Scruggs has been on the river in every season and at every height of water, from raging torrents to slow and low through the Ozark mountains.
“I always tell people they are missing out not floating in fall and winter,” Scruggs said. “Those bluffs, they get 20- to 25-foot icicles hanging off of them after a good freeze. It’s an incredible sight to see.”
In those seasons, recreation rivers in Oklahoma and Arkansas offer a different experience than summer. For old pros like Scruggs, these months are the best times to take river trips.
A COLD FLOAT
Six hours from Oklahoma City winds the Buffalo River in northern Arkansas. The Ozarks’ highest river bluffs, some as high as 440 feet, accent it, but after Labor Day, it becomes a lonely place.
“All the leaves change color in October, and by December, they are all gone, so you get amazing views of the bluffs and all kinds of wildlife,” Scruggs said.
Weather along the river is like weather in Oklahoma: hard to predict. Some winter days are as hard as the limestone bluffs that line the river; others are mild and friendly.
“My favorite time is in the fall, especially around the third week of October,” he said.
Closer to home, the Lower Mountain Fork River in Oklahoma’s “Little Dixie,” and the Illinois, a popular party river near Tahlequah, can offer a good kayaking or canoeing adventure as temperatures drop.
“Any time after Labor Day is a good time to canoe the Illinois,” said Larry Stephens of War Eagle Resort in Tahlequah. “The river is very clean and clear, but the crowds aren’t as bad when the weather cools off.”
Open until the end of October, War Eagle rents canoes and kayaks, but Stephens said those with their own equipment can float year-round.
“There are a lot of public-use areas on the river, but the campgrounds mainly close at the end of October. Best thing is to call and make a reservation after that.”
Cooler weather also brings out wildlife along the Illinois. Bobcats, deer, fox and other mammals become more active, and the southern bald eagle calls the waterway home.
A gentle and flat river, the Illinois is perfect for novice paddlers or those looking for a relaxing, scenic float.
For more adventure, the Lower Mountain Fork flows from Reregulation Dam at Mountain Fork Park, 12.5 miles to the boundary of Ouachita National Forest.
Although short, Lower Mountain Fork is an exciting mix between whitewater runs and flat areas. In one area, a small waterfall challenges even the experienced paddler.
If not bringing a private canoe or kayak, it’s best to call outfitters to see if they are open past September. Arranging for a shuttle back to the starting point is something to consider.
The pristine Glover River in southeast Oklahoma is one of the least-known, but prettiest state rivers. It starts in the Kiamichi Mountains and spills into the Little River, but heavy rains in fall and winter can make it more dangerous than the Illinois.
If you want to know anything about state rivers, Ed Fite, administrator for the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission, can recommend the most scenic streams to float.
“The Barren Fork and Flint Creek are the other scenic rivers,” he said. “If you’re floating during the winter months into early spring, make sure you have layered clothes, a life jacket and a way to keep your feet dry.”
Although Fite said every river in Oklahoma is floatable year-round, he warned watching seasonal weather conditions is important.
“Outfitters around any of the rivers will open their doors if you call ahead and let them know you are coming,” he said.
Photos by Heidi Brandes