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Cossatot River

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The National Park Service describes it as "probably the most challenging" Arkansas whitewater rafting float in the state. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a little more emphatic, saying it "is the most difficult whitewater stream in the state of Arkansas." Early Indians simply called it Cossatot--their word for "skull crusher." Today the Cossatot River is still crushing things, but mostly the canoes, ice chests and egos of over-confident paddlers.

The stream heads up in rugged Ouachita mountain country just southeast of Mena. It flows in a southerly direction for about 26 miles before its current ceases at Gillham Lake. Along the way the Cossatot travels through the Ouachita National Forest, alongside a wilderness area, through the Cossatot River State Park and over and around upended layers of jagged bedrock. This last characteristic is what gives the stream its class IV/class V rating.

Much of the river's whitewater is not recommended for casual canoeists. Experienced river-runners should always check water levels in advance. Helmets, life-jackets, and proper clothing to guard against hypothermia are essential during the prime floating season.

Not just for floaters, nearly everyone interested in Arkansas's outdoors can find something to do on the Cossatot River. Camping, fishing, hiking are all popular area activities.

SECTION DESCRIBED: From headwaters area to Gillham Lake, a distance of approximately 26 river miles.

Characteristics

The Cossatot's first section is the headwaters run from its source to the Arkansas Highway 246 bridge northwest of Athens. Not much floating activity takes place on this stretch (the water's usually too low), although the three mile trip from the lower Forest Road 31 crossing to the 246 bridge can be an exciting class II/class III journey. What this area offers is an interesting landscape--whether it be seen from a car, by foot, or in a canoe. Forest Road 31 parallels the stream for several miles, providing the pleasure driver with views of a small mountain stream and attractive rural countryside. In these upper reaches, the Cossatot also flows next to and through the Caney Creek Wilderness, a 14,400-acre area perfect for hikers, photographers, bird-watchers, and backpackers.

Immediately upstream from the 246 bridge is Brushy Creek River access, located within the Cossatot River State Park natural area. This access includes a canoe launch, pedestrian river walkway, solar restrooms, a day-use area, nature trail and a huge gravel bar perfect for sunning and picnicking.

Just above the Highway 246 crossing, the Cossatot leaves the Ouachita National Forest. For most of the rest of its journey to Gillham Lake, the stream flows through the Cossatot River State Park natural area, and access to the Cossatot is via Weyerhaeuser roads and bridges.

The Cossatot's second stretch begins at the 246 bridge and ends about three miles downstream at a low-water crossing known as Ed Banks Bridge. Good scenery, rock gardens, and class II/class III rapids are typical of this fast-moving section.

The third stretch of river is the float from Ed Banks Bridge to the low-water bridge just above Cossatot Falls. It's short--about two miles--but steep, dropping around 60 feet in the process. The trip gets down to business very quickly with a solid class III rapid--Zig Zag--during the first few hundred yards. Coming up next, and soon, is a hazard to navigation known as the "Esses." It's a 200-yard-long rapid that resembles a rock-filled flume--narrow, noisy, and nonstop. Several more class III drops take the floater to another low-water bridge (at Weyerhaeuser Road 52600) upstream from the falls.

The Cossatot's final stretch--from the Sandbar low-water bridge to Arkansas 278--is its most difficult. In this five-mile section, the river has ripped through several ridges creating some mighty interesting rapids. The first of these--located a quarter of a mile or so below the low-water bridge put-in--is Cossatot Falls itself. The falls is a series of six rocky cascades over which the river descends 33 feet within one-third mile. This stretch is a very exciting place with strong currents, big waves, six- to eight-foot drops, and tricky channels. All of this adds up to a class IV/class V rating during high water levels.

For those having second thoughts (and this is to be recommended for all but the most experienced paddlers), Cossatot Falls can be portaged to the left (east bank), although the portage has been described "as easy as carrying your boat six flights down a fire escape." Survivors of the float (or portage) can look forward to several more class III rapids in the next two miles, followed by another two miles of quiet water before reaching the Highway 4 bridge. The bridge is 87 feet above the water, and offers a panoramic view of the narrow river valley.

Seasons

Floating is a wet weather phenomenon on the Cossatot, requiring a minimum stream depth of three feet (Note: for daily readings, call the river stream gauge modem at 870-387-3141). The best months for the preferred floating levels are December through April. Due to the intermittent flow levels, shuttle and rental services are not available. Paddlers floating the upper sections of the river should bring their own equipment.

The Cossatot should not be viewed as solely a float stream. Cossatot River camping, sightseeing, fishing, hiking and rock hounding are all top notch around this stream during the right season.

Access Points

The river may be reached via two state highways (278 and 246), Weyerhaeuser roads (particularly #52000 which leads to Ed Banks Bridge and #52600 which goes to the Sandbar low-water bridge above Cossatot Falls), and Forest Service Road 31.

Scenery

The Cossatot River is one of the state's most scenic streams, although this fact is not always appreciated by paddlers who spend most of their time trying to stay afloat. For those who can slow down to enjoy the sights, it's quickly apparent that the Legislature was correct in naming the Cossatot as one of four components in Arkansas's Natural and Scenic Rivers System. The upper section also carries a National Wild and Scenic River designation.

Fishing

Smallmouth and spotted bass are the noteworthy inhabitants of the Cossatot River. Getting to them is the biggest problem facing most fishermen; the stream just doesn't lend itself to a casual fishing/floating trip. The quiet streamside hiker, however, may find good bass fishing around boulders that break the current in deep pools and chutes, especially when using live crayfish or jig-and-pig artificials. Green and longear sunfish are also abundant in the Cossatot, and anglers may occasionally hook channel catfish, largemouth bass, rock bass, bluegill. Grass pickerel or white bass populate the lower regions of the stream.

Services Available

Basic supplies can be obtained in the nearby communities of Athens, Langley, and Wickes, as well as Daisy and Queen Wilhelmina state parks. Cossatot River camping is available in the Ouachita National Forest (Shady Lake and Bard Springs) and at Gillham Lake.

Other Information

Publications about floating the upper sections of the Cossatot are available from: Cossatot River State Park Natural Area, 1980 Highway 278 West, Wickes, Arkansas 71973.

Also, canoeists should be advised that another 15.5 miles of the Cossatot can be floated between Gillham Dam and U.S. Highway 70/71 east of DeQueen. Excellent scenery--complete with bluffs, islands, and rapids (class I/class II)--characterizes the first five miles; the last ten feature slower water and a pastoral landscape. Several bridges and fords provide access along this stretch. A brochure describing this float may be obtained by writing: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Millwood/Tri-Lakes Resident Office, Route 1, Box 37A, Ashdown, Arkansas 71822 (Note: a similar brochure for the upper river is also available).