The summer of 2012 was one of the hottest and driest on record for our region. Nevertheless, the Illinois River and some of its major tributaries were still flowing and navigable by watercraft. In this edition of Paddler’s Post, we’ll investigate this phenomenon by exploring Osage Creek, a stream that originates in urban Northwest Arkansas and feeds into the Illinois River.
When people ask me what I admire most about our area, I tell them I’m drawn to our abundance of water. The Illinois River Watershed is blessed with an average of 48 inches of precipitation per year. That’s 4 feet of rainfall that is either infiltrating into our soils and groundwater or feeding into surface waters like rivers, lakes, and streams. What’s more, we have hundreds of underground springs that have historically provided cool, clean water to our communities and drawn people to settle here. The significance of these springs is portrayed clearly in the names of our local cities: Springdale, Springtown, Cave Springs, Elm Springs, Siloam Springs, and so on.
A couple years ago, I was fortunate enough to accompany a small group of paddlers to see whether Osage Creek, one of the Illinois River’s major tributaries, was floatable in extreme drought conditions. It was a risky proposition for late July, but we were eager to follow the path of this stream all the way to its confluence with the Illinois River.
The Upper Osage begins as a meager trickle until Osage Spring joins in at the corner of Promenade Boulevard and New Hope Road in Rogers. From there, Osage Creek meanders west/southwest to the town of Cave Springs, where another spring adds six million gallons of water to the creek each day. This was where our float expedition began on the morning of July 31, 2012.
(From left): Lauren Ray, David Duncan, Audrey Duncan, Steve Randall, and Jake Gibbs braved the drought of 2012 and paddled Osage Creek from Cave Springs to the Illinois River.
Studying maps and USGS water level gauges ahead of time, we estimated that the distance along Osage Creek from Cave Springs to the Illinois River confluence was approximately 14 miles and would take us about 8 hours to complete. We took off at 7:00 AM in order to put in as many hours as possible before temperatures surpassed 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
It was a slow start. We were forced to get out of our boats and pull them along behind us for several hundred feet at a time, which was a discouraging way to start our 14-mile journey. In fact, I specifically remember thinking to myself, “What have we gotten ourselves into?”
At first, the paddling trip didn’t involve a whole lot of paddling.
About a mile downstream from where we began, we reached the point where Spring Creek, which originates in Springdale, flows into Osage Creek. At this point, the creek channel became deeper and wider, allowing for easier navigation. Shortly thereafter, Little Osage Creek joined in, too, contributing waters that originate in southern Bentonville. We were particularly grateful for the added volume, as it meant a lesser chance of having to walk our boats for the remainder of the trip.
This map shows where Spring Creek and Little Osage Creek enter the greater Osage.
We soon lost sight of roads and residences. No turning back now. We went miles without passing anything but forest and farmland. I was pleased to see that a few streamside landowners had installed best management practices for water quality protection such as cattle fencing, vegetated riparian buffers, and farm ponds.
Taking our time through a shaded corridor.
When we reached the new Logan Cave Road Bridge, several fishermen were casting lines into the emerald depths of the Osage, and a young family splashed around near the gravel bank. I took note of a rope swing that I wanted to come back and try out someday. It was a beautiful (though scorching) summer afternoon, especially when we realized that this bridge marked a remaining distance of 2 to 3 miles.
Thinking we were home free, we became a bit dispirited when we spotted an enormous logjam, likely a result of the flood of 2011, which completely blocked our course. There was no way around or under; our only option was to climb over and plop back in on the other side. Grateful for each other’s company, we tossed the kayaks over one by one and maneuvered through the down trees and debris.
Crawling over and through a burdensome logjam.
After a number of similar obstacles and team efforts, it was only a matter of time before we noticed the distant glistening of a waterway running perpendicular to our course—the Illinois River. As the old saying goes, “Water is life.” If that is so, then life is pretty good in the Illinois River Watershed—even during those times when everything else seems to be running dry.