Forming south of SH 16 near Witt Springs and Richland Creek in Searcy County is the Middle Fork of Illinois Bayou, which then flows about 25 miles to the East Fork where they merge to create the mainstream of Illinois Bayou near SH 27 in Pope County. Though access is just about non-existent on the upper 12 miles, there is a reach of some 13 miles starting at NFR 1300 near Nogo and continuing to Snow Creek at NFR 1312, then on down to SH 27 at the Bayou Bluff Recreation Area, where the forks converge. At times, the Middle Fork bears strong resemblance to a river, but there are also places where it flows through a very narrow channel between trees where the passage is much narrower than the width of a canoe or kayak. Can you say, "Portage"?
The Middle Fork is a Class II to III whitewater stream when it flows at navigable levels, and it is essential to know the conditions downstream before beginning a run. Insufficient flow below the put-in means a long, arduous hike out of a very remote wilderness of oak, elm and pecan trees, willow jungles, high rock bluffs and few directional indicators. A GPS receiver would be a very nice toy to have in such a scenario, but it is one best left untested. The run is a series of boulder garden rapids with moderate drops and occasional standing waves. Depending upon flow conditions, the Middle Fork can be bone zone paddling, an almost non-stop rollercoaster ride on rolling waves and haystacks, or anything in between. Most of the run is very technical, and paddlers should have at least strong intermediate level whitewater skills to safely and successfully make this run. A small, but excellent, campground is located at Bayou Bluff Recreation Area, where this run ends.
Searcy and Pope Counties of northcentral Arkansas very near the headwaters of the Buffalo National and Little Red Rivers, Big Piney, Little Piney and Richland Creeks, and just a few miles north of Russellville.
Russellville 35 miles; Fayetteville 180 miles; Fort Smith 118 miles; Little Rock 111 miles; Texarkana 211 miles: Kansas City 439 miles; Oklahoma City 298 miles; Dallas 436 miles; Austin 631 miles; San Antonio 711 miles; Houston 545 miles; Albuquerque 840 miles; Phoenix 1,298 miles; Denver 923 miles; Salt Lake City 1,457 miles (all distances are approximate, and depend upon starting point, destination at the river and route taken.)
Water quality is generally good to very good, flowing clean, clear and cold from the drainage basin around Divide Mountain. Navigable flows require recent local rainfall to provide sufficient water for paddling, most of which is found during late-fall through mid-spring months, though not for any consistent period.
The prime time to run Illinois Bayou is shortly after a significant rainstorm hits the Pope County area. October through November and late-February through mid-April are the most likely seasons, though the river can be boated almost any time after heavy local rainfall.
Just below the Nogo access (NFR 1300) is a Class II midstream boulder with a navigable channel on either side and a great eddy right behind it. About 3 miles below the Nogo access, where the river bends to the left, is Six Football Fields (Class II to II+), where the river seems like it is about 33 yards wide (the actual width is probably a little narrower) and nearly 600 yards of a downstream boulder garden rapid with holes, standing waves, haystacks, strong cross currents and an E-ticket ride for those who are ready to "grip it and rip it". At about 4.0 miles below Nogo, where Meyer Branch enters the river on the left, is a really exciting Class III rapid that is much more fun than challenging. Starting shortly after Meyer Branch paddlers will begin to encounter willow jungles where portages will probably be necessary, especially in places where the blockage is too narrow for a boat to squeeze through. The upper 10 miles above Snow Creek ends with a 200-yard long, boulder garden rapid (Class III) featuring standing waves and another wild ride. Below Snow Creek the rapids are vastly different at low water conditions than when the flows are higher. In low water they are very technical and tight, demanding excellent boat control to avoid dashing on rocks and/or being trapped in willow strainers. At higher flows these rapids tend to run together as one continuous ride from haystack to haystack. About a mile above the Bayou Bluff Recreation Area take-out the river pushes hard to the left into a huge boulder than can be avoided by a good backferry, or if you prefer, fast paddling using draw strokes and/or ruddering your boat around the rock. At high flows, the low-water bridges at Snow Creek and Bayou Bluff can become very dangerous and must be avoided to prevent pinning and/or wrapping.
NFR 1300 low-water bridge near Nogo at 0.0 miles (watch out for a crusty old codger who thinks he owns the river, even though he has been told differently!); Snow Creek low-water bridge on river right at about 10.0 miles (this is usually a difficult access to see from the river, so marking the take-out before starting the trip is always a good idea); Arkansas SH 27 low-water bridge adjacent to Bayou Bluff Campground, on river right downstream of the bridge at about 14.0 miles. There are no other access points for this reach of the Middle Fork.
Some of the land on both sides of the river near the Nogo access is privately owned by a guy who false believes he owns the world - if you encounter him, then just go on your way without comment or discussion. Avoid camping on private land without having first obtained permission. Bayou Bluff Campground, on the east side of SH 27 at the put-in for the mainstream above Hector, offers tent campsites, 7 family campsites, three sheltered campsites, drinking water, chemical toilets and picnic facilities between April 16 and November 15. There are no other campgrounds along Illinois Bayou, but numerous great campsites are available in close proximity: Haw Creek Falls Recreation Area (USFS) off SH 123 near Fort Douglas offers excellent campground facilities; Long Pool Campground (USFS) at the end of CR 15 at Big Piney Creek offers excellent campground facilities; Moore Outdoors (501-331-3606); Lake Dardanelle State Park on the Arkansas River near Russellville offers excellent campground facilities and other amenities. There are two other USFS campgrounds near Big Piney Creek: Rotary Ann Campground, on SH 7 south of SH 123 in Pope County, offers excellent campgrounds north of the creek, and Ozone Campground on SH 21 south of SH 123 in Johnson County near Little Piney Creek, offers excellent campgrounds north of the creek.
There are no known liveries or outfitters serving Illinois Bayou or its forks. Bring your own boats and gear, and run your own shuttles.
Unless the situation has changed recently, do not park your vehicles and leave them near the Nogo access, and waste no time getting on the river. There used to be a guy up there who owned land on both sides of the river, and who claimed that he also owned the river. Of course, he is as wrong as the year is long, but don't try telling him that! You may or may not encounter any hostiles, but if you do, then just ignore any baiting and go on your way down the river as quickly as possible. The Middle Fork is not quite as gentle as the North Fork and mainstream of Illinois Bayou. It offers a thrilling Class II to III ride among boulder gardens and willow jungles where good boating skills are essential. In fact, unless one has at least strong intermediate level whitewater skills he or she should not even be on this very remote stream. Be sure to know the downstream flow conditions before putting in to avoid walking out and carrying your boats and gear across very unforgiving terrain and possibly private property. That guy at the top will probably mistake you for a "Revenuer" and shoot you! Well, probably not, but why take the chance? Dry in everything you do not want getting wet, tighten the straps on your PFD and helmet, then hit it! At navigable flows the Middle Fork offers a spectacularly gorgeous and wild ride that is a little more than moderately challenging, especially if you fail to avoid those damned willow jungles! If you get into the willows, then you may wish you were discussing the price of tea in China with that guy at the top instead of trying to extracate yourself and your boat from the entrapment in which you find yourself! I would say to take a camera, but you probably will not have time to use it.