Wild On the Spring River 

Crowds, beer, sex, fights, and litter threaten a nearby treasure.

Fun-hungry floaters travel by the busload each summer weekend to a stretch of the Spring River in north-central Arkansas, just below the Missouri line. Wilderness takes a back seat to wild times as muscled young dudes and bikini-clad women party down the river consuming mass quantities of brew.

Locals will tell you privately about occasional nudity and public sex. You'll also hear hints -- but little more -- about a "Miss Viagra Fest," an informal topless dance contest on the river.

The weekend party on the Spring River looks more like spring break in Daytona than a cool float in the Natural State.

All in fun?

Maybe. But local authorities aren't laughing.

"From Mammoth Spring to Hardy on holidays, you have from 7,000 to 10,000 people on that river," says Fulton County sheriff Lloyd Martz. "Anytime you have that many people, you are going to have a problem."

On July 9th, a Mississippi man on a canoe trip drowned above Saddler Falls after drinking a case of beer. On Memorial Day weekend, a man suffered a serious stab wound in an altercation at one of the riverbank campgrounds.

Litter on the Spring River has sparked tougher state laws on river trash during the last session of the Arkansas legislature. And residents complain that trash is ruining the river. Some fear a stunning natural resource -- and a respectable $50 million-a-year tourist trade in Fulton and Sharp counties -- is drifting to hell on a river of beer and hormones.

"We would like to be known for our admirable qualities rather than the stabbings, drug bashes, fights, sex orgies, and such that are reported by our police and fire department to be virtually every-weekend events," wrote Hardy mayor Louie Seibert in a June letter to Martz to alert him to the "urgent situation" on the river.

"Most of these people are from Memphis, from Mississippi, some from Illinois, and some from Missouri," Martz says.

Beer drinking isn't exactly unknown on the state's other popular float streams, but it is usually more low-key. Experienced paddlers typically carry out their own trash and collect litter they find along the way.

Jeff Klein, who owns Three Rivers Outfitters in Hardy, says most of the year the Spring River is peaceful and uncrowded. "We're really talking about a three-month period of the year. People come in great numbers and then they are gone," Klein says. "The problems that people are speaking about almost always happen on Saturday."

Tension is thick among Fulton and Sharp county officials, residents, and some canoe outfitters over the recent river incidents. Mayor Seibert says he's been threatened with a lawsuit over his letter.

Bob Wood, part-owner of the big Many Islands Camp and its lucrative canoe-rental business, said the mayor's letter was "all lies." Many Islands, where the stabbing occurred, is the largest canoe outfitter on the river. Wood is furious over the negative publicity the Spring has gotten in local media.

Stories about fights and drunkenness, he says, are blown "way out of proportion." Asked in a phone interview if outfitters might do more to prevent such incidents, Wood suddenly flared.

"Don't get too happy with your typing or your reporting," he said angrily.

Asked to explain, Wood growled, "You know what I mean. There has been some pretty loose reporting going on up here."

Rollin' On the River

The Spring River begins as a sleepy creek north of Thayer, Missouri, just across the Arkansas line. The world's 10th-largest spring, Mammoth Spring, pumps more than nine million gallons of 58-degree water every hour into the stream year-round. When dust-dry summer weather transforms other float streams into rocky puddles, the big, reliable water source makes the Spring River an easily floatable stream.

The state park at the spring is a wonder in its own right. In 1836, William Allen built the first mill at the site. Another mill went up in 1850. Federal troops burned it during the Civil War. Atop a small hill on the east bank of the park's lake stands a Civil War relic, an 1862 siege cannon.

Still visible at the state park is the original railroad depot, built in 1885. It served the first rail line through the area, the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Memphis Line. At the start of the 20th century, the St. Louis-San Francisco line took over the depot and spurred the growth of the town of Mammoth Spring. The Frisco Depot now houses a museum.

Trains still crawl noisily on the line paralleling the river south toward Hardy, drowning out the shouts of partying youths in canoes.

Below the dam at the state park, the Spring River picks up speed and provides ideal conditions for rainbow and brown trout -- and for the rod- whipping fly-fishermen who regularly work this section of the river.

A few miles below the park stands Dam 3 and the nation's leading producer of smallmouth bass, the Mammoth Spring National Fish Hatchery. An aquarium, a self-guided hatchery tour, and a placid, tree-shaded riverside grove also attract visitors.

But the lure of the Spring River, at least on the weekends, has little to do with peace, quiet, or even nature.

You can float more than 60 miles, mostly through private land, from the hatchery to the Spring's confluence with the Black River. But the nine-mile, four-hour trip down from Dam 3 to the Many Islands Campground is the river's most popular float.

The trip for many actually begins at Many Islands where a large man in T-shirt and shorts stands in front of a bright orange school bus bawling out the names of floating parties. A ragtag corps of party animals, church kids, college students, high-schoolers, and families clamber aboard buses for the 10-mile road trip north on U.S. Highway 63.

At the dusty put-in, buses disgorge floaters of all shapes and sizes. Saturdays in mid-summer hundreds of floaters load up coolers of beer and snacks and hop into shiny aluminum canoes at the put-in.

A state law that went into effect August 13th requires tie-downs for ice chests and litter bags aboard all boats. It also prohibits glass containers on the river. But on this day, only a few boaters appear to meet these requirements.

Gordon Kumpuris, the Arkansas Canoe Club president, says he hasn't paddled the Spring River in years, partly because of the boozing crowds. "The volume of people, the tremendous amount of alcohol, and the fact that you seldom see anyone wearing a [life vest] -- those three things equal a bad day on the river and potentially a dangerous time," he says.

It's a safe bet that few of the canoeists have taken the club's canoe instruction and safety courses. Most seem a little befuddled by canoe- handling basics. They chicken-choke their paddles, fight for balance, and struggle mightily to gain a straight line downstream as gear and coolers slide along the length of their canoes.

"Whoo-hoo!" a barechested, tattooed young man hollers and holds his beer high. Redwing blackbirds spook and flap for cover in the lush greenery lining the banks. Several paddlers tump their boats within feet of the bank.

And out in the cool river flow, two dozen boats clunk together as the crews orient themselves. Someone's bright yellow paddle floats by. Almost nobody wears the life vests issued with the rental boats.

"Where you from? We're from Memphis," a beery floater shouts.

There are probably 40 canoes clustered in the first mile. At times, it appears one could walk from boat to boat. Somewhere in the group a boombox thumps out an insistent bass beat.

Here, still close to the river's gushing cold-water source, is where the big trout lurk under the rocky ledges. But aside from the silent flyfishers standing like herons in the shallow stream, no one seems much interested in wildlife.

PHOTO BY Dylan Davis
"Get me a goddamn beer," barks a bikini-clad woman standing in a canoe.

"Get your own damn beer," says the man in the stern. A child sits on the beer chest in the middle, looking thrilled and a little embarrassed. Downstream, two young guys engage in horseplay, wrestling in the shallows, grunting, issuing muffled shouts.

The Spring River owes much of its undeniable charm to the shallow rock ledges and waterfalls that punctuate its course. But they also present a measure of danger.

The Mississippi man who drowned in July died near Saddler Falls, about two miles above Many Islands. In 1999, a Mountain Home canoeist drowned near High Falls, a six-foot drop near Hardy. His family filed suit in June, contending an outfitter didn't properly inform him of the river's hazards.

Over the Falls

The Spring is an easy float for even first-time canoeists. But the drinking, the inexperience, and the sheer number of boaters sketch a narrow, ugly line between comedy and tragedy on the Spring's ledges and few fast-water bends.

Aluminum canoes crash through tricky passages one right after another -- sometimes two and three boats abreast -- noisily piling up against each other and eventually snagging other errant canoes.

The spilled contents of the temporarily wrecked boats -- beer cans and bottles, shirts, soggy smokes, flip-flop shower shoes, suntan lotion containers, paddles, life vests, and assorted trash -- bob downstream from the wrecks.

At one such crash scene, two tattooed men in their 20s laugh loudly as they watch friends scramble to recover from a dunking. One of the illustrated men bellows to his friends, "Man, it'd SUCK to be you!"

A cluster of canoes crowds the muddy bank of the river -- right next to a sun-dazzled bed of empty beer cans, hundreds of them, at streamside. A bearded man locals call "the hermit" presides as apparent keeper of the cans.

Above Saddler Falls, the mass of paddlers thickens as it approaches the bottleneck. The sun is doing its worst now, and some paddlers who've been drinking become quarrelsome.

"By the time they get here, they're pretty well crocked," says Art Stuart, who lives in a riverside vacation home. Just above the retiree's house, the Spring River narrows and speeds up.

"See? There's a can in there," Stuart says, pointing to an empty beer can sloshing in a passing canoe. "There's a million of them. Sooner or later, they all end up in the river."

Just below Stuart's house, Saddler Falls causes recurring multi- craft dumpings. Paddlers beach their boats to sip beers and watch the action as the canoes sweep through the chute.

One group of revelers sprays canoeists with water as they come through, enraging one sunburned man who turns backward in his canoe and angrily flashes obscene gestures while screaming profanities. Somehow he and his buddy make the passage without calamity.

But many boaters lose control of their canoes here, and some find themselves in serious jeopardy.

"They call that Dead Man's Curve," says Jeff Klein. "To me, that is the number one trouble spot on the river. A lot goes on there that probably shouldn't."

A young woman falls from a canoe, disappears underwater in the current for a moment, then washes into a cluster of rocks where her foot becomes trapped.

"My foot! My foot!" she screams in the fast, waist-high water. Bystanders help free her. She is in pain, but appears uninjured except for bruises and scratches.

Moments later, a canoe rounds the bend and dumps three women in the river. They pull their boat onto a shoal to recover. Without warning, another canoe shoots through and collides with the beached boat. The crash traps a woman's leg between her canoe and a rock in rushing shallow water.

"My leg!" she howls, her face contorted with pain. "My leg!"

Bystanders eventually free her, but by then she is unable to walk. Other canoeists and residents carry her off in a beach chair, planning to take her to a hospital. At least two other boaters that day exhibit blood- gushing cuts on their feet.

Below Saddler Falls, the river slows and widens. Boaters drift and chat. Some swim. Two men offer Mardi Gras beads for a flash of skin. A young woman pulls down her bikini bottom and shakes her booty in their direction.

Sometimes it goes beyond flashing.

"A friend told me he saw someone receiving oral sex right there on the riverbank," said canoe club president Kumpuris.

A little farther along, one man paddles while his sun-fried partner lies asleep or unconscious in the bow.

Clampdown

Since the stabbing, increased police patrolling has put a damper on the wildest partying, many locals agree. One recent Saturday night, three state police cars and two deputy sheriffs drove the dirt roads and the stretch of highway between Hardy and Mammoth Spring.

"A little more enforcement probably helped," Martz says.

Kumpuris and Klein suggested in separate interviews that, while responsibility for safety ultimately rests with canoeists, Spring River canoe rental companies might prevent some of the problems by briefing floaters on river hazards before they set out.

"The outfitters might do a better job of educating their renters. And local law enforcement can certainly do a better job of reducing the amount of alcohol," Kumpuris said.

Many of the campgrounds, including Many Islands, employ their own security. Denny Walsh, owner for 21 years of the Spring River Oaks Canoe Rental and Campground, also has private security on weekends. When campers get out of hand, he kicks them out.

"We don't care if people drink. But when they infringe on other people's privacy, then they leave," he says.

Outfitters do what they can to control litter, Klein says, and all of the canoe rental businesses send workers to collect trash several times a year.

Sonny Chaffin, who owns Riverside Campground and Resort, lobbied for passage of the new state law on river litter. He says he'd rather lose money in the short term than tolerate activities that will ruin the Spring River as a natural resource.

"If you are going to come up and trash my river, I don't want your business," he says.

Bob Wood of Many Islands insists the litter and other river problems have improved over what they were 15 years ago. But some problems are inevitable, he says.

"It is not unusual for me to have 1,500 people here on the weekends," he says. "I can have more people right here than the population of Mammoth Spring and Hardy. And I'm not supposed to have any problems?"

A short river-rules briefing at the start of a float might help reduce some of the mayhem. "Lots of times," Chaffin says, "if you just educate them at the start of the float, they'll come around."

Chaffin would also like to see a "river patrol," such as those he's seen in Missouri, monitoring activities on the Spring.

"Somebody has to do something," he says. "Things seem to be improving. But it's going to be a long road."

This article first appeared in the Arkansas Times.

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