By Ryan Nix / Photos By Casey Crocker
Once the seasons shift from winter to spring, Arkansans start itching to get outside.
Some of us hike, others play sports and almost everyone hosts or attends a cookout. However, one particular outdoor activity is gaining popularity across the state: paddle sports. Luckily for us, Arkansas is braided with waterways catering to the tastes of any paddler, from canoe camping and fishing to boozy float trips and whitewater kayaking.
Arkansas Water Trails
If you want to get away from it all, it’s hard to find a better escape than the Arkansas Water Trails. Starting 10 years ago as part of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) Watchable Wildlife Program, the Arkansas Water Trails Project has mapped and marked 13 water trails all across the state. “I was asked to develop trails for wildlife viewing in our management areas. It turns out, Mother Nature had already provided many floatable routes,” says Kirsten Bartlow, coordinator of the Watchable Wildlife Program and director of the water trails program. “All we had to do was clean, map and mark the trails.”
Essentially the equivalent of hiking trails, all but two water trails feature clear markers for paddlers to follow. In case you get lost, AGFC also has maps of each trail available for download on its website. If you also download Avenza Maps to your smartphone, you can use your phone’s GPS to follow your float in real-time, even without cell service. “It’s a great backup for some of our trails, like Bayou DeView. It’s a beautiful swamp to paddle in, but it’s easy to get lost if you miss a trail mark er,” says Bartlow. “If you have the Avenza app and the map downloaded, you can see exactly where you are at all times.”
Out of the 13 water trails, Bartlow believes the Bayou DeView trail gets the most traffic and attention, due to being in the Arkansas ‘Big Woods.’ The Big Woods around Bayou DeView are one of the few surviving patches of the old-growth bottomland hardwood forests that once blanketed the Delta. Bayou DeView gained national attention in 2005, when sightings of the thought-to-be extinct ivory-billed woodpecker were reported.
Since the Water Trails Project has a staff of one (Bartlow), the trail’s continued existence depends on community partnerships. “Every trail has a partner, whether it’s volunteers, city parks, the Army Corps of Engineers or the Arkansas Canoe Club,” says Bartlow. “Our main ally is the Arkansas Water Trail Partnership — they’ve been instrumental.”
A nonprofit founded in 2016, the Water Trails Partnership was founded by Debbie Doss, who previously served for 17 years as the Arkansas Canoe Club’s conservation chair. “We’re dedicated to providing volunteer help to the AGFC Water Trails Program,” says Doss. She and other volunteers in the partnership mapped most of the water trails and currently assist with trail maintenance. They’re also responsible for the two camping platforms floating on the Little Maumelle and Bayou DeView trails, which feature room for tents, hammock attachments and mosquito nets.
“If you’re out there after dark, a mosquito net is necessary,” says Doss. “Although, during that same time, buffalo gnats hatch and are a real nuisance during the day.” Buffalo gnats hatch in running water and need blood to produce eggs, but luckily they don’t last long. Once water temperatures rise to 75 degrees, their larvae die off. “After hatching in April, they last two to four weeks, but during that time it’s rough,” Doss says.
Although both Bartlow and Doss have noted kayaking’s increasing popularity, both of the old-school paddlers prefer canoes.
“I usually spend a week on the Buffalo River during the spring, and a canoe allows me to load up more gear than a kayak,” says Bartlow.
“You can just carry more stuff, and it’s easier to get in and out of when you’re in wetlands,” says Doss.
Despite her personal predilections, Bartlow believes potential paddlers should make their watercraft choices based on their personal needs. “It just depends on what you’re doing. When camping, I’d prefer a canoe, but I’d really like to get my hands on a fishing kayak with foot pedals,” she says.
“Kayaks are easier for novices. The double-bladed paddle is more intuitive for people when they first jump in the boat,” says Doss, remarking on the learning curve differences between the different paddling disciplines. “With a canoe, you have a single-bladed paddle. Right out the gate, you have to learn more difficult strokes.”
The Arkansas water trails all provide ample opportunities for fishing, wildlife watching and swimming, but prospective paddlers should consult the AGFC website (www.agfc.com) before a float. There, visitors can read up on their chosen trail’s current water level, marked paths and other quirks, including Arkansas’ growing alligator population.
Class I Easy
Nearly flat water. The only thing to worry about is getting your hair wet.
Class II Novice
A bit more exciting. The water is quick with small waves in wide passages. If you know how to use a paddle, you should be fine.
Class III Intermediate
Now we’re getting somewhere. Rapids are high, waves are irregular. Passages between rocks are clear but often narrow.
Class IV Advanced
Features long, powerful rapids and boiling eddies. Requires precise maneuvering. Whitewater kayaks and rafts are recommended.
Class V Expert
Difficult waves, rapids are long, violent and uninterrupted. Drops can be huge. Helmets are necessary. A guided rafting tour is recommended, otherwise they should only be run by experts in whitewater kayaks.
Class VI Deathwish
Do not attempt. Navigation of rapids is nearly impossible, but injury or death is extremely possible. There are no Class-VI rapids in Arkansas.
If you live in the northern part of Arkansas, you may be surprised to find out that roughly 5,000 alligators make the southern half of our state home.
“Well, we’re right next to Louisiana, and alligators don’t recognize state lines,” says Doss. “I’ve paddled around in Arkansas Post and Felsenthal, heard a noise and looked over just in time to see a pair of reptile eyes go underwater and swim away.” Doss further notes that the largest alligator spotted so far in Arkansas was 14 feet long. “I’d like to see one that long someday,” she says.
“Oh yeah, the Arkansas Post trail is a great place to see alligators,” adds Bartlow. “During the summer months, you can see them basking out on the riverbanks.” While some paddlers might be unnerved by the prospect of encountering prodigious prehistoric predators during what they thought would be a nice, lazy day of fishing and floating, there is little to worry about. There have been no documented alligator attacks in Arkansas.
“They’re very shy down here. It’s not like Florida,” says Doss. “They just haven’t interacted with people as much, so they’re more afraid of you than you are of them.”
Bartlow agrees with Doss. “There’s never been an alligator attack in Arkansas. Just use common sense when you’re around them; don’t let kids or pets into the water in areas with active alligators.” If you use common sense, alligators are to Arkansas’ water trails as black bears are to our hiking trails. At best, they’re a rare, incredible part of nature experienced by a privileged few; at worst, they’re a nuisance that might steal your food or eat your pomeranian. Let’s face it, no matter how precious she looks in her tiny life jacket, Princess Pomma has no business being out on the water. If she gets snatched by a 12-foot apex predator, you have only yourself to blame.
“People spend too much time indoors. We need to get out and enjoy what we have. We need to appreciate, care for and preserve our incredible outdoor spaces,” says Doss. “We need people who want to protect our wetlands.” If you’re interested in volunteering with the Water Trails Project or Partnership, simply reach out to Bartlow or Doss who will immediately plug you in to a waterway conservation effort in your area.
If your community lies near a stream, river or pond, you can partner with the AGFC to develop and promote your local waterway. In fact, a Delta water trail is currently in the works. “We’re planning on opening a ten-mile St. Francis Sunken Lands Water Trail this spring,” says Bartlow. Not only will the new trail provide additional recreational activities for Delta locals, Bartlow also sees each new water trail as a way to create environmentally conscious economic development. “We think the St. Francis trail will pull in locals and tourists that’ll be healthy for them and sustainable for the local economy,” says Bartlow. “We want folks to get involved in conservation, to learn about wildlife and go fishing. It’s good, healthy living.”
Beyond the Water Trails
While the AGFC Water Trails are a fantastic way to get out on the water, they’re definitely not the only game in town. If you’re looking for a different kind of adventure, the Buffalo and Spring rivers both provide excellent floating opportunities.
Beauty on the Buffalo River
Possibly the most-visited and well-known of Arkansas’ rivers, the Buffalo River has rushing waters, primordial forests and towering limestone bluffs that create an unforgettable backdrop for float trips. The appeal is completely understandable. Not only was it the first river in the country to be designated and protected as a national river, but it’s also one of the few undammed rivers in the lower 48 states and home to the only elk herd in Arkansas. “The Buffalo is beautiful and relaxing. It’s mostly smooth, but that depends on where you decide to float,” says Jaden Massey, manager of Buffalo River Outfitters (BRO). “In our area, if the river is floatable the rapids can reach Class-II, which most novices can handle.”
Massey refers to the international scale of river difficulty, which organizes river rapids from Class-I, which are essentially flat, to Class-VI, which are dangerous to the point of being impassable. Luckily for most Arkansas rafters, Class-VI rapids are nowhere to be found on the Buffalo River, or anywhere in the state for that matter.
If you’re looking to float the Buffalo, BRO provides kayaks and canoes year-round. “We also have rafts, but the river’s only raftable in the spring and early summer,” says Massey, who personally prefers a canoe. “I can get my boyfriend to do most of the paddling in a canoe,” she says.
If you’re looking for a multi-day stay on the Buffalo, BRO also rents cabins, maintains hiking trails and elk-watching locations. If you’re new to floating and not sure what boat to use, Massey says, “Kayaks are the easiest to maneuver, but they have limited space. Rafts are great for larger groups on day trips, but if you want to camp, I’d recommend a canoe.” If you’re a newbie looking for advice, Massey keeps it simple. “Take things smoothly, don’t lean too far to one side and have fun.”
The Buffalo River is definitely an Arkansas classic, but what about those desiring a beautiful float in the northeast corner? For those, the Spring River provides a wilder ride, literally and figuratively.
Sprung on the Spring River
Fed from the chilly headwaters in Mammoth Spring, the Spring River runs 57 miles from the Missouri border to its confluence with the Black River. One of Arkansas’ most exciting and heavily trafficked waterways, the Spring River and its rafters have earned a somewhat-rowdy reputation over the years. Tasabah Malone, part-owner of the Saddler Falls Resort on the Spring River, feels that the river’s reputation is mostly-unearned.
“It’s a myth that the Spring River is wild every day. The only time when things get sort of crazy are on holidays and Saturdays between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.,” says Malone. “The rest of the time it’s a family-friendly float. There are a few rapids, but they’re handleable by novices if you pay attention.”
“I like kayaking the best, but if you’re going out on the river for the first time rafting is a no-brainer. I’d recommend that,” Malone says.
Before jumping into whitewater paddling, you should first dip a toe in the waters. Nestled in Northwest Arkansas, the Siloam Springs Kayak Park is truly a hidden gem for anyone looking to get into an exciting new hobby, or for anyone looking to have a great time on the river.
The result of a $15 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation and the Grand River Dam Authority, this man-made park modified the original flow of the Illinois River, creating a series of Class-II rapids and standing waves. “The engineered rapids run about 100 yards from where you put in,” says Jon Boles, the Siloam Springs Parks and Recreation Manager. “There’s an eddy at the end of both rapids, where people can pull out and take turns.”
The rapids stay around Class-II, but they can reach Class-III, depending on rainfall. “On a summer weekend, it’s common to have 125-200 people on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays,” says Boles. “It’s a great spot for people interested in river kayaking to get their feet wet. Since we opened in 2014, we’ve seen a growing amount of stand-up paddleboards and kayaks. I usually go in a river kayak, and it’s a lot of fun.”
If you’ve graduated from the Siloam Springs Kayak Park itching for a challenge, Arkansas has a few true whitewater spots for cocky floaters. If you’re an experienced whitewater kayaker ready to test your mettle, or an inexperienced kayaker hoping to get on the local news, the Cossatot River in western Arkansas offers Class-III through -V rapids along its 12-mile run through the namesake state park.
The river gets its name from the French word “cassé-tête,” which translates literally to “crushed head.” Multiple series of rapids lay in wait for paddlers, in particular the Cossatot and Devil’s Hollow Falls.
The Cossatot Falls plunge down about 40 feet of elevation over a series of six rocky rapids. Depending on the water level, the rapids range from Class-II to -V. Midway through the Cossatot Falls is a Class-V rapid, referred to by locals as the “Washing Machine,” which is the most dangerous rapid on the entire 89-mile river, and possibly the most dangerous stretch of water in Arkansas. If you lose your nerve just before the falls, there’s a kayak portage on the western shore, although performing that portage feels like carrying your boat six flights down a fire escape.
Following that is the Devil’s Hollow Falls, a six-foot ledge running diagonally across the river. It doesn’t sound so bad after experiencing the Washing Machine, but it drops paddlers onto craggy rocks that have caused numerous injuries.
“About 26,000 people visit our park each year to float the falls,” says Mike Farringer, the Cossatot River State Park superintendent. “If you want to run the falls, you need to be experienced with rivers, not flat-water or recreational kayaking.
“You also need to be sure you have a boat that’s made for Class-III or Class-V rapids. If you just pick up a fishing kayak, the falls can tear it apart,” Farringer adds.
If you’ve been whitewater rafting before and know what you’re doing, by all means, visit the Cossatot. Before your visit, be sure to call the state park to ensure the water levels are safe. The river’s levels are so variable that there aren’t any local rental services, so BYOB (Bring Your Own Boat). Also, practice your Eskimo roll (using your hips to flip an upended kayak) and pack a helmet.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of water trails, rivers, lakes and bayous that can be paddled in Arkansas; it’s merely a snapshot of what the state has to offer. We’ve only just begun enjoying our state’s abundant waterways, and you should definitely find some time to paddle, fish or float. Just remember that we are both visitors and caretakers of Arkansas’ beautiful waterways, so have fun and don’t litter.
“We need to get out and enjoy what we have,” says Doss. “We need to appreciate, care for and preserve our incredible outdoor spaces. It’s a fantastic way to meet people and explore new places.”