Float operators hope high water won't cancel river plans

Wednesday, June 28th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) -- Archie Peyton makes his living on the water. But the Illinois River float trip operator already had his fill Wednesday when more rain started falling.

Not a weekend has gone by this summer without rain, and the river is pushing the level at which outfitters were willing to risk the current. But they are optimistic that the clouds won't dampen the Fourth of July holiday weekend, one of the most popular weekends of the year.

"We're all hurting down here," Peyton said. "But we're not going to get anybody into trouble."

He said the river Wednesday morning was too high for canoeists but perfect for rafters, whose flat-bottom boats are less likely to topple in the swift current. But another round of rain was forecast Thursday and even though clearing skies were expected to follow, operators said they probably wouldn't know if levels are safe for canoeing until the weekend.

Outfitters recommended floaters call them the evening before or day of their planned trip. Most Tahlequah operators offer toll-free telephone numbers.

With the rainy weather, commercial activities on the river have dropped 50 percent this summer, said Ed Fite, administrator of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission.

In addition to the float trip operators, local grocery stores, restaurants and other suppliers are feeling the pinch.

"We're sitting around anxious for storms to get by to see what we get," he said.

The Illinois River Association issues guidelines that warn against adults floating in canoes when the river reaches 6 feet at Watts and 6.6 feet at Tahlequah. Rafting limits are 9.6 feet at both locations.

It is recommended that children age 10 and under not float in rafts when levels reach 7 and 7.6 feet. The river was at 5.6 feet at Watts and 6.9 feet at Tahlequah on Wednesday morning.

Some operators say they've been hurt by rumors that recent rains mean the river is closed to floaters. The replaying of television news footage taken when river levels were higher doesn't help either, they say.

"At this point, I wouldn't cancel any plans because this river drops as fast as it comes up," said Cheryl Beaman, owner of Falcon Floats. "The forecast is looking really good from this point on. We'll be floating all weekend."

"Hit-and-miss" rainfall likely won't cause problems, but the river could respond to amounts of 2 inches or more could, Fite said. Floaters should "boat smart from the start," he said.

That means wearing a life jacket at all times, refraining from alcoholic beverages, never swimming or boating alone and staying within sight of companions. If the canoe capsizes, he recommends floaters stay with the boat on the upstream side and resist the urge to latch on to fixed objects to avoid being pinned.

"It looks like we're going to have a beautiful weekend," he said. "Everyone over here is going to be doing what we can to make sure we have a safe weekend."
For information on water levels of Oklahoma waterways check the link below