Mapping the Mulberry
By Connie Las Schneider
Spring is prime season for whitewater paddling in Arkansas, especially on the Mulberry River with its Class II rapids flowing though the Ozarks to the Arkansas River. Federally designated a National Wild and Scenic River, the Mulberry River can only be described as an Arkansas treasure.
Only a quarter of 1% of our rivers in the nation are designated Wild and Scenic, said Kristian Underwood, avid paddler and cartographer who recently updated a map of the Mulberry River. "The Mulberry is one of eight Wild and Scenic rivers in Arkansas, and we are one of the few states with that many rivers or that high of a percentage of protected streams," he added.
Along with federal protection and great whitewater floating, the Mulberry River has cultural and
legal significance. "Mulberry was at the center of a historic legal battle in the late 70s
early 80s. State vs McIlroy was the landmark case where Arkansas defined the term of navigability
of a river/stream to include personal watercraft such as canoes, kayaks, and rafts." explained
Underwood, who is the Northwest Chapter President of the Arkansas Canoe Club.
Is the Mulberry the best river to paddle in Arkansas? This is a subjective question that really can’t be answered, said Underwood. "Some people prefer rivers that have great fishing, some want extreme whitewater, some like to float where they can canoe camp, and some are looking for scenery/nature.
The Mulberry river offers a little of all those qualities. That is one of the reasons that makes it great
in my opinion. Furthermore, it has a pretty large watershed, so it flows more often and longer than
other streams in the area."
However, whitewater on the Mulberry can be is challenging, especially to beginners, said Underwood. "While the Mulberry it is not one of the most challenging streams in the state or in the Ozarks, it is an ideal river to learn how to paddle in whitewater with a certified instructor, said Underwood.
As a certified ACA canoe instructor, I don’t want to encourage novices to get on this river thinking it is easy. People could get hurt or die if they are not careful.
One needs all the proper gear (warm synthetic clothing or wetsuit and a life jacket), boat control, and the ability to swim in moving water. I would first recommend taking one of our biannual paddling clinics offered by the Arkansas Canoe Club in May on the Mulberry or in June on the Spring River (www. arkansascanoeclub.com).
Novices, newcomers and experts alike often start or end their adventure on the Mulberry River at Turner Bend on the Pig Trail National Scenic Highway 23 or at Byrd’s Adventure Center a few miles away on AR 215.
Turner Bend’s owner Brad Wimberly, an environmentalist/entrepreneur and avid paddler himself, commissioned Underwood to update a map Wimberly made 20 years ago for his growing Turner Bend business which now includes a boat landing, float rental, a complete general store and outfitter plus rental cabins and camping facilities along the river.
Like Wimberly, Underwood had first-hand knowledge about the Mulberry since he paddled the river for over a decade using the old map. As Underwood explained it, "The new map was primarily produced by Brad and me and I know Brad also sought out opinions and comments of other locals. Basically, I built upon the map Brad produced in the 80s/90s and we would go back and forth on naming features/rapids. Brad had a much better historic and local perspective, and I think I had a more recent perspective (on what the broader paddling community calls a feature). We didn’t change any of the existing names, we just added to them. We also changed the coverage area to include some of the side hikes to the Ozark Highlands Trail Ozark Hiking Trail" said Underwood.
The new map of the Mulberry River is available for sale (~ $13.00) at Turner Bend & Byrd’s
Adventure Center on the Mulberry and most outdoor shops in northwest Arkansas.