What do outdoor lovers both naughty and nice wish for this holiday season? How about a 1.7 million-acre woodland present wrapped in solitude and tied together with a ribbon of river? If that sounds like your cup of holiday cheer, then try an early winter canoe trip on the Ouachita (pronounced wash-i-ta) River where it spills 70 miles through the Ouachita National Forest of western Arkansas.
The Ouachita is a popular summer playground for splash ‘n’ party folks, but by December the deer, turkey, mink, otter, and eagles have taken over. Floating from the Oden Public Access downstream to Fulton Branch near the upper end of Lake Ouachita is memorable any time of the year, but never so tranquil as in December. A few red and gold leaves still cling to tall hardwoods. Green pine boughs add a dark accent to the waning winter light, and ’tis the season to appreciate sculpted bluffs festooned with gnarled junipers draped with wispy strands of old man’s beard lichen.
Expect daytime temperatures in the 50s and 60s and nightly lows just above freezing at this time of year. Water temperatures should be in the 50s, so a dry change of clothes is a must, in case you get wet. For anyone who likes to drop a line overboard, October through March is peak fishing season for largemouth and spotted bass.
A lovely stretch of the river worth running in early winter begins at the Oden Access and meanders downstream 17 miles through sun-dappled riffles and waterfalls (Class I at normal river levels) to the Fulton Branch’s canoe access/campground. A trailhead here connects to the Womble Trail, a 38-mile ramble atop riverside bluffs.
Some paddlers end their journey with a dayhike at Fulton Branch, while others stop about halfway and explore the Womble at Rocky Shoals, another canoe access/camp-ground. Many simply stick to the river for bluff viewing and wildlife watching or find a quiet campsite on a secluded gravel bar. Either way, it sure beats holiday shopping at the mall.