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Tuesday, July 22, 2014, 8:25 a.m.
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New park introduces visitors to Ol' Man River

By Jack Schnedler

This article was published June 12, 2014 at 2:03 a.m.

Mississippi River State Park’s visitor center just south of Marianna tells the legendary waterway’s role in the shaping of Arkansas.

MISSISSIPPI RIVER STATE PARK -- Almost the entire eastern border of Arkansas runs along the Mississippi River. So it makes sense to finally have a state park focused on this mighty waterway.

Located along Arkansas 44 a few miles south of Marianna, the sleek visitor center of fledgling Mississippi River State Park does a lively job of conveying the river's importance to the history and economy of the Natural State.

The center, opened 13 months ago, is staffed by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism and the U.S. Forest Service. That reflects a partnership in which the 536-acre state park, running along Crowley's Ridge, lies within the boundaries of 24,000-acre St. Francis National Forest. (The other state park sharing federal land is Mount Magazine, amid Ozark National Forest.)

Three miles south of Mississippi River park's visitor center, a well equipped campsite occupies a choice location on a wooded peninsula of Bear Creek Lake. Its amenities include two docks for boat access to the lake, known for its bass and bream fishing. It ranks among the most scenic campgrounds in the state-park system.

The fish and other wildlife found in the park, as well as the national forest, are among topics addressed by the visitor center's informative exhibits. Some offer hands-on features for adults and youngsters.

Definitely targeted at the grade-school set are several nature-inspired riddles with the answers hidden beneath peekaboo panels. An example: "Why don't ducks tell jokes while they are flying?" "They might quack up."

Kids of all ages can manage at least a mild chuckle here, likewise with these riddles: "Why did the leaf go to the doctor?" "It was feeling green." And, "How do trees get on the Internet?" "They log in."

Moving along to less juvenile fare, a replica of a fallen log asks visitors to stop and take a close look. What can be seen, as pointed out on an informational panel, is "signs of life all over it."

Another interactive quiz asks what crops grown in the area can be used in a list of products, which vary from bread to paper currency and beer to fire hoses. The agricultural staples are cotton, rice and soybeans -- which anyone driving the 100 miles east from the Little Rock area at this time of year will have seen in fields along the way.

There's a hortatory pitch to some of the exhibits. As they enter, visitors are urged: "Observe. Study. Explore." On the way out, they are asked, "What is my next step?" The answers: "Enjoy. Participate. Contribute." It seems that being a passive tourist is no longer enough, which may be fitting, given all the 21st-century threats to the natural world.

If you wonder why a state park named for the Mississippi River is located elsewhere than along its banks, the reason goes back to the early 1970s when the idea for such a facility was broached. Planning was thwarted by the propensity of the Mississippi for flooding -- a serious drawback for a recreational site.

Eventually, the notion emerged of putting the park on high ground. Crowley's Ridge, not far west of the Mississippi, seemed an ideal high-and-dry location. This turns out to have been a smart choice, because driving the length of the park on unpaved but comfortably passable roads showcases the sylvan pleasures of St. Francis National Forest. If you're not making the drive this month, mark it down for resplendent foliage when fall arrives.

The visitor center at Mississippi River State Park is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Admission is free. To reach the center from Marianna, follow Arkansas 1B to Arkansas 44 and continue three miles southeast. Bear Creek Lake campsite is another three miles south. For more information, call (870) 295-4040 or visit ArkansasStateParks.com.

In Marianna, a best bet for lunch is Christine's, 381 W. Chestnut St. The food at this plain-Jane diner is fresh and flavorful. The service is cheerfully attentive. Prices are attractively low.

Weekend on 06/12/2014

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