A bird watching expedition may not have yielded what Debbie Doss was seeking, but she didn’t leave empty handed.
A biologist by training, an outdoor enthusiast by heart, Doss had always had an interest in the Big Woods of Arkansas and jumped at the chance to see it when she was invited to join the hunt for the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker.
The woodpecker failed to appear, but the expedition inspired Doss to help form the Arkansas Watertrails Partnership (AWP).
The partnership is a small 501(c)(3) nonprofit that was organized to assist the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s water trails program headed by the commission’s Watchable Wildlife Coordinator Kirsten Bartlow.
“No woodpecker was seen by me,” Doss says, “but I truly fell in love with Arkansas’ incomparable wetlands and kept going and paddling as much of the remote reaches of the Big Woods as I could.”
The Big Woods comprises some 500,000 acres along the White, Cache and Arkansas rivers and Bayou DeView. According to the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, the woods are known to be the largest block of forest remaining in the northern section of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain.
Doss became enchanted by the possibilities for exploring Arkansas’ water trails and recalls brainstorming with White River National Wildlife Refuge staff about ways to get the mainstream public into such places.
“Most people, other than hunters and anglers, had no gateway into exploring these unique habitats,” Doss says. “The first trail created was a birding trail on the Cache Refuge in Bayou DeView.”
Audubon Arkansas became interested in water trails, says Doss, who met Bartlow at one of their meetings. Bartlow had been looking for trail ideas in her position at AGFC, and her first project with Doss was the Wattensaw Bayou Water Trail.
State and federal agencies were interested in watertrails, too, Doss says, but resources were limited. Bartlow was also operating on a narrow budget, and refuges were losing interest thanks to staff losses and budget cuts.
At her own expense and using her many connections in the outdoor community, Doss started the AWP, enlisting volunteers from the Arkansas Canoe Club, where she was conservation chair for 17 years.
“I was also interested in creating camping opportunities for people along trails,” Doss says. “My association with The [Arkansas] Nature Conservancy was beneficial to that end.”
Doss’ love of nature comes, well, naturally. She was born in Artesia, New Mexico, and recalls being surrounded by beautiful desert while reading about beautiful wetlands in books. Her family moved to Oklahoma when she was 11 and she finished growing up on the banks of the Illinois River, a tributary of the Arkansas River.
A whitewater paddler and instructor, conservationist, birdwatcher and amateur herpetologist, Doss has spent a lot of time paddling swamps and taking others on guided trips. With the Watertrail Partnership, she may not be guiding all of the trips, but she is making it possible for more people to go.
“I feel that my role has been to help connect all of those interested in creating water trails,” Doss says.
The partnership’s primary efforts are in working with state and federal agencies and non-governmental organizations to build and maintain water trails and water trail-accessible camping. It informs paddlers about water trails and promotes conservation and “leave no trace” outdoor ethics through education and cleanup projects.
The work is funded by grants and small donations that all go to support AWP projects.
“We operate on a shoestring, but I have managed to get two platform camping sites built through donations and volunteers,” Doss says.
The partnership has five board members, including Doss’ husband, who rely on themselves and volunteers for the work to get done. There is no paid staff and the workload depends on what projects are ongoing at the time.
“I spend most of my time scoping out new trails, helping with signage and trail marker maintenance, new campsites or meeting with others about trails or funding,” Doss says.
The partnership may be stretched thin, but for Doss, the accomplishments are substantial.
“We are thrilled with all of the help we have given AGFC on their water trails program, especially doing mapping and trail work on Bayou DeView, Wattensaw Bayou, Grassy Lake and others,” she says. “We are very proud of our camping platform projects on Little Maumelle Water Trail and on Bayou DeView in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and the cleanup projects my husband has led on many lakes and streams.”
Doss is currently working with AGFC to create a water trail on Hurricane Lake WMA and extending the trail on Bayou DeView. She is also working on new camping platforms on Bayou DeView, which will create a site-to-site paddling opportunity for adventurous types who want to spend several days floating and camping.
“I’ve always thought that people need to be exposed to the beauty of nature and come to love it and bond with it to have healthy lives,” Doss says. “Such caring and bonding also inspires us all to protect and preserve nature.”
Learn more: arkansaswatertrails.com.