This May I have had the privilege to be on War Eagle Creek three times. May 9 was the inaugural running of the annual Morgan-Mhoon float trip. Then May 16, Sharon and I kayaked on the War Eagle arm of Beaver Lake with my friends Steve Patterson and Ed Fite. Finally on the Saturday before Memorial Day, I once again paddled on War Eagle Creek with my friend David Thrasher, whom I have written about before, Bill Elder and his wife, Karen Freeman, along with their daughter, Meredith, son-in-law Peter Neirengarten, and their son Austin. All three were great trips with their own special character.
Every time I make a trip to the War Eagle with folks that have not been there before, I get the same question, “Is it a creek or a river?” That question is easy to answer. United States Geographic Survey (USGS) maps all give the name of the stream as “War Eagle Creek.” War Eagle Creek is the official name as determined by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names and subsequently is listed in the USGS’s Geographic Names Information System. It just doesn’t get any more official than that! It’s the next question that is difficult, “What is the difference between a creek and a river?”
This is really a tough question with no clear answer. We tend to think of a hierarchy of water body sizes starting from brook and working up to river. One reference on the internet says you can step over a brook, jump across a creek, wade a stream and swim across a river. That might work, but I distinctly remember my childhood friend Steve Wilson showing me a photo of his dad standing with one foot on each side of the Mississippi River. I have also been to places on the White River where it is an easy step from one side to the other. Also, I have been to places on War Eagle Creek that definitely require swimming. So the size category breaks down at some point.
Another idea is that creeks are tributaries (flow into) of rivers. That may be generally true, but some creeks flow directly into bays or estuaries. And, as Steve Sobieszczyk of the USGS points out, the Little River behind the USGS office in Reston, Va. flows into Goose Creek. In the case of War Eagle Creek and the White River, it is hard to determine which is tributary to which. Both streams start on the same hill outside of Red Star, Ark., at about the same elevation and both are generally the same size at the confluence (joining of streams).
Length is another criterion that can be considered. But we can quickly rule that out as well. A quick surf of the internet gave four claims for the longest creek in the United States, including the French Creek in W. Va., the Elkhorn Creek in Ken. (124 miles), Crab Creek in Wash. (165 miles), and Laughery Creek in Ind. (90-some miles). However, Lodgepole Creek in Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado at 278 miles is the longest creek in the United States. An interesting fact about Lodgepole Creek is that the highest average annual flow in the stream ever recorded at the one and only gage in Bushnell, Neb, was 18.1 cubic feet per second (CFS). However, the last year when the average annual flow exceeded 1 CFS was 2003 when it reached 3.18 CFS. Several years since then, the averageflow was 0. For comparison, the highest average annual flow in the War Eagle was 641.5 CFS in 1957. Each CFS equals 449 gallons per minute. The title of shortest river is also contested. The Guinness Book of World Records currently lists the Roe River, which flows 200 feet from Giant Springs to the Missouri River, as the shortest. However, the citizens of Lincoln City, Ore., claim the D river that flows from Devil’s Lake into the Pacific Ocean is that shortest. Their measurement of 120 feet is suspect since they measured to the line of “extreme high tide.” Either way, it is clear that length alone does not determine river or creek.
So there is no clear answer to what differentiates a creek from a river. We can say that a river is generally larger and longer than a creek and that creeks are frequently tributary to rivers. But there are always exceptions. Likely the name is just a matter of the preference of the person who named the stream. There are in fact over a hundred terms that refer to flowing bodies of water. These terms include brook, run, creek, crick, kill, run, runnel, stream, rio, river, arroyo, branch, fork, gut, rill and many more.
The term “creek” comes from old English which likely got it from the Norse. In England, creek refers to an inlet or bay where ships can find shelter from the sea. Settlers from England and Scotland brought the term with them, but for some reason referred to small streams as creeks as well. River on the other hand is from the Latin term “riparia.” French explorers who took the name from the native Osage Indians named the White River. The name War Eagle Creek did not appear until around 1820 after the United States purchased Louisiana (as in Louisiana Purchase, not the State of Louisiana) from the French. Since the United States was heavily influenced by its English settlers, my speculation is that the descriptor of creek or river just is a reflection of who was in charge when the stream was named.