The elixir of sunny spring days pulls us outside to enjoy the glories of nature, like canoeing on wonderful Ozark rivers and lakes. A friend might call and suggest a canoe trip down the Kings River, and that idea piques your adventurer spirit, so you grab a few things in a hurry. Before you know it you have rented a canoe, the outfitter has taken you to the drop off spot, you throw your stuff into the canoe and away you go like Lewis or Clark.
Since it is spring, the river might be swelled a bit from the winter runoff, so the current carries the canoe quickly to the first turn before you've hardly paddled. It is a glorious day and birds are serenading you as you take the turn a bit widely and head unavoidably toward a large fallen tree in the river. Yes, you want to steer to the right to miss the tree but the current is much too strong for that and your canoe is carried sideways into the freshly fallen tree and over goes the canoe.
As you flail about underwater for something to hang onto, this maxim comes to mind: "Never take anything on a canoe trip you are not willing to lose." You think this because all that stuff you threw into the canoe either sank or floated somewhere downstream. Where is your canoe, by the way?
Ernie Kilman owns Kings River Outfitters south of Berryville, and says floating down a river is like stepping into a time machine. Canoers can get away from the hectic demands of phones and schedules for a few hours and regenerate their spirits.
He has been a waterboy since 1965, having canoed rivers in many states. He said Arkansas rivers are as good as any.
Kilman has a wealth of experience to draw from, and he wants his canoers to know what they are doing as well. Some of his advice is just common sense, like either know how to swim or be in a canoe with a swimmer. He also advocates against taking your car keys with you on a canoe trip. Leave them behind and work it out so that someone knows where they are besides you.
A good idea is a "dry bag" or a waterproof container in which you can stow what you want to take with you.
There are also state laws regarding recreation on rivers. Glass containers are prohibited and cooler lids should be fastened. Canoers are encouraged to attach and use mesh litter bags and employ floating beverage holders. Kilman is a strong advocate of the Leave No Trace ethic that uses rivers respectfully and leaves them clean for the next generation.
The American Canoe Association (ACA) suggests total beginners take an on-water course to learn the basics. Plan ahead so you'll know what you will need. Don't forget water and snacks.
According to ACA, 95 percent of canoe-related fatalities were not wearing a personal flotation device, also known as a lifejacket, so wear one. ACA reports that half of canoeing fatalities are due to a person standing up in the craft, which creates a likelihood of sudden weight shifts. Canoes prefer steady, calm, seated passengers.
Just like driving on a highway, you must watch for hazards and respect others who are also using the waterway. Also like being on the highway, you should know where you are and where you are going. Canoeing down a beautiful river, like a drive along a scenic Ozark country road, should be a delightful adventure and it can be with just a little preparation.
Keep these things in mind:
1. It's a river. People drown in rivers, so wear a life vest and have on hand seat cushions which can be used as personal flotation devices. You don't want to be without them.
2. Take only what you are willing to lose. Maybe you are a photographer, and that is wonderful because photography is a fulfilling passion. Do you want to lose your camera? Or your expensive binoculars?
3. Around Northwest Arkansas, you had better wear shoes which will stay on your feet because river bottoms are rocky. Rivers eat flip-flops for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Kilman said, "Flip-flops are not canoewear!" There are different brands of river sandals, some better than others, which are comfortable and secure and will protect your feet.
4. If you can, find water-tight (never glass!) containers for your items and stow them in a canoe float bag. You might want to tie the bag to the canoe.
5. Wear a cap or hat and load up on sun protection before you take off. Add another dose after a couple of hours.
6. Load the canoe with even distribution of weight in mind -- not too much weight in the front, and try to keep weight as low as possible. Kilman says two people per canoe is best. Because of the dynamics of a canoe tipping over, a third person in the middle has the most trouble getting out safely.
Children, however, should be beside you. Learn about canoeing with children from a reputable outfitter. There is plenty of valuable information at americancanoe.org.
7. Know at least the rudiments of controlling a canoe before you find yourself in a scary predicament. Canoes are narrow and they can be wobbly, and rivers have boulders, logs and sandbars. The best paddler controls the canoe from the rear, and the person in front helps. An inexperienced person in the front can also hinder. Two paddlers must learn to work together. Predicaments will find you, so know how to be prepared.
8. Learn to be efficient and effective with your paddling strokes so you are not worn out at the end of the day.
9. Leave the scenery as pristine as you find it or even cleaner. Leave no trace that you were there except possibly your footprints.
10. This is supposed to be fun, and it will be if you prepare ahead of time.
The American Canoe Association has an extensive website, and there are different outfitters around the area who can answer questions about canoe safety. Eureka Springs Hospital, the Hospital with a Heart, also has information about boating safety and other safety issues as part of its educational outreach. To learn more about their educational program, call Gayle Voiles, Director of Education, at 253-7400x2160.