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Cold comfort 

In search of the chilliest swimming in Arkansas.

click to enlarge COOL WATERS: The Spring River's average water temperature is 56 to 58 degrees year round.
  • COOL WATERS: The Spring River's average water temperature is 56 to 58 degrees year round.
Absolutes are dangerous in the newspaper business.

That's one of the first things they teach you when you sign on, right after how to work the coffee pot. We deal in facts; lose sleep when we get it wrong; are forced to write corrections and beg forgiveness when we do. And if there is one truism in this business, it's that the moment you say something is the first, the last, the oldest, the only, the tallest, the newest or the most expensive, somebody, somewhere is going to come out of the woodwork to prove you wrong. These are the times that try men's souls.

That's the reason why I'm not going to say that the Spring River in Northeast Arkansas is the coldest swimming hole in the state. Fed primarily by nine-million gallon-per-hour Mammoth Spring in Fulton County and running southeast for 75 miles before emptying into the Black River, it's surely one of the coldest, hovering at the take-your-breath-away temperature of 56 to 58 degrees year round. To put things into perspective: that's only about 20 degrees away from taking a bottle of water out of the refrigerator and pouring it over your head. Combine that beer-chilling flow with some of the better rapids in Arkansas, rainbow trout fishing near Mammoth Spring and plenty of burbling chutes to shoot in a canoe, and it's easy to see why the Spring River is a hot place to party during the dog day weekends, frequented by canoers and college kids.

Shelly Govar runs South Fork Resort, a cabin, campground and canoe rental business on the nearby South Fork River. The majority of the float trips she books are on the Spring, and she can confirm from experience that it's frigid, even in the hottest months of summer.

“It's not like jumping in a swimming pool. It's like jumping into ice,” Govar said. “It takes your breath away even if it's a hundred degrees outside.” Govar said that in the spring and early summer, the water is cold enough that she won't float it. She said an unexpected dip in the Spring on a 70 degree day can be a stunning, even painful experience. “We put people [in canoes] in it in 70 or 80 degree weather,” she said. “but it would have to be mid-80s for me to even float it because you might flip. Seventy degrees and you flip, it's gonna be cold.”

Govar said that the temperature, the class 1 through 3 rapids, and the plentiful gravel bars on the river draw in the partiers, transforming the river into a “miniature Mardi Gras” on summer weekends – especially 4th of July and Labor Day – complete with boozing, nudity and general debauchery. Some of the houses along the river throw huge shindigs. It's definitely not for everybody.

“There's this one house over by Dead Man's Curve [a treacherous bend of the river where many novice canoers tip] that always has a DJ on the major weekends,” Govar said. “Everybody pulls their boats up on a gravel bar and they show their boobs for beads and just get hammered. They drop rubber snakes out of the trees. It's just crazy.” The scene was enough that the reality television channel TruTV came to town last Labor Day and shot an episode of their show “Party Heat.” “They didn't depict a very good picture,” Govar said.

Howard Braswell runs the Spring River Canoe Club, and owns a house on Dead Man's Curve. He said that in the summer, even the non-holiday weekends can see the river packed.

“It's a lot of college kids and high school kids on the weekends,” he said. “We try to encourage families to come during the week so they don't get in the middle of all that.”


Note: The banks of the Spring River are mostly private property, so the best way to get your feet wet there is to go through one of the many canoe and raft rental businesses in the area. There's also a few public access points, such as Hardy Beach in Hardy, Arkansas, which is located in a public park.
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