Last summer, a near season-long drought wreaked havoc on the rafting industry in and around the Arkansas Valley. This year, a heavy winter and recent spring moisture prove promising for the rafting season. By mid-March measurements at four sites showed the best annual basin snowpack average since 1995, far outpacing the historic median between 1981 to 2010.
“It’s a much better feeling this year than last year at this time,” said Mark Hammer, owner of the Adventure Company in Johnson Village. “In a year like , you’re very limited. A year like this is the opposite. This year, we have plenty of water.”
According to Terry Scanga of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District, this year’s snowpack is about 125 percent of average.
Hammer highlighted a graphic from the Adventure Company’s blog depicting snowpack level’s dating back to 1995. Currently, 2019’s snowpack (red-dashed line) is far above last years’ levels and tops the previous April high, dating back to 2011.
While snowpack looks good now, caution always applies. Obviously, a dry month of May could still impact the summer river flow.
According to Hammer, in 2018 by mid-July, some rafting outfitters had to shorten trips as the water was simply too low on some sections of the river. This year, the heavy snow pack should aid in extending the rafting season well into August and perhaps further.
“As long as we can still get under bridges, which can be a challenge at higher flow, we will have great trips,” Hammer said. “We’re excited about high-water.”
With high-water years comes a heightened awareness of rafter safety. Hammer says he and the Adventure Company take high-water seriously.
“Managing high-water can be a challenge,” Hammer acknowledged. “It doesn’t seem like it’s going to be an overly epic high-water year. It’s looking more like a good high-water year.”
Hammer said high water levels require that his employees implement safety measures. These measures protect guests, but also preserve the experience and ensure a fun-filled trip.
“As outfitters, we off-set high water with things we do,” said Hammer. “For example, [positioning] a safety boat in front, we use whistles, and we change our requirements for customers. The minimum age increases, swimming ability is more important, and fitness levels [too]. We change our eligibility requirements.”
Joe Greiner, who owns Wilderness Aware Rafting, echoes many of Hammer’s comments.
“A big snowpack this winter means a higher peak flow in mid-June and a longer season of exciting rapids,” Greiner wrote to Ark Valley Voice.
Like Hammer, Greiner emphasized the need for guests to use reputable outfitters to ensure a safe trip.
“Families wanting to raft in June can work with knowledgeable outfitters to move to sections with the biggest rapids for maximum thrills, or to calmer sections for those with kids or more timid adults,” said Greiner.
Greiner also pointed out that the significant snowpack should extend the rafting season beyond what has been possible in dry seasons. Hammer expects good rafting through August.
“Later in the season, July to Labor Day, all sections will have adequate flows for all trips,” Greiner pointed out. “Multi-day trips with heavy gear boats carrying camping gear will have no problem navigating with fewer rocks to hang up on.”