Cartwheels, spins, flips, pirouettes—if you wander out to one of Arkansas’ numerous whitewater streams after a big rain, you’re likely to see dozens of Arkansans practicing these moves. Only don’t expect them to be wearing leotards; a paddle and life jacket are more their style.
Playboating is a form of whitewater kayaking that involves executing technical tricks and stunts in one spot on the river. And although playboating is a relatively new phenomenon, many see it merely as an extension of a pastime that’s been an essential component of Arkansas culture for generations.
“[Paddling] is just part of who we are as Arkansans,” says Gordon Kumpuris, 35-year veteran of the state’s waterways and former president of the Arkansas Canoe Club. “If you’re from Arkansas and have never kayaked or paddled a canoe, then it’s like living in Florida and never having visited the beach.”
From the gentle riffles of the Middle Buffalo to the steep drops of Richland Creek, there is enough water here to provide a challenge for paddlers of all abilities, and play spots provide the right mix of elements not only to perform a variety of tricks but also to hone essential river-running skills.
Play spots are typically characterized by fixed hydraulic features, such as permanent “standing” waves or eddy lines (the border between the relatively still water in an eddy and the fast, unobstructed current) that enable kayakers to execute maneuvers impossible in other locations. A kayaker’s play spot is the snowboarder’s half pipe, a means to performing an impressive array of technical stunts. For these guys, just getting down the river isn’t good enough—it’s all about style.
Blunts, loops, squirts and wave wheels—playboating moves are as diverse as their names imply, and many kayakers supplement established maneuvers with their own unique variations. The result is a limitless arsenal of stunts that can build into impressive combinations. Surfing, which involves riding a standing wave without being swept downstream, provides the basis for many tricks. Once a surfing kayaker is established in a wave, he or she can use the current’s energy to initiate a variety of moves such as the blunt, in which the kayaker sinks the boat’s bow into the water and uses the current to push the kayak vertical in the water while spinning it 180 degrees. As playboaters become more proficient, they may work aerial moves into their repertoire. To perform a loop, kayakers again sink their bow into the water, wait as the current pulls the front tip of the boat underneath them, and then pop and twist at the right moment to flip themselves in midair.
Although any whitewater kayak can be used for playboating, manufacturers also produce specialized playboats with features specially suited for executing tricks and stunts. The flat bladelike bow and stern of a playboat are designed to easily slice into the water, allowing the boater to better harness the force of the current, and a flat bottom means playboats can easily spin on the surface of the water. The playboat’s short, compact body also makes it easier to manipulate during complicated maneuvers than longer, ungainly river-running kayaks. Just like its terrestrial cousin, the BMX bike, a playboat sacrifices stability for mobility.
But playboating isn’t just for the adrenaline-seeking stuntman. The sport also serves an important role in the development of novice kayakers seeking to sharpen their whitewater skills in a low-risk environment. Safe play spots allow beginners to practice handling difficult holes and rapids before encountering them in a potentially dangerous stream, where a miscue could mean personal injury or even death.
“Playboating forces a boater to really understand the power of moving water, how the boat reacts and how boat, body and blade must work together,” explains Kumpuris.
Several options exist for first-timers to get exposure to the sport. The Arkansas Canoe Club (arkansascanoeclub.com) hosts the School of Whitewater Paddling every year during the first weekend in May, when beginners can learn whitewater techniques and meet fellow boaters. Additionally, ACC members have access to regularly scheduled pool sessions around the state, allowing paddlers to polish important skills such as rolling a kayak upright after it flips upside down.
Starting a new hobby like whitewater kayaking can be intimidating, but Arkansas is filled with friendly boaters eager to share their knowledge with whitewater rookies.
“Really, all it takes is an outgoing personality and a willingness to get outside your comfort zone,” assures Kumpuris, before adding a touch of personal advice. “Ask questions, treat veteran paddlers like they are rock stars, and offer to drive the next time the water rises!”
Ready to hit the water? Here are five playboating destinations that are sure to give novices and experts alike ample opportunity to hone their craft.
Ouachita River near Pencil Bluff
Several miles before it flows into Lake Ouachita, the Ouachita River makes a wide bend to the south and loops back on itself near the Dragover Campground. The result is a 3-mile stretch of river that can easily be floated without the complication of a shuttle—only a 15-minute walk separates the put-in from the takeout. This relatively tame stretch of water offers several Class I-II rapids, as well as a number of small holes and waves that have become popular with surfing playboaters.
Saline River near Dierks
The Saline River below Dierks Lake provides something most Arkansas whitewater streams fail to deliver: predictability. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers periodically releases water from the dam, making the rapids at Horseshoe Bend a playboating paradise. A large frothy wave, several nice eddies and a challenging ledge hole (a retentive dip in the water created by water dropping over a ledge) are among its many features. Catch the scheduled drawdowns in early fall for best flow conditions.
Illinois River near Siloam Springs
Approved last July and funded by the Walton Family Foundation to the tune of $1.7 million, this newly renovated kayak park on the Illinois River began allowing sporadic access in December, though workers are still finishing a new traffic bridge over the channel which may periodically limit access. The park now contains two waves—a beginner wave and an advanced wave—as well as some sharp eddy lines and good recovery pools. Because many of the features remain runnable even at a relatively low flow, Fisher Ford is a good bet when many of the state’s other whitewater streams run dry.
Ouachita River near Malvern
This section of the Ouachita River just below Lake Catherine is the most prolific playboating locale in the state. Hit Rockport on a sunny Saturday afternoon and you’re likely to encounter a horde of like-minded whitewater enthusiasts. “This is an excellent place to learn the sport and to meet other boaters,” Kumpuris says.
Rockport has something for everyone—eddies for practicing quick turns, waves for surfing and several good holes for performing spins, cartwheels and loops. Similar to Horseshoe Bend, the quality of whitewater at Rockport depends on the upstream release of water from Remmel Dam. Monitor the Entergy website (entergy.com/hydro) for updates on scheduled releases.
Strawberry River near Cave City
From the hamlet of Poughkeepsie, head north 1.4 miles on Arkansas Highway 58, and turn left onto Hulett Road. Drive .2 miles and park just before the bridge over the Strawberry River. When the gauge at Poughkeepsie reads 3.7 feet or above, a large wave forms beneath the bridge that offers opportunities for surfing.