Arkansas' Mulberry River: Where Swift, Calming Water Flows

Jay Harrod
Arkansas Tourism

A newspaper was strewn across my desk as I glanced at a map of Arkansas. As was true for the last two weeks or so, the front-page headline and accompanying photograph reminded me of the ongoing war in Iraq. I looked back at the map, and my eyes wandered to a remote region of the Ozark Mountains.

The Mulberry, a national wild and scenic river, runs mostly east to west through the middle of the Ozark National Forest. Its headwaters aren't too far from Salus, and it flows near Catalpa, Oark and Cass before taking a turn south and joining the Arkansas River near the town of Mulberry. The closest community of considerable size, Clarksville (pop. 7,719), is about 15 miles from the nearest crossing on the river. But I'm hoping the Mulberry will prove to be a world away.

The next morning reveals promising signs for a warm and sunny day as I depart for the Ozarks. I am to meet Brad Wimberly at Turner Bend Canoe Rental, which he has owned since 1981 and which is situated near the banks of the Mulberry. Brad's business is located on Ark. 23 -- designated by the U.S. Forest Service as the Pig Trail National Scenic Byway. On this day, a young couple is enjoying coffee on a bench on the porch of the wooden structure. Inside the old country store are shelves filled with floating gear and clothing and groceries and other items often purchased by campers.

Pictures on the walls of paddlers negotiating the Mulberry's rapids capture my attention. When the woman behind the counter finishes a sale, she greets me and I introduce myself. She tells me the river is at two and a half feet at Turner Bend, which equates to manageable rapids and a good float for those with intermediate skills. I'm relieved -- I'm certainly no expert. She also tells me that a friend I'm to meet, Michael, has already pitched his tent across the road at the campground.

Michael is, for the most part, ready to go when I meet him. And, I'm told, Brad is, too. So I look over my gear, deciding what to wear. The big question is, do I need my "shorty" wetsuit? Photos of the Mulberry's whitewater flash through my mind. I guess so. We pack our lunches and walk across the street to meet Brad. He emerges from his house -- it's on the property -- and after a brief introduction, we pick up our life vests and paddles and climb aboard the van bound for Byrd's Adventure Center. We're planning to float from Byrd's back to Turner Bend, covering eight miles on the stream.

Also joining us is Al Helwig, a retired Army ranger who now serves part time as a river-rescuer for the U.S. Forest Service. On the way to Byrd's, I ask Al about memorable rescues.

"Well, a couple of weeks ago, two kids missed the take-out at Turner Bend," he says. "They paddled all night and until three 'o' clock the next afternoon before they saw some folks at a cabin and stopped to use their phone. They almost made it to the Arkansas River."

Thoughts of scared, cold and desperate children run through my mind. "How old were they?" I ask.

"About your age," he answers. Michael and Brad laugh.

Byrd's Adventure Center, which also offers shuttle services and rental rafts and canoes, is one of six popular access points above Turner Bend. There are two additional points often used for take-out below Turner Bend.

In all, about 40 miles of the Mulberry are considered ideal for floating. Paddlers consider the river a seasonal stream, meaning that it offers good floating during winter, spring and early summer or after periods of heavy rainfall. But even in the midst of summer, Brad tells me that the greenish-blue stream cradled by the Ozark Mountains remains a hotbed for those seeking the perfect swimming hole or wary smallmouth bass.

On this day, though, the stream is flowing swiftly, and its cold water stings my feet and legs. As I look downstream at the current rushing around rocks, I'm glad I wore the wetsuit.

We get into the canoes and push off. Brad is manning the rear of our tandem canoe, and Michael has chosen a smaller, more maneuverable solo canoe. Al is paddling a Forest Service-provided canoe outfitted with rescue items and a saw and other equipment necessary to remove debris -- usually fallen trees -- from the river.

Like many Ozark Mountain streams, the section of the Mulberry we're floating has long, deep pools separated by whitewater. While paddling through the quiet pools, I learn that after his father died, Brad operated his family's business in Monroe, Louisiana, for a few years before selling it and moving to Arkansas to attend the University of Arkansas. Before the move, he'd often visited the area and had floated the Mulberry many times. So when he saw a "for sale" sign on the business, he took all the money he had and bought the canoe rental and grocery store from the Turners, whose family had owned the property since the 1890s and had operated the store since 1911.

We pass through the first set of mild rapids relatively unscathed. But, while navigating the second stretch of whitewater, we bounce off several rocks, and Brad compares our passage to that of a pinball. I say I didn't warn him of the obstacles, and he says he's not used to having such a large partner in the bow. I learn my lesson, though, and yell -- far in advance -- "rock dead ahead" several times while sharing the tandem canoe with Brad.

Most of the scenery we encounter is that of pristine forests speckled with budding dogwoods and redbuds. Sections of the stream pass through privately owned land, and, because of this, Brad does not allow his canoes to remain on the river overnight. But, in addition to Byrd's and Turner Bend, there are two other campgrounds on the river, Wolf Pen and Redding, both operated by the U.S. Forest Service.

After floating a few miles, we stop and sit in the sun and eat our lunch near a creek that cascades into the Mulberry, and we discuss the river and rapids that lie ahead.

Although I've floated many times, I've never taken the time to learn even intermediate-level paddling techniques. As I try out Michael's solo canoe, Al provides me a few pointers. And not too long afterwards, I'm actually "surfing" -- for the first time. When a swift current flows over ledge and into a deeper pool, it often creates a "wave" in which paddlers can situate their crafts and remain -- with skill and some practice -- stationary in the fast-flowing water. Or, in other words, "surf." Granted, I was never able to remain stationary, but I managed to zigzag back and forth across the wave without being swept downstream, or, more importantly, without capsizing. Which, by the way, was a challenge that finally proved to be too much for Michael, who turned his canoe over when he encountered the "wave."

All of us do, though, pass without incident through "Sacroiliac," a rapid named for the bony juncture of the spine and hip, without getting wet. The trickiest part of Sacroiliac is the point at which the rapid makes its sharpest turn. At this turn there is a large, overhanging rock that bears colorful marks from collisions with canoes and kayaks.

When we see the highway bridge at Turner Bend, it seems as though our adventure has ended too quickly -- though some five hours have passed since we embarked.

That night at the campsite, Michael and I cook dinner by the glow of the campfire, under the stars, and recount the action -- and peacefulness -- of the river.

The next day, per Brad's advice, I follow Ark. 215, which parallels the Mulberry River and which I decide must be one of the most scenic stretches of highways in the state. Before leaving the national forest, I stop at a shoal and try my luck at fishing for smallmouth. I don't catch anything, but I don't mind. At Ark. 103, I turn south towards Clarksville, where I merge onto the interstate and into heavy traffic. I roll up the windows and turn on the radio.

And it's not until I hear a report on the war that I realize the Mulberry was indeed a world away.

Outfitters on the Mulberry – Only two outfitters service the Mulberry River. Both Turner Bend and Byrd's rent rafts, solo kayaks and solo and tandem canoes -- with or without shuttle service. Prices for kayaks and canoes, including life vests, paddles and shuttle service, range from $30 to $60, depending on the length of the float. Rafts at Turner Bend, which can accommodate five adults, range from $60 to $100, including shuttle service. Rafts at Byrd's, which can accommodate up to eight adults, cost $25 per person, including shuttle service.

  • Tuner Bend Canoe Rental – Turner Bend has 14 campsites ($5 per person per night). Turner Bend also has one fully equipped rental cabin with two rooms, each with a double bed. The store at Turner Bend sells groceries, gasoline and camping and floating supplies.
  • Byrd's Adventure Center – Byrd's has 100+ campsites ($5 per person per night, without electricity; $7 for sites with electricity; no charge for children under 12.) Byrd's also has a fully equipped rental cabin with two bedrooms and sleeper sofas in other rooms. The cabin sleeps 14-16 adults. There is also a store at Byrd's that offers groceries and camping and floating supplies.

Where to Stay

  • For information concerning lodging and dining establishments in the town of Ozark, which is located some 14 miles south of Mulberry River on Ark. 23, phone the Ozark Area Chamber of Commerce at (479) 667-2525 or toll-free at 1-800-951-2525; or visit
  • Nearby, cabins are available at: Lizard Springs Lodging, (479) 667-4398; White Rock Cabins & Group Lodge, (479) 369-4128; and Riverside Retreat, (479) 667-4066.
  • Nearby, camping is available at the following U.S. Forest Service campgrounds: Redding Campground, (479) 754-2864; Shores Lake, (479) 667-2191; Wolf Pen, (479) 754-2864; and White Rock Mountain, (479) 667-2191.


Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, 501-682-7606
E-mail: [email protected]

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"