Surf’s Up

Jul 1, 2024 | Featured, Travel

Area whitewater enthusiasts no longer depend on Mother Nature’s whims to enjoy their sport. The surf is always up at Waters of Oklahoma and Arkansas Whitewater Park (WOKA) in Watts, Oklahoma. The WOKA site has long been a venue for outdoor adventure. In the 1920s, Tulsa businessman Julis K. Livingston created Forest Park Lake Resort (later renamed Lake Frances), constructing a dam on the Illinois River. Over time, flooding destroyed repeated attempts to maintain the dam—until now.

Grand River Dam Authority’s vision for WOKA began in 2011. They are responsible for shepherding WOKA to reality, with the support of hundreds of groups, agencies, tribal organizations, individuals, and a 35-million-dollar donation by the Walton Family Foundation. The park hosted a soft opening in September 2023, inviting visitors to play in the waves. With feedback from experts like Mason Hardgrove, a Jackson Kayak team member, the park continued to tweak the waves to prepare for its official grand opening in April 2024.

Set in the scenic Ozark Mountains, WOKA is a destination the entire family will enjoy. The 100-foot-wide by 1,200-foot-long channel is an adventurer’s playground designed to accommodate a variety of whitewater vessels and floater’s abilities. The eight waves offer everyone a heart-pumping, exhilarating challenge: expert whitewater kayakers looking to hone their skills, stand-up paddleboarders, paddlers new to the sport, and tubers just out for some fun in the waves.

The only charge for visitors who bring their equipment is a ten-dollar parking fee, and WOKA offers a wide range of rentals if you do not own gear. Rentals include inflatable solo and tandem sit-on-top kayaks, solo and family-sized tubes, surfboards, stand-up paddleboards, and related safety gear—everything needed for a safe and enjoyable experience. You can choose the All-Float Pass to test-ride all available options.

I visited the park two days after it reopened following a high river flow closure, and the waves were still perky. I explored the park, walking the paved pathway bordering the waterway, mere feet from boaters and tubers riding out the turbulent waves.

A mom, dad, and two children on a family tube floated past, laughing and screaming uproariously. I watched as they entered wave three, sailing down its long, swift approach before abruptly smashing into the wall of foamy water. When previous tubers I had seen met this abutment, it flipped the tube’s front straight up, dumping its passengers backward into the frothy stream, but not this group. They managed to stay upright and continue merrily downstream.

I watched Simon Mitchell, an experienced whitewater adventurer I’d spoken to earlier, enter wave five. He explained that the park had recently tweaked the wave by adjusting metal plates installed on the stream floor. “It has more of a hole now,” he stated. “This gives it good retentiveness to hold you so you can do tricks.”

Tricks is an understatement for the acrobatics he performed, which included cartwheels, wave wheels, spins, peel-outs, and others. Words alone would not do justice in describing these feats. Find Simon on YouTube and be prepared to be amazed.

One of the great features of WOKA is accessibility. If you get flushed out of a wave working on a trick, it’s just a short paddle to the bank. You can climb out of your kayak, walk a few steps up the path, and reenter the wave to try again. If your children are young and inexperienced, they can take their tubes or surfboards to waves seven and eight. These are smaller waves, and kids will never tire of unlimited repeats.

The park is a great place to visit, even for those who are not into being repeatedly splashed in the face and drenched. Concessions, restrooms, and an elevated shaded viewing area offer visitors a bird’ s-eye view of all eight wave features. Given the extraordinary acrobatics performed by some adventurers and the heartwarming antics of children in tubes, WOKA makes this a fun spectator sport.

Safety is a priority at WOKA, which should not be considered a theme park ride. Visitors must be prepared for a challenging adventure in an actual whitewater environment. There are no lifeguards on duty at the park. A life jacket, whitewater helmet, and secure footwear are required. Visitors may bring their own life jackets, but they must be US Coast Guard-approved.

Visitors can extend their adventure and camp on the banks of the Illinois River at Gypsy Camp & Canoe. Just upstream from WOKA, historic Gypsy Camp was started in 1928 as Gypsy Camp for Girls. It opened in 2018 as a River Outfitter and Camp.

Check current conditions, find rental details, and plan your visit at
918.610.WOKA (9652)
Park Hours: 8a – 7p / Rental & Concession: 10a – 6p

WORDS Bob Robinson
IMAGES Bob Robinson and courtesy WOKA

Do South Magazine

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