I recently sent the following letter to pubic officials about the problem with boating safety on the White River and Buffalo National River.
I am a fly fishing guide on the White River in Buffalo City, Arkansas, and I need your help to improve boating safety on Arkansas rivers. I have lived in Buffalo City since 2017, and been a licensed Arkansas fishing guide since 2011, but I have fished the area more than 30 years, since the late 1980s. There have always been a good number of motor boats and non-motorized watercraft on the river, but in recent years that number has increased to the critical point. In fact, I have never seen so many boats of all kinds on the White River.
Unfortunately, along with more boats and river users, the number of accidents and deaths have increased greatly. For example, at least six people have died within four miles of the Buffalo City boat ramp since I moved here in 2017. Sadly, at least one of those deaths may have been a suicide, but all others who died were killed due to boating accidents. Sudden slipped anchors caused some anglers to fall into the river and drown, while others were victims of similar high-water mishaps.
In September, 2021, a Texas man drowned after falling out of his kayak just downstream of Buffalo City, while the river was at maximum generation flow. Officers from many agencies, including Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, searched for his body several days before it was discovered 10 miles downstream. Beyond that kayaker’s tragic death, thousands of dollars were spent locating the victim.
The sheer number of boats of all kinds on the water, especially during summer months, create unique hazards. In the last 30 years, boat manufacturers in the Mountain Home area have done bumper business selling river boats to anglers. While their businesses boomed, so did the number of boaters hoping to use the White River. In summer months, especially during the Covid pandemic when people were off work and trying to escape lockdowns, the AGFC public access is entirely packed with trucks and trailers, with as many as 30 boats at a time launching from the same access in one day!
While that is testament to the popularity of Arkansas’ public accesses and rivers, it also means there are at least 30 motor boats on the same small water at the same time. While the White River seems large, and boats can travel miles up and down river from the public access, there is a saturation point at which the river simply cannot take more watercraft of any kind. Imagine a big city interstate clogged with cars at rush hour, that is the White River some days. Now add to that motor boat parade an ever-increasing number of non-motorized watercraft, from canoes to kayaks to fly fishing drift boats and rafts. The result is a river channel that is clogged with mismatched boats on a very limited waterway. Some livery services put literally hundreds of rental boats on the water each weekend, and there are zero state restrictions on those rental services.
Worst of all for public safety are the jet-powered motor boats. Intermingled with kayakers and canoeists, many of whom are inexperienced boaters, they make a dangerous combination. Jet boat motors were once a rare sight on the White River, but today they are too plentiful. They are loud motors, far more disruptive than any small 2- or 4-cycle boat motor.
In fact, from my house about 700 yards from the water, the White River some days sounds like a NASCAR racetrack. That unwelcome sound also reverberates through the nearby Buffalo National River valley and adjacent designated wilderness areas. As a result, any sense of isolation and solitude for hikers and boaters alike in those irreplaceable – and federally protected – natural areas, is destroyed.
There are several issues at play that must be addressed by the Game and Fish Commission through aggressive enforcement of existing boating and angling rules, as well as future legislative action to create laws that directly correct ongoing boating safety issues on this and all Arkansas rivers.
First, there must be rules limiting the use of jet motors on the White River. Clearly, banning their use outright is a losing battle. However, limiting their horsepower to the lowest levels necessary to ply the White River, as well as where they are used on the water, could be solutions that would improve safety and enjoyment for all boaters.
For example, a motor-free zone could be established from the mouth of the Buffalo National River downstream to Cartney Public Access, or even as far as Shipp’s Ferry Public Access. Within that zone, no boat motors of any kind, except electric motors, could be used. The result would be a boat motor-free area that limits sound pollution on the nearby national park, adjacent wilderness areas and other public lands. More importantly, kayakers and canoeists exiting the Buffalo National River would have a safer route downstream and back to civilization.
Second, the number of rental boats, especially non-motorized watercraft like canoes, kayaks, etc., must be limited on the White River and all Arkansas rivers. There are currently zero rules restricting the number of boats that can be rented, and zero safety standards for livery services. No state inspections of their boats or their staff, or scrutiny of safety training provided for their clients. My personal experience as a river guide shows that the number of non-motorized boats increases every year. Those boats that were once few and far between on the White River are now literally everywhere. I have personally counted more than 75 kayaks and canoes at one time pass me in a lengthy flotilla, all equipped with the most basic life jackets and likely zero safety training.
Most of those boaters do not understand that the White River is dangerous at high water levels, and livery rental services do not stop renting boats even when the river is at its most dangerous levels. The money is too lucrative to pass up, sadly. As a result, people suffer and die, like the man from Texas who drowned kayaking last year.
The solution to the overcrowding, especially during peak-use summer months, is to limit the number of boats allowed to be rented and launched by livery services. How many boats should they be permitted to launch daily? Or, how many boats is too many on the White River and other streams, so that safety and enjoyment are impacted for everyone? I do not know those numbers, but I have personally witnessed many hundreds of non-motorized boats launched in the same small section of the White River and Buffalo National River.
Some days, those rivers resemble a ride at Silver Dollar City, with boats nearly touching end-to-end as they float downstream. I have witnessed jet boat users weaving in and out of those kayaks and canoes at full speed, and someday, someone will be injured or die as a result.
Also, livery services should be permitted by the state, required to have insurance, be inspected annually and be provided a quota of boats enforced for each day or week for different seasons. Also, adequate safety training should be required for all livery owners, and consequently safety training for boat renters. Even a five-minute basic safety course would save many lives. And no livery service should launch rental boats in unsafe, high-water conditions.
As a lifelong Arkansan, I understand that folks here do not enjoy additional rules and laws that regulate their lifestyles, including boating. Ultimately, by restricting the use of jet motors – where they are used and how large they can be – sound pollution on precious public lands and safety for non-motorized boaters will improve dramatically. Coupled with limiting the number of non-motorized boats that livery services can put on the water at one time, those safer boating practices will save lives. In the process, everyones enjoyment of the state’s rivers will increase with appropriate rules and additional enforcement.
If you personally want to experience these boating hazards firsthand, I invite you to float the White River with me during spring, summer or fall. Perhaps even Memorial Day or Labor Day weekends, when there are maximum people on the river and the problems are most glaring. I would be happy to row you safely downstream while you investigate the issues at stake and ponder solutions.
Jason B. Harmon
Arkansas Traveler Fly Fishing