A kayaker bypassed a part of an Arkansas scenic river known as Dead Man’s Curve during a weekend trip, but a rare sinkhole created a whirlpool along his alternate channel and dragged him to his death.
Donald Wright, 64, from Searcy, Arkansas, died Saturday at Saddler Falls along the Spring River, said Keith Stephens, a spokesman for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. At least one other person was injured.
Sinkholes are common in the northern half of Arkansas, where subterranean limestone erodes away easily. Small whirlpools are common where bits of land extend into waterways, but having a sinkhole open a whirlpool in the middle of a stream is uncommon.
“I’ve been here for 40 years. This is the first one I’ve ever heard forming in a river like this,” said Bill Prior, a geologist supervisor at the Arkansas Geological Survey.
The Spring River was flowing normally Saturday – fed by Mammoth Spring, the second-largest spring in the Ozark Mountains. Its steady flow, at about 356 cubic feet per second (enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every four minutes), makes it desirable for basic training on kayaks and canoes.
“Classes are often held on the Spring River because Mammoth Spring has such a reliable flow,” said Jonathan Gillip, field operations chief for surface water at the U.S. Geological Survey office in Little Rock.
Dead Man’s Curve has the occasional switchback, falls and pools, but isn’t terribly turbulent, said Rocky McCollum, owner of Spring River Camp and Canoe. Boaters avoid it mainly to take a short cut around the switchbacks – but doing so Saturday put them on a portion of the stream where the river bed gave way.
“There are thousands of sinkholes across the northern part of the state,” Gillip said. “This is an active one that people happened to see collapse, and it had a traumatic impact.”
Saturday’s whirlpool was both instantaneous and thousands of years in the making. The Spring River eroded harder rock above an underground cavity, and when the river bed gave way, it created a vacuum that sucked the water in a “pretty strong vortex,” Prior said.
Rachel Ratliff, Rocky McCollum’s daughter, rented canoes to Wright’s group and said Wright was wearing a life jacket and was an experienced kayaker. “But the river is stronger than any life jacket there is,” she said.
If the sinkhole system were closed, the water would drain into the cavity and eventually refill enough to kill the whirlpool. But because there’s no change at the river gauge at Hardy, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) downstream, the whirlpool is likely diverting water back into the river, Gillip said.
IMPACT ON TOURISM
Ratliff has 60 boats, all of which she rented out Saturday before the accident. She said she’s seen no cancellations yet for the upcoming weekend, though she’s not sure word has gotten out. People have been calling regularly to check on the safety of their route and to change it if they were uncomfortable.
The Spring River, 150 miles (240 kilometers) northeast of Little Rock, remains open. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission warned prospective boaters to stay away from the whirlpool, which is marked off by buoys and ropes.
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