Nature trail built by inmates opens on Arkansas lake island
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) – Strolling under the tall oaks and pines of the new Electric Island Nature Trail, with motorboats bulldozing foaming hillocks through Lake Hamilton a few hundred yards away and the steep young waves of their wakes sloshing rhythmically across shell-littered pebble beaches, it’s hard to believe you’re on a foothill.
And yet you are.
Unlike more typical, landlocked hills in the Ouachita Mountains, no tangle of underbrush limits the line of sight as a hiker marches along this 2-mile dirt path. And it’s a pleasant walk that mildly undulates through leaf-littered but open understory – easy enough for children and the able elderly.
You’re definitely on an island, but a man-made one, and so the trees and shrubs around you aren’t islanders. Doug Zollner, director of science for The Nature Conservancy, said pretty much everything that grows here also grows atop many a bone-dry sandstone ridge in the Ouachitas. Which is what this land was before 1931, when the construction of Carpenter Dam flooded the bottoms of the Ouachita River – just another unremarkable, peaceful, 118-acre hilltop.
Possibly it had been cleared by homesteaders, Zollner said, to grow grass for livestock or a timber crop of Loblolly pines, which wouldn’t have been natives.
From 1928 until 1984, the hill/island belonged to Arkansas Power & Light Co., and for years, for reasons unknown, it was called Goat Island, aka Big Goat Island. A Little Goat Island stands not far to the north.
Hiking up the trail from the motor launch that carried them across the lake to attend a trail opening Sept. 1, 90-year-old Gene Altenburger of Little Rock, his son Gary Altenburger, 65, and 59-year-old Lloyd Hosier of Hot Springs reminisce about seeing actual goats on both islands.
Gary remembers seeing them on Little Goat Island two years ago.
What kind of goats?
Hosier: “They were island goats.”
Gary: “Barbecue goats.”
Joe Breashears, 66, another Hot Springs resident, chimed in: “They are white goats.”
But how do white goats get to an island?
Gary: “They rode on the armadillo.”
There certainly are plenty of armadillos on Electric Island. No electricity, but plenty of armadillos.
In 1984, after decades of fruitless talks about developing nature museums or theme parks on the island, AP&L; donated Electric Island to The Nature Conservancy with the understanding it be maintained as an undeveloped wildlife preserve.
A bustle of recreational industry had grown up around Lake Hamilton. As conservancy director Scott Simon noted during the trail opening, “on a typical summer day there will be 50 boats in the coves here. More than 5,000 people live on this lake.”
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission manages the preserve. Its Andrew J. Hulsey State Fish Hatchery is conveniently just eight-tenths of mile across the lake, and the commission uses Electric Island for wildlife appreciation programs – fishing is allowed but no hunting, no camping, no campfires. But for the most part, recreational boaters have merely nudged about its edges.
Another opening-day attendee, 47-year-old Elizabeth Cook of Little Rock, said she has played on Lake Hamilton since she was a kid but “had no clue” the island held anything worth exploring.
Jake Whisenhunt, a wildlife biologist at the commission’s Hot Springs office, became interested in doing something to bring people onto the island when waterfowl hunters asked him if they could shoot there. While explaining that no, they could not, he noticed the management plan devised by Game and Fish in 1993 had called for a walking trail.
Speaking to about 100 people at the trail opening, Simon said Whisenhunt began to talk up the idea of a trail, which he would help maintain. Kirsten Bartlow, Watchable Wildlife coordinator for the commission, added, “He stays really busy, so for him to come up with an idea for some more work for himself is really – that’s stellar.”
Whisenhunt’s interest pulled in Bartlow and Mitchell Allen, river restoration and recreation use manager for the conservancy, and they laid out the path and supervised construction.
They spoke at the trail opening, as did Kimberly Bogart of Entergy and Chris Colclasure, deputy director of the Game and Fish Commission. Other experts were tagged for applause, such as Debbie Doss of the Arkansas Watertrail Partnership and Bert Turner of Arkansas Master Naturalists, as well as several understanding spouses and enthusiastic supervisors.
But, Bartlow said, “this project could not have happened without some really key players, and unfortunately they are not here.”
These people, who actually built the trail, were inmates in the Arkansas Department of Correction’s Benton Work Release Unit, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.
“We boated over, seven days back in the spring, about 18 inmates each day,” she said. “And those guys did all the backbreaking work with hand tools and their sweat equity.”
Last week of May, first week of June, the inmates cut the trail using picks, Pulaski axes, kaiser blades.
“The first day – boats, you know if you have a boat, something always has to go wrong with a boat – we had one of our big barges loaded up with inmates. I saw them backing out, so I took off in my flat-bottom, and the big barge backs out, and both motors died,” Bartlow said.
“And they had no paddles. So the inmates had to get their shovels and shovel back to shore.
“We got the motor running and everything was fine after that. But lots of stories from the workdays out here. … I’m really hoping some of them can come back and see the fruits of their labor.”
There are scar and scorch marks on the trees. Once a year, the conservancy’s roving prescribed-burn crew lights up the undergrowth. Simon said, “We do that to improve wildlife habitat, open up the woods to reduce wildfire threats and, most importantly, reduce ticks and chiggers.”
Then he released the crowd so they could divide into four groups. Walking the loop took about an hour and 15 minutes.
Thirty or so hikers had kayaked across the lake, but the rest had ridden in motorboat shuttles. Among them were a few elderly conservation enthusiasts who were not able to walk the whole trail. But they found generous half-log benches to rest on while catching their breath and looking about.
The island offers a few human artifacts to ponder – two old chimneys, traces of farmhouses or getaway cabins, a rusty contraption with pistons suggestive of a pump or power generator. And every five minutes or so, a motorboat would zoom by out in the lake.
Nature offers bizarrely dangling deadfall, glistening bits of white novaculite, fruiting wild shrubs, tweety birds, critter holes. Rush Fentress, director of education at Garvan Woodland Gardens, saw hickories, short-leaf and Loblolly pines, oaks, a lot of elms, bottlebrush buckeyes, a little pawpaw grove.
The only animals in evidence were people. Bartlow insisted this is a great spot to see wildlife.
“Come back in the winter. We see loons bobbing around in the water, bald eagles flying around, osprey, wintering waterfowl. All throughout the seasons you’re going to see different things using this island. Some are permanent residents. Every time we’re out here we see white-tail deer.
“I don’t know who gets dibs on the island, how that works between the deer community,” she added, but deer are often seen swimming to and from the island.
“Raccoons, box turtles, ground skinks, all kinds of birds, we see redheaded woodpeckers, bluebirds – you name it. Come back when it’s a quieter day,” she said.
“This a wonderful piece of solitude within the lake.”
Nothing’s odd about Electric Island’s flora and fauna, except for its abundance of Loblolly pines and downed and rotting timber, apparently scattered about by myriad armadillos.
Standing near a multicolored sandstone chimney whose bulk is all that remains of what might have been a getaway cabin or a homesteader’s wood-frame farmhouse, Zollner said the Loblollies are old. The invisible house suggested by the chimney sits, seemingly, dangerously close to the lake. But – duh – probably there was no lake when that house was built.
With their 60-and 70-foot branch-free boles, Loblollys make a good timber crop, and Zollner guesses the long-ago homesteaders planted them as exactly that, because the ridgetop soil’s thin and wouldn’t support other row crops. “This island is a sandstone ridge.” It might also have been cleared so grass would grow – for goats to eat.
The rich river bottoms – now at the bottom of the lake – would have been farmed, probably with corn, he said. As for evidence of ancient civilizations, Zollner said there is none on Electric Island.
“Not here. It’s all under the water. The Ouachita River bottoms were heavily settled by Native Americans, but the bottoms were the rich place, next to the river, where there’s a lot of food availability. Up here is hunting grounds.”
Up here, on the top of the hill.