Photos available: 501-682-1110; www.arkansasmediaroom.com
Zoie Clift, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
The Caddo Bend Trail, a popular four mile trail at Lake Ouachita State Park, has reopened. The trail, which is the premier trail at the park, has been closed since last April due to extensive tornado damage.
“Since the closing of the trail, our visitor center staff has been covered up with inquires about it,” said Park Superintendent Lee Howard.
Damage to the trail included spots where the route was completely wiped out and places where felled trees were piled 20 feet high.
“The park was established in 1955 and by far the largest and most significant natural disaster to hit the park has been this tornado,” said Assistant Superintendent James Wilborn. ”And it was pretty much a direct hit."
The park went into assessment mode right after the storms. For the first couple of weeks, Wilborn said staff rallied to get sections of the park open to the general public. They closed off the peninsula (where the trail is located) and saved it until they could spend some time working on the heavier damage.
They then explored the idea of bringing in AmeriCorp teams for additional manpower.
“They were very quick to respond and send us teams,” said Wilborn. “But trying to come up with a plan of how to clear it and access it was a big challenge. You’ve got a four mile trail and almost over half of it is damaged so you have to reconstruct all of it.”
Wilborn said they did a trail assessment in September by hiking the route and labeling sections based on destruction. They calculated that a little over 2,000 man-hours were needed to clear the debris. In some sections they would also have to relocate the trail.
“Each day we do a work plan and map out each section and what the day’s objectives are,” said Wilborn.
AmeriCorp crews have worked on the project for around four months. Two crews have come in to help rebuild the trail. The first crew (known as “Sun 4”) worked from November to mid December. The crew currently working at the park (“Fire 7”) started work at the beginning of the year and will be at the park through March.
“The tornado damage was definitely pretty extensive,” said Fire 7 crew member Judd Goldenberg. “You can just take a look around and see how many trees are down. There is no way we can get all of it. We just really want to restore the trail section. Another thing we do is seeding. That way after a few months you’ll start to see grass along the trail.”
Fire 7 is an 11-member AmeriCorp team from Denver. The group had a wide range of projects they could choose from. They chose Lake Ouachita State Park due to the opportunity to do trail work.
“We wanted to do something productive and help out,” said Goldenberg. “This park is great… we kind of love it here. We have some nice cabins, we go out on jogs, it’s really scenic. Honestly we would have never heard of Ouachita National Forest or Lake Ouachita if we were not involved in this. So it’s another great aspect of the program, that we can go to a place we would have had no knowledge of to begin with.”
By its nature, trail work is tedious and demanding work. A lot of hand tools are being used on the project: chain saws, pick axes, rakes. Bulldozers are brought in when needed and controlled fires are set to clear piles of debris.
According to project leader Omid Amini, the crew recently reached a milestone in their efforts. “Now the entire trail is connected,” he said. “It used to be disconnected because of all the trees that had fallen. Now you can walk the whole thing.”
Park staffers say the goal is to reopen the trail so visitors can use it. But the rebuilding effort will take time. “There will still be debris fields, we will try to keep people out of those,” said Wilborn. “Maybe next year we will apply for an additional team to come and chop those areas up. It’s going to take a good ten years for that area to rebound. But we’ve got a good plan to get the trail open, we’ve got some native grasses, we’ve got wildflowers, we’ve got all sorts of stuff we are going to put out in the spring and we will continue to clean and clear the debris over the next few years.”
Though the park took a big hit, park staff also realize how lucky they were. “It could have been worse if it had been a few more hundred yards east,” said WIlborn. “It would have come across the visitor center and camping areas and really caused a lot of damage. It still did a lot of damage but it could have been worse.”
Wilborn added that though the trail was damaged, the storm actually opened up the south side for scenic vistas. “The trail is going to be spectacular,” he said. “The AmeriCorp team has done a great job of leveling and smoothing, and it actually makes the trail in many cases better than it was before, because the tread is being completely overhauled. It’s kind of like taking an older car and doing a complete rebuild on it.”
The trail is open for self-guided hiking or visitors can check the park's schedule for guided interpretive hikes. On National Trails Day (June 2), the park plans to have special programs and hikes on the route.
For more details on the trail and the park, visit www.arkansasstateparks.com/lakeouachita/ or call 501-767-9366.
Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, 501-682-7606
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