Dipping each blade of the paddle into the stream, you find your rhythmic strokes along the flat water. You have time to look around at the dense hardwoods lining the river, noticing the fat blue-belted kingfisher zigging from bank to bank across the stream ahead as you move with the flow.
Then you hear the sound of the rushing water in the distance. With every stroke, its sound grows along with the quickening of your heartbeat and breath.
Moving into the rush, your little boat springs to life, like it’s been waiting to show its nimbleness. The once-clear stream, now churning opaque and white, works with you, directing the kayak through watery gates. The roar envelops your concentration, filling your ears and your head. Even though your paddling buddies are in front and behind, all you can think about is you. Digging the paddle in, mind focused on the puzzle, you mark the waves and rocks through the descent, feeling startled and delighted at the cold splash on your face as you shoot through the bottom back into the calm.
Maneuvering into a calm place, you turn and wait while others take on the white water, while your breath and heartbeat return to normal.
That satisfying feeling keeps kayakers coming back for more, challenging themselves to new streams, following the watery path. On the river, you’re closer to nature. Maybe it’s because you sit so low to the water in a kayak, becoming one with the flow, that other creatures seem less intimidated by your presence. Kayakers report seeing deer swimming and often hear the loud slap of a beaver tail. Great blue herons stalk their prey in the shallows as you quietly slip by. Kayakers are both athletes and spectators, active and watching.
Arkansans are blessed with an abundance of paddling rivers, especially this time of year when the rain falls and the springs send a strong flow downstream. Whether you’re an avid kayaker or a casual paddler, you’ll find options to satisfy and challenge your level.
One major fan of paddling around the state is Arkansas Canoe Club president Tom Burroughs, who has built a life around his passion. He lives in Winslow at the headwaters of Clear Creek, a popular place to paddle after a rain. He teaches wilderness first aid for paddlers and trains instructors on how to teach whitewater kayaking. He’s a great proponent of paddling throughout Arkansas.
We talked with Burroughs about the best places to kayak—and whitewater canoe—around the state. Whether you’re just starting out or have paddled for years, here are six streams selected by Burroughs to get you on the water this season.
Class II and II+
For folks new to paddling, Burroughs suggests the Big Piney, which feeds from a large wilderness area with a clean watershed. “The water quality is superb,” says Burroughs. “When you’re out there, it has a nice remote feel with beautiful scenery, including high bluffs and lots of wildlife.”
The 67-mile long stream in the Ozark Mountains offers lots of deep pools for swimming or fishing, gravel bars for playing and hanging out, as well as whitewater spots along its course to the Arkansas River. The best known—Roller Coaster, Surfing Hole, and the hyped “Cascades of Extinction”—are spaced out between deep woods and steep banks.
Outfitter/Livery: Moore Outdoors (mooreoutdoors.com; (479) 331-3606)
Class II and II+ to III
This easily accessible stream near Interstate 40 flows almost all year, with the best paddling in fall, winter and spring. “It’s ideal for the casual paddler,” Burroughs says.
The Mulberry takes a west-southwesterly course for 55 miles to its confluence with the Arkansas River. One of the prettiest rivers in the state, it shoots through narrow canyons and under bluffs, by dense woods and through willow thickets. The most fun rapids have equally fun monikers: Whoop and Holler. In the summer months, the river slows and offers lots of fine swimming holes.
First recognized in 1985 by the General Assembly as “A Scenic River of Arkansas,” it became a National Wild and Scenic River in 1992. The Arkansas Canoe Club has run its annual whitewater paddling school there the first weekend in May for the past 39 years (reservations required).
Near Ponca and Jasper
Arkansas’ preeminent river is also America’s first wild and scenic river. “It is a jewel,” Burroughs says. If you catch the water right in the spring, “there’s nice Class II whitewater on the upper part of it.” It’s ideal for the beginning whitewater paddler.
The Buffalo descends nearly 2,000 feet through layers of sandstone and limestone along its 130-mile route. The most famous section of river flows from the Low-Water Bridge in Ponca to Highway 7. It’s a 25-mile section featuring spectacular waterfalls at Hemmed In Hollow, and swimming hole after swimming hole. The Buffalo becomes too shallow to paddle in the summer months.
Outfitter/Livery: Buffalo Outdoors Center (buffaloriver.com; (870) 861-5514)
Near Eureka Springs
Like the Mulberry and the Buffalo, the Kings begins in the folds of the Boston Mountains in Madison County. It takes off northward, flowing 90 miles to the White. “It’s a beautiful remote river, with opportunities for overnight and multiday paddling trips,” Burroughs says.
Running pell-mell through sandstone and limestone gorges, the clear water of its upper sections attracts a more advanced paddler. You’ll find plenty of swimming holes on the lower sections with wild azaleas, ferns and umbrella magnolias along the banks. The traditional starting spot is an 11-mile jaunt from Marble to Marshall Ford or the 12-mile run from Trigger Gap to U.S. Highway 62.
Outfitter/Livery: Kings River Outfitters (kings-riveroutfitters.com; (479) 253-8954)
“Cossatot is the Indian word for skull crusher,” Burroughs says with a chuckle. “By far, the Cossatot is the premier kayaking destination in the state for experienced boaters.” Better yet, it runs regularly, he says, noting that it’s not at all uncommon for paddlers to be there on a Fourth of July weekend.
The upper section of the 26-mile river runs a Class III, and the lower section has Class IV water on it. “This is the area of the state that receives the most rain,” Burroughs says.
Paddlers come from surrounding states just to take on the 33-foot drop at Cossatot Falls—a large non-stop rapid with small pools in between. “We have Arkansas Canoe Club chapters in Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma because of this one river,” Burroughs says.
You won’t find outfitters on the Cossatot, “because it necessitates paddlers with a skill level that requires with their own equipment,” Burroughs says. Those folks typically stay in Cossatot River State Park (arkansasstateparks.com/CossatotRiver; (870) 385-2201).
Off Highway 7 Near Pelsor
“The other extremely popular Class IV run for experienced paddlers is this jewel in the upper Richland Wilderness of the Ozark National Forest,” Burroughs says.
Only the most advanced kayakers should attempt this stream when it’s full of water. Over the course of 30 miles, it thrills with steep drops and narrow chutes. It drops 1,400 feet from atop the Ozarks to mingle with the waters of the Buffalo. Most of the river is inaccessible to roads, but you can reach it off the Ozark Highlands Trail.
The two most spectacular drops are at Richland Falls, a 100-foot-wide cascade that falls about 8 feet, and Twin Falls, where Long Devil’s Fork and Big Devil’s Fork come together and both drop 20 to 25 feet side-by-side. Paddlers tend to stay at Richland Creek Campground and hike 2.5 miles upstream to get to Richland Falls and Twin Falls.