Arkansas’ Big Lake Wilderness delights boaters on gleaming cypress lake

Dalene Ketcher drifts through the Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge in the Big Lake WMA on April 26, 2023. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Bob Robinson)
Dalene Ketcher drifts through the Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge in the Big Lake WMA on April 26, 2023. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Bob Robinson)


"Have you ever been to Big Lake Wilderness?"

When Stewart Noland, an avid outdoorsman and longtime Ozark Society member, posed this question a few weeks ago, my response was no. I had never even heard of it.

It came up in a conversation about Arkansas' 12 National Wilderness Areas. As Noland went through the list, I gave each a knowing nod until he mentioned Big Lake. It's in the extreme northeastern corner of the Natural State, sharing a border with Missouri's Bootheel, and Noland had not ventured there either.

As soon as I returned home, I started researching the area and discovered a very complex history, to say the least.

Long before the creation of the wilderness area or even the lake itself, the Little River flowed unimpeded through these flat lowlands. During the 1811-12 New Madrid earthquake, a 5- to 7-mile section of land bordering the river sank, thus creating the sinkhole that is Big Lake. Early white settlers knew it as "the Great Swamp."

After the Civil War, with the expansion of railroads in the region the Great Swamp became more accessible. As word spread about the abundance of wildlife, it began to attract commercial meat harvesters from across the United States. They killed countless deer and ducks and used large nets to harvest vast quantities of fish, then sold their bounty in cities like St. Louis.

Sport fishermen and hunters were also drawn to the Great Swamp. Some of the Midwest's leading sportsmen formed hunting clubs that began acquiring large tracts for the exclusive use of their growing membership.

This influx of hunters created problems for locals, mostly poor, who were dependent on hunting for subsistence. From the 1870s through 1915, tensions escalated into fights, shootings, clubhouse burnings and legal disputes. This extended conflict became known as "the Big Lake Wars."

As market hunters and sportsmen continued their operations, wildlife declined. Vigilant individuals voiced their concerns in the press. A call for progressive legislation encouraged lawmakers to pass regulations to protect wildlife.

A Tennessee lawyer and charter member of the Big Lake Shooting Club, Joseph H. Acklen, led the fight to protect the area's wildlife. In 1913, he became the first federal game warden for the U.S. Biological Survey, and Congress passed the Migratory Bird Act. It was Acklen who — in 1915 — persuaded President Woodrow Wilson to sign an executive order establishing the 11,047-acre Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

To further preserve this important migratory habitat for the ducks and geese following the Mississippi Flyway, in 1976, Congress designated a section within the refuge as Big Lake Wilderness. This was only the third designated wilderness area in the United States. The wilderness today totals 2,143 acres.

If not for the individuals who lobbied for legislation, this Arkansas oasis would have become drained and plowed farmland, like the fields that adjoin it.

LET THE ADVENTURE BEGIN

Two weeks after my conversation with Noland — with girlfriend in tow and canoe strapped to the top of my truck — I set out to see the Big Lake refuge.

It was late afternoon when Dalene Ketcher and I arrived at the southern shore of Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge. With only a few hours of daylight remaining, our priority was to stake out a camp.

Visitation in the refuge is only allowed during daylight. However, the adjacent 12,000-acre Big Lake Wildlife Management Area allows dispersed camping at Mallard Lake, on the eastern border of the refuge along County Road 305.

The well-maintained dirt road routed us past a mix of permanent houses and what appeared to be seasonal hunting camps. Several structures were constructed with a back deck overhanging the Right Hand Chute Little River drainage ditch, which is used to control water flow for the wetlands. Without saying a word, these well-used structures told a story of the outings family and friends had enjoyed within their walls.

When the road delivered us to the southern end of Mallard Lake, we were awed by the view. We parked the truck to walk out over the water on a small wooden fishing deck anchored to the shore.

A great blue heron leapt from its perch along the shoreline to gracefully glide through the forest of cypress trees that filled the 300-acre lake. Turtles sunning themselves on partly submerged boulders awkwardly plunked into the still water.

Not a bad place to call home for the coming days.

As we drove along the road that circled the scenic lake in search of the perfect campsite, we passed several fishermen casting their lines across the water's calm surface. Mallard Lake holds the state record for the biggest largemouth bass. Maybe one of these lucky fishermen will add their name to the record books.


 Gallery: Big Lake


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Finally, that perfect campsite called out to us. We backed our tiny Casita camper alongside the lake's shore, its waters mere feet from our door.

Dalene captured this magical patch of paradise in a single word, "Yeah."

ALONG THE SHORE

We ended the day with a stroll around Mallard Lake. At the northern bend in the lake, we passed three men on the bank with fishing poles in hand. When we asked how the fishing was, one of the men balanced his pole on a rock and crossed to his left a few feet to lift a fish-filled stringer out of the water.

Of the three fishermen, only Brent Reams had caught any fish. The others were using the same minnow bait, standing not 15 feet away on each side of Reams, and had not caught a single fish.

Like my dad used to tell me, "I'd rather be lucky than good."

Continuing around the lake, we visited with a young family in one of the camping pullouts. While Dad monitored four fishing rods set along the bank, his 20-month-old daughter was practicing for future fishing trips, mimicking Dad with her plastic pole.

LET'S GO EXPLORING

After breakfast the next morning, with mugs of freshly brewed coffee, we began the day with a visit to the refuge headquarters. The facility's doors were locked, so I called the posted number and spoke to Steven Rimer, the refuge manager.

Rimer explained normal operating hours for the center are 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday. However, that day staff members were called away to work on other assignments.

We gathered pamphlets from the kiosk and read about the history of the area. The literature stressed how the focus of the refuge is to preserve this remnant of the upper Mississippi Delta for future generations and to provide high-quality habitat for migratory birds.

Exiting headquarters, we began our exploration with the 3-mile wildlife auto drive along its western boundary. Once again, this was a well-maintained gravel road. The levee road was bordered by a man-made drainage ditch on one side and dense forest on the other.

Shortly into the drive, we stopped to hike the 1.2-mile Oak Island Nature Trail, which routed us deep into the dense forest. Wetland forests are unlike other regions of the state. With up to 99% of the refuge submerged during flood periods, the forest floors cannot support the dense thickets and brush that grow in dryer places. This openness results in greater visibility. We spotted a pair of deer grazing in the distance. I am certain they would not have been visible in other forests.

Farther along the drive, we stopped to visit the State Champion Overcup Oak Tree. With its 219-inch circumference and 111-foot height, this monster of a tree dwarfed Dalene in my pictures.

Our next stop was Timm's Point Observation Area. The lookout is on the bank of the widest section of Big Lake. I'm sure this broad expanse offers great views for vast numbers of southbound waterfowl during winter migrations.

We continued the auto drive along the western and eastern boundaries of the refuge, with frequent stops to investigate wildlife and other sights. Then it was back to camp. Sitting on the bank of Mallard Lake, beverage in hand, we listened to croaking frogs and watched flocks of birds settling down for the night in cypress treetops.

AND THERE IS MORE

Touring the refuge along the auto drive had been a fun day. However, on day two, we were ready to leave the truck parked and explore via boat.

During our Oak Island Nature Trail hike, we had crossed a body of water that called out to us, "Come and explore." We decided to answer the call and returned to launch our canoe in the dark, brackish swamp water.

Mature cypress trees encircled the small pool. Their swollen buttresses and veiny, rippled trunks were like the legs of mammoth mastodons towering over us.

We gently paddled across the open water some 30 feet before encountering what initially appeared to be an impenetrable wall of cypress. Poking the canoe's nose through a small opening, then rocking the boat from side to side, we squeezed through to venture deeper into a wild kingdom.

Dalene turned to give me a childish grin, telling me without saying a word, "It doesn't get any better than this."

Exploring the refuge the day before was enjoyable. We witnessed many beautiful sites and enjoyed ourselves. However, compared to day two, that was like visiting a zoo and peering through a glass window at the animals. To truly experience Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge, you must immerse yourself in the wilderness. This can only be accomplished in a boat.

We had a wonderful adventure boating in the cypress woodlands. With no destination and all day to get there, we leisurely paddled our canoe wherever a passage took us. When it came time to journey back to the truck, we maintained a course that kept the sun on our right shoulders. This way, we would not be paddling in circles into the night.

Bob Robinson of Fort Smith is the author of "Bicycling Guide to the Mississippi River Trail," "Bicycling Guide to Route 66" and "Bicycling Guide to the Lake Michigan Trail."