“Exploring Arkansas,” hosted by Chuck Dovish, is a high-adventure, outdoor show on AETN-PBS, which airs Mondays at 6:30 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 5 p.m. My husband and I are fans of the show and supporters of the program’s mission. As a photographer, I’ve always admired Chuck’s work, and recently contacted him about the possibility of shadowing him on assignment. It was during our first meeting that I discovered Chuck had never kayaked the Mulberry River. I insisted when the weather and river level were ideal my husband, Benjamin, and I would serve as river/fishing guides for an expedition. After anticipated spring rain to fill the river and warmer temperatures, we decided that we would aim for mid-May.
We determined that Dovish would bring his Jackson Kayak but his camera man, Chuck Durham, would need to ride in a canoe. In order for this to be a success, we needed an experienced boater to drive the canoe and Zen Boulden, of Byrds Adventure Center, was invited to come along as an additional experienced guide.
The forecast for our trip was perfect. The river level according to Turner Bend’s gauge was 2.7. The weather was sunny and the afternoon temperature hovered at 80 degrees. I couldn’t ask for better conditions for someone’s first trip. When the Mulberry River is at 2.7, most of the rocks are still covered. It’s not too high or too fast, which allows a beginner plenty of time to adjust when approaching the rapids. If the river level was much lower, we might experience some dragging with the need to navigate around more rocks; however, fishing is ideal about a foot lower around 1.7. I informed Dovish that at this level, the trip would consist of more floating and less fishing.
Dovish and Durham met us at Byrd’s Adventure Center on Tuesday, May 20 at 11am. We studied the river map and determined we would go 4 miles down river to Redding Campground. There would be 7 people in our group that day: Dovish, Durham, Ben, and I, plus three guides from Byrds: Zen Boulden, Chris Robertson and Jennifer Turner. I was relieved to have back-ups because losing equipment on the Mulberry is almost a prerequisite for a rookie on the river. Our equipment included fishing and camera gear, comprised of 3 GoPros, a Sony HD EX 3, and two microphones. Dovish had 2 GoPros with him, one secured to his chest and another on his boat. My husband, Ben, carried a third GoPro on his Kayak. Durham carried the main camera in the canoe. The guides and myself were well aware of the possibility of losing the camera in the water, so after carefully securing the gear and extra supplies into dry sacks, we were finally ready to head down river.
I led the way through the first rapid. Everyone seemed to be doing fine, except Dovish was visibly upset about something. I asked him if there was an issue, only to find out that he had lost his GoPro when he bumped a rock. It didn’t take us long to decide that we would try to paddle up river through the rapids to look for the camera. We only had two kayaks that were small enough to push up river through the rapids. Zen grabbed one and I pushed my kayak up to the rock that I figured Dovish must have bumped. This was not an easy thing to do and certainly should not be attempted by inexperienced boaters. It would be very easy to lose my footing and for the river to push me over. I very slowly and carefully began to scan the riverbed for a GoPro, knowing that if I went too fast, I would miss it. After taking a few steps past the rock…I saw the case reflecting the sun and grabbed the GoPro. I floated back to the group giving Dovish the camera, at which time he noticed that the camera, still rolling, had captured footage of the camera falling off the kayak and its subsequent retrieval. However, after only about 45 minutes into our trip and just 1 rapid in, I was quite concerned now for the safety of our rookies and their equipment for the 4 remaining miles and at least 2 hours to go.
It was certainly not going to stop us. We paddled our way to Jump Rock/Low water bridge without anymore issues. We decided to stop for lunch and interviews with the fishermen Chris Robertson, Ben Doudna and Outdoor Expert Zen Boulden. Once the interviews were completed, Zen asked if we wanted to see an “Arkansas Stuper”. Of course we were all ready for some comic relief and enthusiastically encouraged Zen to show us this stunt. We positioned the cameras as Zen started setting up at the top of Jump Rock. ( Zen is a professional and this should not be attempted by even the most experienced boaters.) The next thing we see is Zen “kayaking” down the rocks and a nose dive into the water. Needless to say, this was one of the highlights of the trip.
We continued under the low water bridge for the remaining 3 miles. I really enjoyed the filming aspect of our trip, so I tried to help orchestrate some good angles for the camera. At times he would stay behind and film, then he would paddle ahead and film us coming down the next rapid. In the last mile he tailed Dovish, and then me, down a rapid. This was especially fun for me because it presented a new challenge of keeping the camera at a particular angle for filming and still staying far enough over not to cause any issues.
If you’ve floated the Mulberry River; you’ve seen the rocks balancing on the riverbank. They are called cairns and people build them as they float along. Essentially, it involves placing some combination of rock or stone in arrangements which require patience and sensitivity to generate, and which appear to be physically impossible while actually being only highly improbable. I wanted to make sure that Dovish had the opportunity to balance a few rocks of his own. We filmed him balancing the stones and then paddled the final mile of our trip to Redding. It was close to noon when we left and about 4pm when we arrived at Redding. Zen decided that this was the perfect opportunity for one last “Arkansas Stuper” off the rocks across from the campgrounds. He climbed up, kayaked down the rocks back into the river…this time witnessed by a larger crowd, resulting in applause from the onlookers.
All-in-all I was satisfied with our trip. I achieved my ultimate goal of taking Chuck Dovish for his first float on the Mulberry River. We found the lost GoPro, and didn’t have any other equipment issues. No one flipped into the river…unless they wanted to, and we completed it all in a decent time frame. We concluded the trip with one last interview; it was my turn to share why today was a great day for “Exploring Arkansas”.
Benjamin and Courtney Doudna