10 A BAYOU WITH A VIEW You never know when you get up in the morning what earth-shaking event might take place and change your life forever. For me, a chain of such events began when I checked my e-mail one day in February 2004. Just a few days earlier, a kayaker named Gene Sparling—the same man Larry Mallard had told me about a few weeks earlier—had spotted an unusual woodpecker foraging on a huge cypress tree in a long, narrow bayou in eastern Arkansas. When he saw the bird’s unique color pattern—brilliant white on the lower half of its back, with two white lines extending up the back to its crested head— he knew immediately that he had never seen this kind of bird before. Inconspicuous in his kayak, he pulled into a secluded spot and sat watching it for almost a full minute. The woodpecker was so close he could see the minute details of the feathers and even some greenish staining on the lower part of its back, perhaps from going in and out of a roost hole or nest.
When he got home a few days later, Gene posted a long description of his trip on a canoe club listserver, and he included a couple of sentences about the woodpecker, buried toward the end of the piece. His e- mail report was forwarded to me, and I immediately called him up. I grilled him for about an hour. His sighting sounded better than a lot of the thirty-year- old reports I had been investigating, and it was less than a week old.
Gene has pileated woodpeckers nesting on his farm in Hot Springs, in the western part of Arkansas, so he is thoroughly familiar with that species. It seemed unlikely that a pileated was what he had seen. What struck me most about his description was that he said the bird seemed almost cartoonlike because of its quick, jerky movements and general nervousness. Its neck looked thinner than a pileated’s, and its crest seemed to come to a point in the back.
I telephoned Bobby and told him about the sighting. Then I asked if he would mind calling Gene and talking to him. I was interested in getting his impression, to see if it was the same as mine.
After a long talk with Gene, Bobby told him, “It sounds to me like you’ve seen an ivory-billed woodpecker.” “You think so?” said Gene. “I don’t have enough confidence to make that call, but I’m glad to hear you say that.” Before they got off the phone, Bobby was already planning a trip to the sighting area, at Bayou de View in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, and Gene was going to go with him. I mentioned this to my wife about an hour later, and she told me, “You should go along with him. You’ll never forgive yourself if he sees an ivory-bill and you’re not there.” I didn’t need much encouragement. I did a quick search on the Internet to find a good airline ticket price and then called up Bobby. “Say, you think you could pick me up in Memphis on the way down?” “No problem,” he said. “I go right through there.” And that was it: the start of our adventure. A week later I was on my way south again, for the second time in a month.
Gene Sparling told us to meet him on a small country road near Clarendon, Arkansas. He wanted to look at a place where we could haul out at the end of our several-day-long float down the bayou. He had arranged with a local man called Frank to drop us off at a bridge crossing several miles north of where Gene had seen the strange woodpecker and to pick us up at the haul- out point.
We spotted Gene’s red Toyota pickup, unmistakable with the canoe and kayak strapped to the top, a few minutes after turning off the main road. Gene greeted us enthusiastically, and we stood on the side of the road discussing the bird he had seen and our plans for the next few days.
Gene is an affable man with a deep, resonant voice and a slow delivery that reminds me a little of Eeyore’s. Grizzled and bearded, with receding red hair and crow’s feet etched deeply into his weathered face, he looks older than his forty-eight years.
When we finished talking, Gene told us to follow him into Clarendon to pick up Frank.
As we drove along behind him, I said to Bobby, “You know, he either saw an ivory-bill or he’s lying.
And I really don’t think he’s a liar.” Bobby nodded. “I don’t either,” he said. “His story is completely believable.” Gene got confused on the way to Frank’s house, and we went driving around and around in a residential area where everything looked the same. He finally found the correct house. Gene leaves his car at Frank’s house every time he goes kayaking in this area. On this trip, Bobby parked his oold van in front of Frank’s house and left him with the keys.
Frank is a large, jovial man of about sixty-five who wears cowboy boots and a leather belt with a huge silver buckle. He teased Gene mercilessly as he drove us to our drop-off point, claiming that Gene must have a she-bear stashed somewhere in the bayou that he was always visiting. “No one would come out here just to look at a damn bird,” he said. “I know you got a she-bear.”
It was bad when Bobby and I first started canoeing along Bayou de View— real bad. Without any preparation, we clambered down below the overpass, loaded up the canoe—which Gene had borrowed from his parents—and pushed off into the latte-brown river flowing into the swamp. I sat in front and Bobby in the stern, with all our equipment piled high between us. I had had some fairly recent experience canoeing in the Adirondacks with my kids, and I had floated to falcon nests in Canada and other far northern places in the past, but I was rusty. Bobby hadn’t touched a canoe since he was twelve, and it showed. It was a real grind hauling ourselves through that morass, at times practically clawing our way through the bayou, scrambling up and over logs and cypress knees and blasting through little chutes where the water pushed together to form a swift-moving stream. This is where you’re in danger of flipping over. You bump into a submerged log or root, then overreact to compensate, and there you go—your canoe has turned over and all your gear and supplies are bobbing downstream as you lie submerged, with brown swamp water rushing into your mouth. Blech!
On that first day, it seemed that whenever we found ourselves rushing into a treacherous area, Bobby and I couldn’t coordinate our movements to avoid the hazards. I would point the canoe toward the one open passage I could see ahead, but Bobby would inevitably steer in the other direction, and we would wind up blasting sideways into the teeth of disaster. It was the wildest roller coaster ride I’ve ever been on. Somehow we managed not to swamp the canoe, but a couple of times I had to jump overboard and horse the canoe in a different direction. Luckily, I was wearing chest waders. Unluckily, the water was sometimes deeper than the top of my waders and came flooding inside.
Bayou de View is a magical place where wildlife abounds. As we canoed through the swamp, wood ducks and flocks of mallards burst from the water around us. Herds of white-tailed deer, snorting a loud warning, splashed off across the shallow water at the edge of the woods. We saw beavers swimming past and otters playing. The loud calls of barred owls and great horned owls echoed through the dim recesses of the swamp, even at mid- day. But most impressive were the woodpeckers. Everywhere we turned, we saw pileated, red-bellied, red-headed, and downy woodpeckers, plus a few yellow-bellied sapsuckers. It excited us to remember that Jim Tanner had wr...