The National Park Service describes it as ''probably the most challenging'' white-water float in the state. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a little more emphatic, saying it "is the most difficult whitewater stream in the state of Arkansas." Early Indians simply called it Cossatot - their word for ''skull crusher.'' Today the Cossatot River is still crushing things, but they're mostly canoes, ice chests, and the egos of over-confident paddlers.
The stream heads up in rugged Ouachita mountain country just southeast of Mena. It flows in a southerly direction for about 26 miles before its current ceases at Gillham Lake. Along the way the Cossatot travels through the Ouachita National Forest, along-side a wilderness area, and over and around upended layers of jagged bedrock. This last characteristic is what gives the stream its class IV/class V rating among river-runners. The Cossatot, however, is not just for floaters. In fact, much of its whitewater is not recommended for casual canoeists. Yet, as the following paragraphs will show, the stream offers something for nearly everyone interested in Arkansas's outdoors.
The Cossatot's first section is the headwaters run from its source to the Arkansas Highway 246 bridge northwest of Athens. Not much floating activity takes place on this stretch (the water's usually too low), although the three-mile trip from the lower Forest Road 31 crossing to the 246 bridge can be an exciting class II/class III journey. What this area offers is an interesting landscape, whether it be seen from a car, by foot, or in a canoe. Forest Road 31 parallels the stream for several miles, providing the pleasure driver with views of a small mountain stream and attractive rural countryside. In these upper reaches the Cossatot also flows next to and through the Caney Creek Wilderness, a 14,400-acre area perfect for hikers, photographers, bird-watchers, and backpackers. And immediately upstream from the 246 bridge is a traditional swimming hole - complete with a huge gravel bar perfect for sunning and picnicking. Just above the Highway 246 crossing, the Cossatot leaves the Ouachita National Forest. For most of the rest of its journey to Gillham Lake, the stream flows through property owned by the Weyerhaeuser Company, and access to the Cossatot is via Weyerhaeuser roads and bridges.
The Cossatot's second stretch begins at the 246 bridge and ends about three miles down-stream at a low-water crossing known as Ed Banks Bridge. Good scenery, rock gardens, and class II/class III rapids are typical of this fast-moving section.
The third stretch of river is the float from Ed Banks Bridge to the low-water bridge just above Cossatot Falls. It's short -about two miles - but steep, dropping around 60 feet in the process. The trip gets down to business very quickly with a solid class III rapid - Zig Zag - during the first few hundred yards. Coming up next, and soon, is a hazard to navigation known as the "Esses.'' It's a 200-yards long rapid that resembles a rock-filled flume - narrow, noisy, and nonstop. Several more class III drops take the floater to another low-water bridge (at Weyerhaeuser Road 52600) upstream from the falls.
The Cossatot's final stretch - from the 52600 bridge to Arkansas 4 - is its most difficult. In this five-mile section, the river has ripped through several ridges creating some mighty interesting rapids. The first of these - located a quarter of a mile or so below the low-water bridge put-in - is Cossatot Falls itself. It's not a single drop, but a series of cascades over which the river descends 35 to 40 feet (Note: other published reports claim that the elevation change is on the order of 80 feet ! ). In any event, it's a very exciting place with strong currents, big waves, six to eight foot drops, and tricky channels. All of this adds up to a class IV/class V rating. For those having second thoughts (and this is to be recommended for all but the most experienced paddlers), Cossatot Falls can be portaged to the left (east bank), although the portage has been described ''as easy as carrying your boat six flights down a fire escape." Survivors of the float (or portage) can look forward to several more class III rapids in the next two miles, followed by another two miles of quiet water before reaching the Highway 4 bridge. Incidentally, this bridge is the state's highest (the roadway is 87 feet above the water) and offers an appealing view of the narrow river valley.
Floating is a wet weather phenomenon on the Cossatot, requiring a stream flow between 500 cubic feet per second and 2,000 cfs (for daily readings, call the Corps of Engineers at 378-5150). The best months for these preferred levels are December through June. The Cossatot, however, should not be viewed as solely a float stream. Sight-seers, campers, fishermen, hunters, rock hounds, and photographers are among the many other groups that will find a season for this stream.
The river may be reached via two state highways (4 and 246), Weyerhaeuser roads (particularly #52000 which leads to Ed Banks Bridge and #52600 which goes to the bridge above Cossatot Falls), and Forest Service Road 31.
The Cossatot River is one of the states most scenic streams, although this fact is not always appreciated by paddlers who spend most of their time trying to stay afloat. For those visitors who can slow down and enjoy the sights, it's quickly apparent that the Legislature was correct in designating the Cossatot as one of four components in Arkansas's Natural and Scenic Rivers System.
Smallmouth and spotted bass are the noteworthy inhabitants of the Cossatot River. Getting to them is the biggest problem facing most fishermen: the stream just doesn't lend itself to a casual fishing/floating trip. The quiet streamside hiker, however, may find good bass fishing around boulders and downed trees that break the current in deep pools and chutes, especially when using live crayfish or jig-and-pig artificials. Green and longear sunfish are also abundant in the Cossatot, and anglers may occasionally hook channel catfish, largemouth bass, rock bass, bluegill, grass pickerel or white bass.
Basic supplies can be obtained in the nearby communities of Athens, Langley, and Wickes. Campsites are available in the Ouachita National Forest (Shady Lake and Bard Springs) and at Gillham Lake.
The Cossatot River country is rugged, largely uninhabited, and crisscrossed by logging roads. It's easy to get lost in. To help visitors keep their bearings, the Weyerhaeuser Company has published a handy guide - ''Southwest Arkansas Recreation Map'' - that is available - on a single copy basis - by writing:
Weyerhaeuser Company: Public Affairs
P.O. Box 1060
Hot Springs, Arkansas 71902.
Also, canoeists should be advised that another 15.5 miles of the Cossatot can be floated between Gillham Dam and U.S. Highway 70/71 east of DeQueen. Excellent scenery - complete with bluffs, islands, and rapids (class I/class II) - characterizes the first five miles; the last ten feature slower water and a pastoral landscape. Several bridges and fords provide access along this stretch. A brochure describing this float may be obtained by writing:
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Mill-wood/Tri-Lakes Resident Office
Route 1, Box 37A
Ashdown, Arkansas 71822 (a similar brochure for upper river is also available).
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