Kayaking the Largest Oxbow

You probably know this, but I didn’t: an oxbow is a water formation that started as a big curve in a river that got cut off, as in the river took a short cut through the curve, for whatever reason, and kept going, leaving the curve on its own as a separate body of water.

It’s called an oxbow because it’s shaped like the upside down U of an ox’s yoke, although often, I think, the river will meander to one side and then the other, and when both meanders are cut off, you get more like an infinity symbol. Or maybe a bow like you’d put on an ox for Christmas? I dunno, I just learned this.

We are camped at the country’s largest oxbow, called Lake Chicot, right off the Mississippi in Arkansas. I have a lot to say about where we’re camped and what we’ve been up to, but I want to get my kayaking photos and memories down in writing before I forget them. It’s been a while since kayaking was this lovely.

We’re camped right on the lake, but the boat ramp is nearby, and what better excuse to use the new Hullivators? Tracy was able to get both boats off the truck by himself (I’m the official photographer, don’t you know), then park the truck in the boat ramp lot and carry (with my help) both boats down to the water. Okay, maybe it would have been less work had we simply carried the boats from the campsite, but we had to use the Hullivators!

It was well worth moving the truck around and slipping in the silt on the boat ramp. This north end of Lake Chicot is all mature Cypress trees, and the water is low, so you get to kayak through the forest with the trees way above you, and even the old water line above.

The water is so shallow, though, that, if you want to weave in and out of the Cypress, your paddle touches the mud with each stroke. It feels like you’re one of those evolved fish hopping along on the land for a bit. Push on the mud, float, push on the mud, float. Only once did I get stuck on a hidden Cypress knee, and I was able to back out in a jiff.

So here’s the memory I want to hold on to. The first day we went kayaking, I brought my camera, and Tracy and I went through the forest, and all was interesting and lovely. The second day, he paddled down the lake to explore around the bend, and I repeated the route I’d already enjoyed: through the Cypress until the end of the oxbow, then back down to the boat ramp.

All the water birds of the Mississippi Delta were in the Cypress with me that afternoon. With every paddle stroke, a great blue heron squawked grumpily and lifted from a tree top. Great egrets stood out in the mud as if they were white statues of goddesses, lording over the calm water. Families of various ducks hid from me behind the round trunks until they couldn’t hide anymore and took off toward the next strand of trees.

It seemed like I was flushing out every animal in or over the water, and they all reacted to me differently. Killdeer flew low over the water, practically dive bombing me and shrieking. A group of something with long legs and a very long, curved bill flew to one tree in front of me, then another tree, then the next. Were they ibises? Long-billed curlews? They created a dramatic silhouette flying among the trees as I floated behind them.

Turtles sunning themselves on Cypress knees waited until I got within a paddle’s reach before they plopped in to hide in the mud. Some stayed with their heads poking up in the air, watching as I paddled by.

I kept this plain photo to remind me of what was one of the most beautiful few minutes I’ve ever experienced. I didn’t have my phone to take pictures, but maybe that helped me stay mindful of what I was seeing and hearing.

A large flock of American white pelicans, with wings that were black on the underside, were floating on the water at the very end of the oxbow. As I approached, quietly and slowly, they began to take flight, one section at a time. Maybe 20 at a time would take off in a line, smacking the water with their wings as they took their time catching the air.

Once airborne, they flew in a spiral on the drafts above the water, like a tornado made of birds. Another group would leave the water and join the tornado. Then another. Maybe 100 pelicans were all in the air, floating on the drafts, watching me watch them.

The sun would catch them as they spiraled, flashing white for a few seconds as their backs were lit, then flashing black as they turned and the undersides of their wings were lit. A slow spiral, alternating sections of white then black then white, all above me, silent, as I floated below.

I heard the sound of the air change first, and then I found them again in the sky: they had begun to fly over me, big sections of the flock at a time, and I heard the air through their wings, each wing beating separately, but the sound they all made was the same. I felt like a huge heart murmur was soaring above my head, swooosh, swoosh. All I could hear was the air in their feathers.

And all I could think of was that time I was kayaking in the Florida Keys and a school of spotted eagle rays swam under my kayak. This time, the all-as-one-animal was high in the sky, and I was the single animal watching, below. I felt distinctly aware. Enlightened, if you will, for just a few minutes. And all it took was a flock of pelicans.

7 thoughts to “Kayaking the Largest Oxbow”

    1. Thank you! I probably got bird names wrong, and I could have included more photos, but I wanted to get it down quickly before I lost the feeling. Thanks for reading 💕

  1. The cypress photos you did take are spectacular! Is the water level so low due to climate change or is it a seasonal thing?

    Sometimes forgetting your phone is the best thing you can do because you can just be in the moment rather than feeling like you have to document it. Lovely writing!

    1. The Mississippi is famous for its devastating floods and lows; right now it’s severe drought that’s causing the low water. I’m guessing the trend is in line with climate change – what isn’t, right?

  2. What a beautiful lovely description of your kayaking experience… and in Arkansas imagine that.. thank you!