Hard-hit by drought, Arkansas tourism is still sunny

The drought hasn’t stopped vacationers, even to places like this.

Few areas of the country this summer are suffering through drought more extreme than north-central Arkansas. Below state Highway 14 in Searcy County, the Buffalo National River is down to 2.4 feet, about half the water level desired for the leisurely, carefree canoeing that draws more than 1.5 million campers to this scenic waterway every year.

Many of the sycamores have already begun to turn orange and shed leaves. Sandbars in the river demand that rafters lift up their vessels and walk.

At the bend below Painted Bluff, where Park Ranger Mike Simpson stands in the sun, the flow appears nonexistent. Floaters who choose innertubes for navigation must paddle with their arms, “hoping for a breeze to push you down,” he says.

But some still try. Some still camp, and weekend traffic, at least, remains thick throughout Ozark Country.

And throngs of fun-lovers continue to file into attractions in Branson, a two-hour drive from Buffalo National River.

Attendance at Silver Dollar City is up 3 percent from this time last year, partly because a three-month stretch of drought — parched as that sounds — beats stormy weather when it comes to outdoor tourism, said the theme park’s Lisa Rau.

“One rainy Saturday and you can lose 15,000 people,” she said.

Tracking the zip codes of ticket-buyers, Silver Dollar City attributes the higher attendance to visitors who travel many hours to get there; 58,811 have arrived so far this year from the Kansas City area, a near-4 percent jump.

Rau said the “one problem-area market is Springfield,” 25 miles to the north, where many hold season passes and may be waiting for milder weather to use them.

Southeast of Branson at Table Rock Lake, boating, water sports and fishing are booming at the State Park Marina, said co-owner Pat Cox.

“The browner our grass, the greener our pastures,” Cox said. “Really hot, triple-digit days can slow things down. But generally speaking, sunny, dry days are good for the lake and marina business.

“The rain is our nemesis and the fish don’t seem to care one way or another.”

The mood isn’t quite so sunny down by Buffalo National River, where The Star’s drought-chasing team stopped this week.

Burn bans are in effect, with fallen leaves and dry brush increasing the risk of fire. Prescriptive burning has been ceased in recent years because of a loss of federal funds.

In some areas, the lack of moisture has caused trees to crack. Just ask the Lindsly family of Dayton, Ohio, who occupied the sole tent this week in a campground loop offering 21 sites.

On Wednesday, an elm branch 40 feet long succumbed to a hot wind and fell on their site. The two grandkids — Mitchel, 8, and Kathleyn, 5 — were on their little bikes below the branch when it dropped.

The children were grazed, that’s all. They thought it was funny.

Ranger Simpson said drought will do that to trees. It also will send wild animals into places they shouldn’t be, searching for water and moist vegetation.

Young deer who normally linger on the riverside below the bluff are more apt to wander onto the roadway.

“They’re not nearly afraid as they should be,” Simpson said, stopping his truck for a fawn staring at him from the asphalt shoulder.

Floods were the problem in 2008 and 2010. Now comes drought, which has reconfigured the river’s access points, limiting the ability of emergency crews to get boats to people in distress.

The scenic tranquility of this 135-mile-long park deceives. Even in wet summer, when canoes can travel at 2 mph, a half-dozen visitors may drown.

Two have died so far this year.

Candy Lindsly came here as a little girl 50 years ago, and has been visiting most years ever since. Even with the river so low and temperatures so high, “to me it’ll always be the most beautiful place on earth,” she said.

Now with her husband Don, her daughter and the grandchildren, this year she even considers the Buffalo’s stillness a blessing.

The little ones can learn to kayak in shallow spots, without the current carrying them anywhere.

For many vacationers in the area, the fishing may prove fruitful in spots. “The fish are more or less confined” between sandbars, Simpson said.

Travelers Dan Lanzillotti and Christina Bilder grabbed their poles before setting out on the Buffalo in a canoe. Their dog Rainey would ride along, and the 4-mile journey likely would require five hours under a hot sun, double the float time of a normal summer.

“It’s going to be slow, and we may have to walk some,” said Lanzillotti, 26. “I used to come out here as a kid and ride 37 miles to Buffalo City. I don’t think so this time. Too hot to camp.”

To be sure, triple-digit temperatures, more so than drought, have reduced the number of overnight stays on the Buffalo River. For Larry Davenport, who contracts with the federal government to provide lodging and dining to visitors, business is down about 20 percent from normal.

But stalwarts such as Joel Alexander of Eros, La., will arrive, as he’s done the past 40 years or so, this time in a Winnebago Motorcoach.

“I’m a worn-out old man and I like to suck up the air-conditioning” that his vacation-on-wheels provides, said Alexander, 66.

Yet there he sat in the blazing sunshine on his bicycle, maybe not so worn-out as he claimed.

Drought be damned. “I admire God’s ability to build places like this,” he said.

To reach Rick Montgomery, call 816-234-4410 or send email to rmontgomery@kcstar.com.