When it comes to enjoying spring in the Ozarks, eager backwoods explorers hop in a canoe or kayak and float down a sparkling stream.
Our region is blessed with plentiful ribbons of clear, flowing water that welcome paddlers, including those on their first float trip. The menu of easy-to-navigate streams is long in Northwest Arkansas. Even more await a short drive north in Missouri.
Kings River, Illinois River, White River below Beaver Dam and War Eagle River are Arkansas streams ideal for beginners to wet a paddle. The middle and lower sections of the Buffalo National River offer laid back floating.
In southwest Missouri, the Elk River and tributaries are among the Ozarks’ most popular floating destinations. All these streams have outfitters who are pros at setting customers up with a trip that’s just right for them. They’ll have canoes or kayaks for rent and will get you reunited with your vehicle at the end of the trip.
It’s important to let an outfitter know what you have in mind for your day on the river so they can fix you up with an enjoyable float.
Do you plan to paddle and float or is fishing the focus of the day’s adventure? Perhaps a little of both. How many hours do you want to spend on the water? Let the outfitter know your game plan so they can set you up right.
On a typical Class I Ozark stream, Class I meaning easy to navigate, canoe and kayak paddlers should be able to cover six to 10 miles of rivers in five or six hours if they’re just floating and paddling. For a fishing float, four to six miles is plenty. Something in between is a happy compromise for paddling with some time for fishing as well.
Over decades of river floating, we’ve noticed most people are satisfied with five to six hours on the water. It’s amazing how a hot, sunny day can make a paddler glad to see the take-out.
If an outfitter offers a choice between a short float and a long one, take the short float. If that works out well, come back another day for the longer float.
You want any float trip to end with smiles and not weary frowns. Nothing puts a damper on a river trip more than paddlers in your group going, “Are we there yet?” when there’s still two or three more miles to go. Best to finish early than late, especially if you’ve got a long drive home.
It’s satisfying for experienced paddlers to invite first-time floaters on a river trip. The feeling is tremendous seeing them bask in the joy of riding that flowing water for the first time. You want them to have a good experience so they’ll want to come back. Capsizing and getting wet and cold pretty much ensures it will be their last river trip.
A short float on a Class I stream in warm weather is a good start. A one-person kayak that most outfitters offer might be the boat of choice. For the most part, they’re less tippy than two people in a tandem canoe. A kayak paddler sits low in the boat so it has a low center of gravity and good stability.
Hopefully, by trip’s end, they’ll be welcome members in the big happy family of Ozark river runners.
Flip Putthoff can be reached at email@example.com Smallmouth bass are the prize fish on Ozark streams. Most have tight regulations on smallmouths to protect the species. Russ Tonkinson of Rogers shows a smallmouth bass, one of several he caught on a spring float along Big Sugar Creek in southwest Missouri. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)