Originating near Pine Bluff, Bayou Bartholomew is recognized as the lengthiest body of water of its sort in the world. It stretches for hundreds of miles before emptying into the Ouachita River near Sterlington, Louisiana. The stream contributes significantly to the economic development and cultural life of the region, and serves as the primary border separating the Delta from the Timberlands in Arkansas.
“Being a total of 359 miles long, it has to be not only the world’s longest bayou but one of the longest free flowing rivers left in this country,” says Dr. Bill Layher, coordinator of the Bayou Bartholomew Alliance. “You don’t have many river segments this long and not have dams on them somewhere. So it is extremely unique that way and with the diversity of it, in my opinion, it is a national treasure.”
Lined with cypress and tupelo swamps, it ranks amongst the top bio-diverse streams in North American. Layher says it contains 117 species of fishes and 35 species of mussels. It has been called one of Arkansas’s best kept secrets by local fishing enthusiasts.
Layher says some may be surprised by the beauty of the waterway, “especially in some areas down by Cane Creek State Park. There are lots of old cypress, some well over a thousand years old.” He says the bayou has been overlooked as a recreation site in part because it wanders through sections of the state with few towns or population centers – and from the perception of its swampy zones as a haven for snakes and mosquitoes.
Once a pristine stream and local water source, urban development and runoff from agriculture left the channel polluted, log-jammed and full of sediment. In 1995, Curtis Merrell of Monticello organized the Bayou Bartholomew Alliance to restore and preserve its natural beauty. The non-profit’s long-term collaborative efforts, involving several agencies and hundreds of individuals, continue today – with sponsored clean ups, logjam break-ups and campaigns that have resulted in the removal of untold tons of trash and waste from the million-acre watershed. The group has also acquired funds to restore bottomland hardwood forests along its length.
“I think all of the things we have done have improved it tremendously,” says Layher. “I started sampling fish there in about 1994 when I worked as a research biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I continued doing that until about 2005. I can recall when we first starting sampling in Pine Bluff the only thing we caught were bowfin (‘grinnel’ as they are called here) or spotted gar. And now… black crappie, white crappie, largemouth bass, sunfish, spotted sucker… indicative of good water quality.” The return of these species shows how bio-diversity is improving along with the watershed restoration.
Layher suggests the Dr. Curtis Merrell Access for those interested in visiting Bayou Bartholomew. The concrete boat ramp and parking lot off Interstate 530 on the south side of Pine Bluff lies on about 25 acres of land donated by Walmart, adjacent to the area’s Supercenter location.
“There is a lot of good bird watching along it,” says Layher. “We are establishing a water trail there. You could canoe or kayak it and that gives a unique view because it goes through some riparian areas (natural riverbanks). There are two nature trails in that vicinity.”
Layher also recommends the William (Bill) G. Layher Bayou Bartholomew Trail off Hazel Street near I-530 in Pine Bluff. The 1.78 mile stretch is crossed with boardwalks and foot bridges, giving hikers a view of wetlands home to a beaver lodge, a heron rookery and both hardwood and mixed growth forests.
Louisiana’s 90-mile section of the bayou is part of that state’s Natural and Scenic River System. With the help of the Alliance and the general public, perhaps the future holds a similar scenario for Arkansas’s share of the bayou.
You can watch an AETN video documentary about the bayou here.
– Story and photos by Zoie Clift, travel writer for the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism