Winding Rivers

Words & Images: courtesy Lydia Dobbins, The Woodsman Company

Jun 1, 2022 | Travel

Summer vacation has begun. Days filled with air conditioning, ice cream cones, and frequent visits to the local swimming hole bring moments of relief, and as such, the urge to escape those sultry days becomes the quest of every man, woman, child, and animal who lives in the South.

As a child, some of my most memorable times were lazy days of floating down the river in an inner tube with a sack lunch and water bottle trailing behind. I remember my mother driving me, my sister, and a couple of friends five miles upriver in the morning and choosing a time and take-out point for later in the day. We spent the day floating and swimming, exploring the wandering river, and tasting freedom for the first time. Freedom from chores, or demands on our time, just hanging with friends and enjoying the sun.

Rivers, for me, have always held a particular spot in my heart. I find solace in rivers, whether floating, fishing, or swimming. The sound of the water filters out the world’s craziness and gives me a moment to simply be. There’s no pressure to do something or be something; the river gives me the gift of a unique moment in time.

Those special moments are hard to capture as the demands of life pile up. We often find ourselves so bogged down we don’t know how to reclaim free time. With work, school, extracurricular activities, and personal responsibilities, time away is difficult to manage, yet it is something we must plan.

Arkansas abounds with places to float and escape. The Buffalo National River is a fantastic place to unwind and immerse yourself in the beauty of the Ozarks. Moss-covered rock bottoms are an excellent background for the many fish species you will see on the Buffalo River. As you float the river, below the majestic cliffs and bluffs of the Ozark highlands, your eyes will be captivated by sights above and below. Perhaps you’ll catch a glimpse of a river otter or a soaring eagle. More often than not, a hatch of aquatic insects or migration of butterflies or dragonflies will surround you with the rhythm of life.

Setting aside time and planning may seem daunting, but the Buffalo National River system has multiple outfitters with kayak and canoe rentals. The key to locating an outfitter is to decide what stretch of river you want to explore and see. A popular stretch to float and one of the most scenic is Ponca to Kyle’s Landing. This section is almost eleven miles long and takes four to six hours to complete. Big Bluff and Hemmed in Hollow are great stops along this float. I highly recommend accessing Hemmed in Hollow via float trip versus hiking. The hike up and out of Hemmed in Hollow is quite a workout for the legs and lungs. The Buffalo National River also has a great trail system and campsites surrounding it. When exploring this area, give yourself several days to explore, as it is brimming with incredible sights and wonders.

Are you looking for a day float closer to home? The Mulberry is a stunning river with numerous rapids and great swimming holes. Byrd’s Adventure Center and Turner Bend have kayaks and canoes as rentals. The opportunity to explore the river over a three or five-mile stretch will be a delight for the senses and a cool and refreshing adventure in the outdoors. Remember that floating after substantial rain is not ideal for a beginner paddler. Given enough rain, Arkansas rivers can get big and wild, so I encourage new paddlers to wait for a dry spell when the water level is more manageable. When renting a kayak or canoe, it is essential to take time to get basic instructions and always wear a life jacket. Accidents on the water happen more often with down trees and obstructions in the water than actual rapids.

Beautiful rivers that are floatable most of the year include the Buffalo River, Ouachita River, Mulberry River, Piney River, and the Illinois River in Oklahoma. Most of the rivers have outfitters that rent kayaks or canoes. These outfitters can give information about their river, including fishing conditions, water levels, and traffic levels. Always call to arrange for transportation and rentals and to check water levels before the day of your trip. Holidays are usually a high traffic time for rivers in Arkansas, so extra patience may be required.

Exploring less traveled, off the beaten path waters may require a purchase of a kayak, canoe, or inflatable. Owning your watercraft allows you to explore creeks and stretches of rivers that most people don’t get to see. Lee creek and Frog Bayou are incredible creeks to float and fish when the water is high enough to navigate them. Usually, your local fly shop or outdoor store will have an employee or two that float and fish in those less known areas. Employees in these retail establishments seek out less trafficked areas for solace and sometimes share their insights with enthusiastic newcomers.

Selecting a watercraft to purchase can be overwhelming. Things to think about are the areas you will float, other activities, will you be carrying it alone, and how many hours you will spend in it. Most kayaks in Arkansas are hard-sided boats and sit-on-top kayaks due to so many rocks in our rivers and creeks. The hard-sided kayaks hold up to the abuse of running into the rocks and have a longer float life than their counterparts. Before sit-on-top kayaks, people floated sitting in the kayak, feeling every bump and swirl as they went along. Paddling requires more shoulder and arm movement, which wears a body down by the end of the float.

Sit-on-top kayaks are incredibly safe because they are wide and handle movement very well. Most come with a stadium chair that allows your shoulders and arms to relax as you paddle, taking the stress off of your body during the float. Another benefit is the chair can be removed and sat on the bank when you stop to swim or have a picnic. The sit-on-top kayaks come standard or loaded with various components for fishing and hauling you may need on your float.

Inflatables are another option for floating and include paddleboards, inflatable kayaks, and rafts. Paddleboards are a popular option for those who want to stand and paddle down the river. They are great for short stretches of rivers and lakes but can be tiring on a long float. Inflatable kayaks are a new and growing category. They have detachable seats, just like the sit-on-top kayaks, weigh thirty-five to forty-five pounds, are packable and stored in a bag about the size of a large rolling suitcase, and you can transport them to lakes, rivers, or creeks and then blow them up! The downfall to inflatable kayaks is they don’t track water flow well, which requires a little more effort when paddling.

Rafts are a growing category that takes floating rivers to a new level. A raft requires rowing versus paddling and hours of experience before proficiency can be achieved. A raft’s benefits are a larger carrying capacity for dogs, children, and gear, so our family graduated to a raft. The days of floating with a sack lunch and water bottle are gone. We now have coolers full of lunch, snacks, and water for the whole family, towels for drying off after swim stops, fishing poles and nets, extra paddles in case we lose one or break one, and of course, our dog! To some, it may seem we’re floating down the river in a bus instead of a sleek romantic canoe, but it’s perfect for our family.

Our family has stepped back in time by discovering Arkansas’s beautiful river systems. I highly recommend setting aside time to be free from the daily responsibilities and stresses. It is pure magic to see a child’s, or an adult’s, face light up when they catch their first fish or swing off their first rope swing!

Planning your next outdoor adventure? Visit The Woodsman Company in Fort Smith for all your adventure needs! 5609 Rogers Avenue, Fort Smith, Arkansas I 479.452.3559 I


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