Spring is prime floating time in Arkansas.
Photography by Trey Moore and Golden Circle Guides
Let’s play a little word association. I say, “float,” you say … “The Buffalo,” probably, and odds are, you’re picturing a canoe.
Canoeing down the Buffalo River is almost a rite of passage in this state. Those first wobbly steps getting in, gingerly settling into your seat, hoping you don’t tump over before you’ve even left the gravel bar … then, as the rocking stops, finally relaxing into the calm flow of the river.
But we’re not here to talk about that kind of trip. This month, we’re talking about turning the adventure up a notch: Trading the canoe for a raft, and — if you’re up for it and the weather cooperates — leaving the placid waters behind for something a little more exciting.
“Rafting is more like an amusement park ride,” said Trey Moore, a master river guide and co-owner of Golden Circle Guides, which leads outdoor sporting trips around Arkansas.
Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean you’re signing up for the Super Rocket Loop-de-Vomit Comet, unless you want to, that is. Arkansas does have some challenging whitewater, but rafting can also be a less wobbly, more capacious way to enjoy the state’s calmer waters. Rafts are perfect, for instance, if you have more people than can comfortably fit in a canoe (you’ll need three or four people to paddle a raft successfully), or small children who can’t be trusted to keep their rear ends in their seats, or if you’re wanting to plan a multi-day trip and take more than the barest essentials with you.
“Camping out of a raft is great,” Moore said. He and business partner Alex Kent lead group trips of up to a week. “You’re essentially driving a car down the river, so you can carry everything you need.”
On the group trips he and Kent lead, Moore said, he encourages a deeper connection with nature, and scenic raft trips are ideal for that — especially if you can stay on the river for more than one day.
“You can really immerse yourself in the environment and get that deep connection you’re searching for, that you can really bring back to your daily life,” Moore said.
Late winter to mid-spring is prime rafting season in Arkansas, so now is a great time to plan a rafting excursion either on your own or with the help of guides like Moore and Kent. If you’re new to rafting, it’s smart to consider hiring a guide or finding someone more experienced to lead the trip, Moore said. The Arkansas Canoe Club also offers a whitewater course every May. Rafting isn’t the same as canoeing — it’s more of a team event — and even one outing with a guide or experienced paddler will give the beginner a big advantage.
“I can teach you the basics, and you can use trial-and-error after that,” Moore said. “The basics include safety. There’s a way to swim in whitewater to reduce your exposure to risk. It’s important to know that. Even on easy water, bad things can happen.”
Moore said he divides rafting trips in Arkansas into two categories. First, there’s the scenic trip. His favorites for this more relaxed type of excursion —relaxed being a relative term — include the Buffalo, of course. The upper Buffalo can run faster in the late winter and early spring, but farther down, the flow is dependably relaxed. Golden Circle Guides takes groups on trips along the Buffalo, but there are plenty of other outfitters. Several offer raft rentals and cabins for rent nearby as well. You can also camp along the way, of course. The National Park Service operates a number of campgrounds on the Buffalo with a range of services.
Moore also likes taking groups on the Mulberry River, which runs through the Ozark National Forest in Newton, Johnson and Franklin counties. It’s possible you’ll encounter rapids on the Mulberry, depending on water levels, so be prepared. You can rent rafts and cabins from outfitters along this river as well, and there’s plenty of camping along the Mulberry’s 45 floatable miles. The Mulberry is known for its chilly waters, so make sure to dress warmly.
Moore’s other choice for a scenic outing is Big Piney Creek, which runs through Newton, Johnson and Pope counties. You’ll want to choose your float carefully here; some sections of the Big Piney are calmer, but others such as the section between Treat and Long Pool, for instance, which has rapids with names like “Cascades of Extinction,” are favorites of whitewater enthusiasts. You can rent a raft from Moore Outdoors, located off Highway 7, 10 miles north of Dover, and camp in several designated campgrounds along the way. Like the Mulberry, the Big Piney is cold enough that you’ll want to dress more warmly than the air temperature might suggest.
The second type of trip — whitewater rafting — is harder to find in Arkansas, Moore said.
“We’re a very natural-flow state,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of great river corridors, but they’re very rain dependent.”
Moore’s overall favorite rafting river in Arkansas, the Cossatot, is one of the best places in the state for whitewater rafting, he said. The river rises in the Ouachita Mountains in Polk County and flows through Howard and Sevier counties before emptying into the Little River north of Ashdown. After a good rain, the river can have Class IV and V rapids, which are difficult enough that only expert paddlers should try them. When the water level is normal, however, the rapids are less intimidating, but challenging Class II and III. Other technically demanding whitewater streams Moore likes are Richland Creek and the Hailstone, the uppermost section of the Buffalo River, which only runs for about a day after a significant rain.
“There are a lot of areas that are good to raft a day or two after a significant rain, but you need to know someone with equipment and be ready to go,” Moore said.
Trey Moore, who’s 35, has a lot of experience teaching rafting rookies the basics of navigating through all kinds of water. He trained at the famed Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina, and returns there each year to teach canoe clinics and river-guide training courses. Piloting a raft is a lot of fun, but it’s not necessarily as easy as it looks.
It’s crucial to make sure you’re wearing your life jacket properly, for one thing — otherwise, it can come off, or float up in a way that it forces your face underwater.
One of the most common mistakes Moore sees new paddlers make is not choosing a leader.
“Somebody has to tell people what to do,” he said. “Hopefully that person has experience and can read the water.”
Preparation is important, he said. Before you get on the water, talk about how to behave in the boat. Set your communication system so the people in the front of the boat will understand what the navigator in the back of the boat wants them to do.
“Lay out the law of the land, and follow it,” he said.