By Tom Hough
I have often heard the term oxbow used to describe why Cane River is a lake and not a river. I have also read in a well written history book that it was an oxbow and also read on a National Park Service historic marker by the Keyser Street bridge that Cane River is an oxbow so I’ve decided to write this explanation as to why Cane River is not an oxbow,
An oxbow lake is often referred to as a cutoff lake as is Cane River, which is where the confusion starts. A river is rarely, if ever, straight when created by natural forces, taking the path of least resistance it meander bends and forms.
Picture a river flowing south. Where the river suddenly turns to the west the currents will run up against the embankment eroding the bank and carrying sediment with it as it makes its turn. The same thing happens where it turns back south, then back east, then back south again each time eroding the soil from the embankments. As the currents turn from south to west the bank is cut a little southward and where it cuts from west to south it eats the bank a little northward.
Eventually the erosion southward meets the erosion northward and a whole new channel forms. Sediments deposit where the old turns were, separating a section of the river that has a nice curve like the bow on an ox yoke. The lake is only as long as that single meander bend. The elevation differences are not that great between the river and the lake and any water that flows in from the river during a flood is contained naturally in the lake.
Local examples of oxbows are Murphy’s Lake, Hampton’s Lake and Oldriver Red River at Powhatan. They can be viewed on google maps.
Red River had a situation that was very different from most rivers. At some point long before Europeans settled the region cottonwood logs carried down by floods lodged in a shallow area above present day Alexandria and settled in place forming a kind of natural dam. In the following years more trees formed behind those first logs until the log jam was about 35 miles long. At that point the initial logs were rotting and breaking away at about the same rate the upper part added new materials which was estimated at about a mile a year which gave rise to a Caddo Indian legend that the great Red River Raft as it became known was like a snake crawling up river.
The raft caused flooding at a greater frequency than most rivers causing the natural levee along the bank of the river to build up at a much faster rate and caused a greater elevation difference between the rivers edge and the backswamp than most rivers, forming many natural lakes in the backswamps in the process. Because of the blocking of the river fractures in the natural levee called crevasses would cause the river to flow through the backswamps for many miles.
A new channel formed as the current searched for a way back into the river and these channels became distributary streams that distributed water to a point in the river below the raft. There were many of these distributary streams on both sides of the river valley that defined the red River as having a braided stream pattern. These distributary streams would be at a lower elevation than the primary channel so that gravity would eventually steal the waters from the primary channel creating a new primary channel leaving the original channel high and dry and functioning as a river only during times of flooding.
This is what happened to Cane River. Cane River is in a braid channel, not just one meander bend but many meander bends, In average times there may have been a little water flowing through it during droughts it would be dry and during flood periods it would be navigable again. To form a lake from this old braid channel dams were placed in two locations and it became a lake by these man made structures and not by natural processes. Cane River lake is best described as a man made lake formed in a braid channel of the Red River.