Floatin' Fundamentals

HOW STREAMS RISE AND FALL

By Gordon Kumpuris
Photography: Toby Von Rembow/Courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

 Big Piney, found in the heart of the Ozarks near Russellville, is only 67 miles long, but it offers some of the nicest floating in the state—when the water is at the correct level.

Big Piney, found in the heart of the Ozarks near Russellville, is only 67 miles long, but it offers some of the nicest floating in the state—when the water is at the correct level.

 

It happens every summer: My non-paddler friends and family ask the question, “Been paddling lately?” Or more typically, “Been floatin’?” God bless them; they mean well. 

In Arkansas, we can in fact paddle 12 months a year, and yes, most of the streams in the state, at least the well-known ones, have been paddled at some point during each month of the year. 

But, as veteran paddlers know, these facts are very deceiving. Typically, the paddling opportunities in April are a lot different than the in-state opportunities available in August or September. This may seem rather obvious, but the annual question above suggests it’s not. Thinking back to when I was a new paddler, much of this was not obvious to me either. Below is an attempt to share some fundamental information I wish someone had shared with me sooner when I was new to paddling. 

Gradient Matters

I’ve heard stories of paddling instructors having students ask, as they are about to launch on a stream, “Are we taking out here at the end of the day?” as if a stream just goes around and around like the lazy river at a water park. So, given that water flows downhill, the second part of this is that it also flows downhill much faster the steeper the gradient. Generally, but not always, the further upstream you go, the steeper the average gradient. So conversely, the further upstream you go, the shorter the window of opportunity to paddle at optimum water levels. For some steep creeks, such as Crooked Creek in Montgomery County, or Beech Creek in Newton County, this window of opportunity can literally be just a few hours.

Size Matters

The water that flows downhill is the result of precipitation filling or fueling the stream in its watershed. That watershed could be very small, consisting of tiny drainages that one could step across, or very large, consisting of rivers in and of themselves. Consider the hundreds of watersheds large and small that make their way to the Arkansas River. The larger the watershed, the longer the window of opportunity will be to paddle the stream, assuming precipitation moves across the bulk of the watershed.

Location, Location, Location

I’m amazed that after a localized rain event in Little Rock, friends and family still assume that “The Buffalo must really be high,” as if Fourche Creek in the middle of Pulaski County somehow fuels streams 125 miles away in Newton County.

Seasons Matter

According to National Weather Service data, Arkansas’ six wettest months, in order, are: November, April, December, October, May and March. The six driest months, in order, are: August, September, July, January, June and February. So, one might assume that November would be the most likely month for great whitewater and August would be the least likely. Not so fast. There are other factors that must be considered, one of which I’ve already mentioned—parts of Arkansas just get more rain than other parts. Interestingly, the wettest part of the state is clearly Polk and Howard counties in the Ouachita Mountains of Southwest Arkansas. I am no meteorologist, but my understanding that moisture from the Gulf uplifts as it pushes across the Ouachita Mountains, causing instability and condensation (rain). The driest area of the state, arguably and sadly, is in the Newton County area.

Foliage Matter

This one escapes a lot of people. Rain must not only fall in the right place and right amounts, it also must make its way from the clouds to the stream bed in the first place. Foliage in the late spring, summer and fall acts as a natural sponge, sucking up millions of gallons of water before that water ever has a chance to make it to the stream. This means that an inch of rain in March or early April, when foliage is thin, often has a drastically different impact than an inch of rain in June or July, when foliage is thick.

Gauge Placement Matter

While this plays no role in the amount of water in a stream, it can cause some information anomalies that skew some of the other concepts noted here. A gauge that is well upstream or well downstream of the section you are paddling may show a rise or fall on the gauge when the actual section of the stream you intend to paddle does not reflect the same. The Illinois Bayou, Mulberry and Big Piney come to mind, as the USGS gauges for these streams are well downstream of popular paddling sections.

Variables Exist

There are a number of variables that affect stream levels. Snow and icy precipitation will have a noticeable impact on streams, but the rate of impact isn’t a 1:1 with rainfall. The rain will affect streams differently depending on the ground’s saturation and the speed of the rainfall. Dams, spillways and underground springs also change the stream’s handling of water. Armed with this fundamental knowledge, paddlers can use currently available online resources to better interpret and predict stream gauge and rainfall data. If for no other reason, the next time someone asks if “you’ve been floatin’,” you can spend 30 minutes educating them to the subtleties of how streams rise and fall until they wish they had never asked. A good place to start looking for stream gauge and weather data is our ACC website, arkansascanoeclub.com.