Canoers flock to Dam 3, near Mammoth Spring, usually before noon on weekends during the summer months, to begin their trip. Busses drop off floaters who grab their gear and get in the river in all types of floatable devices, from simple tubes to large eight-man rafts, kayaks and canoes. Coolers, sun block and required litter bags in hand, they merrily take off for the fun four to six hour trek down the river. The bright orange life jackets handed to them by the bus drivers are often thrown onto the floor of the vessels or used as seat padding as floaters dip their paddles in the fresh water and begin their day. Sadly, this could be the last day for any one of these floaters as they attempt the river armed with little more than a paddle.
The river has claimed three lives in the 2011 float season, with an additional near drowning, and hundreds, if not thousands over the years, many overlook the preventability of these tragic accidents by taking some very basic precautions such as wearing life jackets, among others. With anywhere between 10,000 to 14,000 people on the river during holiday weekends, safety is not just an option, it is a must.
Life jackets are only required to be within the canoe or raft, not to be worn, unless the person floating is under the age of 12, something that on any particular day can be observed as being disobeyed time and time again, as kids as young as 7 or 8 lean over canoes looking for things such as turtles, clad only in swimming suits or shorts. This, in itself, is a huge problem because by the time a person has fallen or been thrown from the vessel, it is too late to grab a life jacket. Many times the canoe or raft may already be ahead of the floaters who could be struggling to overcome a current and get safely out of the river. The safety of river goers is nearly solely on the back of the floater, who in many cases may be intoxicated or simply not know the river well enough to respect its danger areas and avoid them.
Two of the three major outfitters in the area, Many Islands and Spring River Oaks representatives said they provide life jackets to floaters but do not give any type of safety instruction, written or verbal, other than, "We tell them to be careful on Saddler Falls." Many do not realize due to the falls and dangerous areas on the river, it is classified as a Class 3 River. When taking white water rafting trips, floaters are required to go through a safety session with complete instruction prior to boarding the raft. While this is obviously not required on the Spring River, those considering floating, should arm themselves with some basic knowledge before entering the river.
Nearly all drowning are preventable, research shows nearly all victims on the Spring River were not wearing life jackets. Of those who were, the extra long straps became entangled in river debris rendering the life jacket useless. Many of the other accidents, unfortunately, involve the use of excessive alcohol. In one case, a man who drown on the river in 2009, left his party after being intoxicated and was alone at the time of his drowning. By letting someone know your float plans as well as the anticipated take out time, floaters can be assured if they become lost, get caught in a storm or are injured, someone will know where to begin searching. These drownings also require numerous man hours from local emergency personnel and law enforcement for search parties that all too often turn into recovery efforts. By utilizing a buddy system, limiting or foregoing alcohol and using life jackets, most of the victim's lives could have been saved.
In addition to these safety concerns, this year, a female drown near Rio Vista in Hardy, when she got out of the raft in which she was floating on the falls where her leg became caught in a large hole in the rocks. With one limb caught in the deep holes on the falls, the swift water can easily overtake the person very quickly, as was the case with Carla Jo Davenport. Mayor Nina Thornton said the city is doing its part to move or break rocks on they river near the city. She said rumors regarding the hole being filled in with bags of concrete if false. Thornton said, the Environmental Protection Agency will not allow this, but the fire department plans to move rocks like those near Buford Beach before the upcoming holiday weekend. Undoubtedly this is one of the thousands of holes on the falls of the river that are not visible. Another option is to go around such areas in an alternate route, especially at Rio Vista, by going to the far right, instead of left, floaters can go over a much smaller set of falls with less danger, providing they do not get out of the vessel on the falls.
Thornton said they have also discussed putting up signs but this option was met with mixed emotions as thill seekers may still opt for the more dangerous segments of the falls, which in turn could cause more mishaps rather than the intended purpose of preventing injuries and drowning on the falls.
The Spring River changes it bed after each flood, and over the last 30 years, the river has seen more than its fair share of record setting flooding. The spaces between the rocks that form the falls on the river have been moved by Mother Nature at various times, creating large ledges, that, not covered with water and are easily visible. It is plain to understand that a 6-8 inch wide crevasses that runs between 2-6 feet in length can be an easy place to become trapped. With 3 or more inches of water covering them, these areas become invisible death traps. By not getting off canoes, kayaks or rafts on the falls, but in a slower and safer location such as sand bars, it is easy to see how potential tragedy can be easily averted.
While most float trips begin at Dam 3 and end at one of the major outfitter's takeout points, others float further downriver toward the Hardy , Williford and Ravenden areas. The most dangerous area on the Spring is undoubtedly the Saddler Falls bottleneck, between Mammoth Spring and Hardy. Many locals refer to this area as "Dead Man's Curve." On any given summer weekend, numerous floaters do not make the curve and are dumped from their craft or crash into others trying to make the infamous turn. If a boater is not aware of the impending danger, they quickly maneuver their boat into the fast moving curve unsuspecting of the danger that awaits them if they do not hit the current in the right area. They can then quickly be thrown into the bank or other floaters. Many are injured and some have even drowned in the extremely swift water that is normally waist deep. When the outfitters say they warn floaters about Saddler Falls, there is little warning when one approaches the area. For first timers, who may not know the river or have not paid attention to the signs, this might equate to no warning at all of the impending dangerous area.
Other problem areas include the falls at Rio Vista near Hardy, the site of the most recent drowning. Sometimes referred to as "High Falls" the falls have claimed more than its share of lives. In June, 1999, a Mountain Home man's family filed suit after his death on the six foot falls, claiming the outfitter did not properly inform him of the dangers of the river. The falls at Buford Beach, near Hardy are also a problem area. This year, one near drowning occurred on the falls, which also have areas with crevasses that are extremely dangerous. Following the suspected drowning of a fifteen year old Jonesboro boy Aug. ?, who was later determined to have choked while sitting on the falls, members of the Hardy Fire Department have been working to move the large rocks into the much deeper water beyond the falls in an attempt to prevent future injuries in the same location. The young boy's body was recovered in a crevasse on the falls after the choking.
The question of where the responsibility for dictating or providing safety material lies can be debated for years, but the most logical answer should be the outfitters. These businesses are making the money for the floaters trip and should be concerned with their lives. They should do their part to warn them of some of the unseen dangers and make floaters aware of the importance of life jackets and not getting out on the falls. If this type of advice, whether written or given in the form of a verbal demonstration or film prior to boarding the busses for launch, would save one life, it would be worth the time and minimal expense to implement.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, every day 10 people drown, out of these two are under the age of 14. Drowning is the sixth leading cause of unintentional death for people of all ages. Of those who drown, 80 percent are males. Of the 736 boaters who drown in 2009, 9 out of 10 were not wearing life jackets and half of those adolescent and adult deaths involved alcohol. The use of alcohol influences balance and coordination and the effects are heightened in the sun. Other causes include trauma from an accident that occurred on the water, hypothermia and seizure disorders.
As the old adage goes, "You have to take care of yourself or no one else will." Statistics indicate those who have taken swimming lessons decrease their risk of drowning by an amazing 88 percent. Other things that can help insure safety include making sure to always swim with a buddy, insuring children are supervised at all times while on the river, learning CPR and not using air filled or foam toys such as water wings, noodles or inner tubes as a replacement for life jackets. While many use these during swimming or some as a sole floating devices for their long trek downs the river, they are not intended as life saving devices. By also arming ones self with weather conditions, such as being aware of the possibility of strong winds, thunderstorms or lightening, the chance of accidental drowning is also decreased.
The Sharp and Fulton County areas depend heavily on the over $50 million annual economic impact of the Spring River and although there are some other concerns with the river, without the tourist revenue, the cities annual sales tax revenues would be significantly less. Tourist are welcomed to the beautiful area, many of whom later choose to relocate to one of the surrounding cities to be closer to the river and enjoy the slower lifestyle and low cost of living afforded to residents of the area. Local officials want to ensure these tourists are also sent home safely so they can return to the Spring River with their families for generations.
By arming oneself with knowledge and obeying safety precautions, the Spring River is a safe way to enjoy a hot summer day or even a cool fall evening. So grab a life jacket, sun block, review a map of trouble areas and stay in the canoe on the falls, but by all means come float the river, shop in some unique shops, enjoy a leisurely day at a local hotel or campground and eat some of the wonderful local cuisine, but most of all, don't be scared of the beautiful Spring River but instead, respect her.