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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/FLIP PUTTHOFF The Mulberry flows bank full during a float trip April 26 2019 from High Bank access to Turner Bend.

The flotilla of river rats crossed their fingers and toes for rain, just not this much rain.

A modest shower to raise the Mulberry River a foot or so would have filled the wish list for their mid-May float trip. Instead, the Mulberry rocked, nearly flowing out of its banks with big waves and fast current in its rapids.

All-night rain turned the normally turquoise water to a sandy hue, but not mud brown. The river gauge at Turner Bend Store and boat rental, where Arkansas 23 crosses the Mulberry River at Cass, read a lively 4.1 feet. At that high level, paddlers get fair warning on the Turner Bend website.

"At 4.1 to 4.5, you must know the river and know what you are doing. Kayak and raft rentals only if we are assured that you are skilled."

A Mulberry River float trip wasn't out of the question for Tom and Karen Mowry of Nob Hill. They've been running the Mulberry for 35 years and know the river well. Even they were anxious.

"We've never done the Mulberry when it's this high," Tom mused on the drive down the Pig Trail Scenic Byway. The couple eyeballed the Mulberry as they crossed the bridge at Turner Bend. Tom's verdict: "It doesn't look bad."

The float of 10 miles or so from High Bank access to Turner Bend is one of their favorites. After catching the shuttle van to High Bank, they were bobbing and splashing down rapid after big-water rapid. It's fast, loud water that's not for the faint of heart.

Dodging rocks and keeping away from bushes and limbs is the challenge in lower water, but the Mulberry is still swift. In high water, most of the boulders are submerged.

"At this level, it's really easier in a way," Karen said, "because you just float over everything."

The test in high water is big standing waves in the rapids, some 3 and 4 feet high. Get sideways in that watery roller coaster and a capsize and swim may be on the agenda. Keeping a canoe or kayak pointed downstream is key. A good fitting life jacket, buckled and zipped, is safety rule No. 1 on the Mulberry or any waterway.

In a half-mile or so, the couple had their "sea legs" back. Confidence replaced nervousness the rest of the trip. They steered their green 17-foot canoe with artful grace through the roughest rapids the Mulberry dishes out.

Two white-knuckle pieces of river get a paddler's attention. One is a low-water bridge some 5 miles upstream from Turner Bend Store. Before the float, owner Brad Wimberly assured paddlers there was enough room to get under the concrete bridge at this high river level -- as long as you duck and stay to the right.

Another is the wicked Sacroiliac Rapid 1.5 miles upstream from Turner Bend. Here, fast current does its best to push unsuspecting paddlers head-on into a giant boulder on the outside of a tight bend. Get past the "Sac" and big waves wait to swamp bouncing boats.

Now, someone has erected a sign along the bank: "Warning: The Sac just ahead. Stay to the right." That sign wasn't there on the Mowrys' last trip.

On busy weekends, the Sac is a party spot where people beach their boats to watch for the inevitable wipeouts. Cheers and whoops go out to paddlers who conquer the Sac, with louder ones for those who don't.

The 10-mile white-water run was exhilarating on a perfect spring day. Not a cloud floated in the sky with a temperature around 75. Dozens of turtles, gaggles of kingfishers and a canopy of bright green trees escorted paddlers downriver. Rain that filled the river had shoreline waterfalls pouring from cliffs and crags.

The water, wildlife and scenery bring paddlers back year after year.

"I like the rapids," Tom said. "There's some real good Class II rapids, and it's scenic, too. There's some nice bluffs and the water is usually perfectly blue."

Karen added, "There aren't too many rivers where you 'whoo-hoo' through the rapids. It's fun and exciting. If you're careful, it's one of the best things you can do in your life. I just love it."

Float the Mulberry

The Mulberry River offers about 40 miles of good floating. Depending on the water level, most paddlers cover anywhere from 6 to 15 miles in a day. In low water, 2 mph is common. At higher levels, 3 mph is average.

Source: Turner Bend Store

Sports on 05/14/2019

Print Headline: Come heaven and high water

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