It’s not exactly a secret, but few Arkansans are aware of opportunities for some unusual sights and activities in August. Southeast Arkansas is the general area.
Riding the levees is getting down to more detail.
The main levees along the Mississippi River and along the lower Arkansas take adventurers into areas off the beaten path, yet the exploring can be done in relative comfort – in your vehicle.
For fans of levee drives, August is special because it brings some unusual visiting birds. Wood storks and roseate spoonbills are just two of the species that sometimes can be found. But there are no guarantees to seeing them.
You may see most anything along the levees, and grazing cattle don’t count. A leisurely ride on the levees gives you reasonably good odds of spotting deer, ducks, geese, all sorts of other migrating birds, many seldom-seen native birds and slight chances at glimpsing wild turkeys and coyotes. There’s even a rare chance of seeing a bear.
The river levee system was begun a century and more ago, added to after the disastrous flood of 1927 and bolstered in later years. You won’t find the levee roads on your standard Arkansas highway maps. You’ll need larger scale guides, like county maps.
The big man-made levees are about 25 feet high and hold back the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers. They are topped with public roads in most, but not all, areas, and they offer an unusual, different outing to the outdoors wanderer. Some of the country along the levees is extremely remote, but most of it is within a few miles of small communities, an occasional town and supply sources.
The gravel roads, one lane wide and interspersed often with cattle guards, are county roads. They were mostly built by levee districts, a collection of little-known governmental bodies in Arkansas. Seldom do the levee districts attract news coverage, but the protection of the big levees are much in the lives of people who live in the immediate area of them. The roads provide access up and down and across the levees.
Land on either side is privately owned, and the levees are commonly used for grazing of cattle. That, the gravel and the cattle guards are the factors demanding slow travel, like 35 miles an hour or less.
Along the Mississippi River, levee roads are spotty north of Helena but are continuous to the south, except for the Arkansas River and White River country. A wanderer has to veer off, seek out the highway crossing at Pendleton then continue on. Then the drive can go all the way to the Louisiana border southeast of Eudora and beyond.
Along the Arkansas River, you can drive from near the mouth where it joins the Mississippi upstream to Pine Bluff, with a detour around the Cummins Unit penitentiary.
The basic idea for a levee drive is it’s unique, something different, a route into a segment of Arkansas unfamiliar to most people. That’s in addition to the wildlife viewing opportunities.
For a levee drive, some preparation is essential.
Keep in mind that you will be driving roads where there are no gas stations. No food stores, cafes or fast food outlets. Don’t plan on spending the night, although a motel can be found a few miles from the levee in most cases, a couple of dozen miles away in some instances.
You’ll want tires in good shape. Gravel is harder than pavement on tires. Fill your gas tank before starting on the levee roads and head off to find a station if your gauge reaches a quarter of a tank.
Take food and drink. Yes, you have the option of leaving the levee and seeking out a restaurant or a country store that makes sandwiches. But you’ll still want food and drink in your vehicle. Take a blanket or quilt, just to be ready for an emergency.
Take binoculars, a camera with a telephoto lens and a bird field guide, if that’s one of your interests.
Most importantly, take time, plenty of time. This is a setting for a casual outing in little-known country except for the scattered inhabitants.
(Log Cabin outdoor writer Joe Mosby can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.)