridge on Highway 282. My first-grade buddy and I examined the aquatic life of that creek and pondered the mysteries of the universe. Little did we know that one day as adults, we would enjoy canoeing through the same places we explored as children.
Fort Smith is ideally situated for those who find their recreation in whitewater paddling. Within a 60-minute drive of our city are three Ozark rivers that bring canoeists and kayakers from all over the Midwest: Lee Creek, Mulberry River and Frog Bayou. Of these, I think many Fort Smith-area paddlers would agree the Frog is hard to beat. It doesn't hurt Frog Bayou is only a 30-minute drive to the put-in from our city. I've met paddlers from as far away as Minneapolis and central Kansas on our nearby rivers, especially when the upper Midwest is covered in snow in the winter and the Arkansas temperature is in the 50s and 60s.
Frog Bayou is composed of two main arms with Frog Bayou proper coming in from the northeast near Bidville and Clear Creek flowing down from the mountains west of Mount Gaylor near Schaberg. When you ride the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad excursion train from Van Buren to Winslow, you follow Clear Creek to its headwaters on the south side of the railroad tunnel. When you drive Highway 71 and go east to the new Lake Fort Smith State Park, you are on Frog Bayou. Mount Gaylor and Highway 71 separate the two watersheds. The confluence of Clear Creek and Frog Bayou is just behind the old Arkansas Traveler Antiques store in Mountainburg. If you look on a topographic map, you will see that the U.S. Geological Survey gives the name of Frog Bayou to this creek past Mountainburg all the way down to the Arkansas River near Alma.
When Fort Smith built its water supply lake on the Frog Bayou arm east of Mount Gaylor in the 1950s, the city stated that Lake Fort Smith was on Clear Creek. I suppose people liked the idea that their water came from "Clear Creek" not "Frog Bayou." Some people started calling the whole stream Clear Creek. When the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers built a campground and boat launch at the point where the Frog empties into the Arkansas River, they called the facility Clear Creek Park. It gets confusing. Just look at the topographic map. Our new Lake Fort Smith is, indeed, on Frog Bayou to the east and Clear Creek comes in from the west.
During summer, pools of cool water along Frog Bayou are connected by reduced threads of slow-moving water. Then the fall rains start. The crickets and cicadas fall silent as the weather cools. Soon, a good 3-inch rain in October brings a return to the sport of whitewater paddling so essential to our outdoor life here in western Arkansas. Because canoeing rivers in Arkansas is basically a fall, winter and spring sport, the same cold fronts that mean snow for the Colorado Rockies bring rain to the Ozarks. I am always awed when I go back to the Frog when the waters run again. Those bedrock slabs of sandstone that I scrambled over just a few weeks before are now filled with 3 feet of water and large, standing waves. Our magic carpet ride through the Ozarks has returned.
Whitewater paddling in the Ozarks has matured into a real sport. There are canoe clubs, websites and informal groups of paddlers throughout Arkansas. High-tech clothing, helmets and specially designed boats have made paddling into a sport on par with bicycling, golf or tennis. The Woodsman at Central Mall began selling canoes and kayaks more than 20 years ago. Now, even the chain sporting goods stores sell boats and gear.
The usual run on Frog Bayou starts at the old low-water bridge on Lancaster Road off Highway 282. Passing under the stone trestle of the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad, you encounter the railroad at two more trestles on the 8-mile float to the take-out point at Rudy. If you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the A&M passenger train that runs along the creek on Fridays and Saturdays.
Frog Bayou is not a beginner's stream. With Class I being the easiest and Class V being the hardest, the Frog is considered by most to be a Class II or II-plus. There are definitely some rapids that need to be scouted for intermediate paddlers running the creek for the first time. Life jackets and flotation for open canoes are always recommended for safe paddling. Helmets add an additional measure of protection for your head.
If you are new to canoeing and want to run Frog Bayou, there is no better place to get the skill and knowledge needed for safe paddling than the Arkansas Canoe Club's annual School of Whitewater Paddling on the Mulberry River. The classes are always the first weekend of May at Turner's Bend. Go to the Arkansas Canoe Club's website for information at www.arkansascanoeclub.com.
There are no canoe rentals at Rudy on Frog Bayou, so you will need to bring your own boat. The Frog is best run in canoes and kayaks. Some people have done the creek in rubber rafts at higher levels. For me, a canoe is the classic way to enjoy Frog Bayou.
As a first-grader at Mountainburg school in 1954, little did I know that as an adult, the creek flowing through our valley would one day provide my sporting equivalent of a round of golf.