Brownwater Rafting

2011 April Fools' Day Entry

“Brownwater Rafting” was the name given to the short-lived and ill-advised promotion of eastern Arkansas’s rivers, streams, and bayous as rafting and kayaking hotspots. Despite these efforts, eastern Arkansas’s more sedentary and sedimentary waterways, such as the Cache River, proved unpopular with tourists and whitewater enthusiasts. The failure of the project led to investigations of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism (ADPT) and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC)—the two state agencies that had spent millions of dollars on the promotional campaign.

State promotion of what came to be known as brownwater rafting followed in the wake of the successful 1994 motion picture The River Wild, starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon, which had reignited interest in whitewater rafting across the country. Leaders within the ADPT soon began work to advertise Arkansas rivers and streams to the nationwide rafting community. Among these were the Cossatot, Caddo, and Little Missouri rivers in the Ouachita Mountains, all of which possess challenging rapids in some areas. These waterways were well known to local rafting and kayaking enthusiasts but soon began to acquire impressive national reputations in the wake of the ADPT’s campaign, drawing visitors from across the United States.

In response to the success of this campaign, ADPT director Thornton Wilderberry, on April 1, 1996, ordered the department to begin work on a similar campaign of promotion for eastern Arkansas’s neglected rivers and streams, such as the Cache, St. Francis, and L’Anguille rivers, as well as Bayou Meto and Bayou Bartholomew. This posed several immediate problems, most notably that the waterways in the Mississippi Alluvial Plain (Delta) region of the state flow much more slowly due to their low amount of fall per mile and, as a consequence, are much more prone to insect and snake infestation and do not attract thrill-seeking rafters. The ADPT, however, tried to play up the “danger” of the rivers by developing a new “scale of river difficulty”—grading the rivers not on the speed of flow or presence of rocks but rather on cypress stumps and vermin. In this system, the Cache River was given the ADPT’s deadliest rating of Grade 6.

In 1997, in anticipation of the program’s success, the ADPT teamed with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to build a series of resort lodges at Amagon (Jackson County), Parkin (Cross County), and Palestine (St. Francis County), offering room and board as well as a range of rafting and kayaking equipment for rental. However, tourists did not prove drawn to the new lodges situated in the mosquito-heavy Delta, especially after Canoeing magazine’s review of the L’Anguille River experience dubbed it “The River Mild.” It also did not help that high water on any of these rivers could easily lead to rafters ending up stranded in a rice or bean field. The ADPT and AGFC sought to salvage their shared investment by any means necessary. The AGFC even allowed for hunting to be carried out from boats, though they rescinded this foolhardy regulation on December 15, 1998, after what the media later called the “Bayou Bartholomew Bloodbath.”

The promotion of brownwater rafting might have faded into obscurity had not the Arkansas Times reported in March 2001 that a group of state legislators had made millions of dollars selling land that they owned to the ADPT for the construction of the failed lodges. Furthermore, investigation of the AGFC revealed that almost every employee of the agency was assigned a state-owned boat. AGFC head Waters defended the practice before a special commission of the Arkansas General Assembly, saying, “We are a major state agency, and our employees must be able to reach their critical work stations even during floods.” In the end, none of the involved legislators were censured and no change was made to state policy on employee boats. As historian Michael B. Dougan wrote, “State government was up the creek, but fortunately it was an eastern Arkansas creek, so it didn’t really need a paddle.”

The three lodges were eventually closed and the land sold, with losses in the millions. Arkansas historians rank the brownwater rafting scandal as the most misguided promotion of eastern Arkansas rivers since the McCrory Bottling Company’s short-lived efforts to sell bottled water from the Cache River in the late 1980s.

April Fools!

For additional information:
Dougan, Michael B. “Ol’ Man Ditch; or Who Would Buy that a Bayou Is a Beautiful Avenue and Not Bid Adieu to the Bad View?: Arkansas’s Brownwater Rafting Farce of the 1990s.” Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies 42 (April 2011): 3–42.

Dumas, Ernie. “Brown Trousers Time for Brownwater Rafting.” Arkansas Times, March 2, 2001, pp. 13–17.

Rex Hutchinson
Arkansas Paddle Club


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