Arkansas is known for its outdoor activities and attractions, on land and in water. Running through Saline County is a popular destination for water sport enthusiasts.
For those who grew up near water, many stories may begin, “One time when we were floating…” Such is the case in Saline County. The 202-mile Saline River is a prime spot for canoeing, kayaking or paddle boarding. It is the last major undammed stream in the entire Quachita Mountain drainage, offering excellent fishing, scenery and backcountry floating, according to Arkansas.com. The river is comprised of three major divisions or tributaries – Middle, Alum and North forks – which merge north of Benton.
Michael Sacomani, who owns Saline River Canoe with his wife Tonya, grew up close to “the Saline,” as it’s affectionately called, and floated it when he was young. That history, coupled with his continued love of the outdoors, made owning this type of business a natural fit.
The family-owned and operated Saline River Canoe, which opened in 2008, rents canoes, kayaks and paddle boards, provides shuttle service on the Saline River in Benton and also provides instruction and paddle board fitness classes, known as “SUP-FIT.”
Most customers are from central Arkansas, but Michael says they also see many folks from Louisiana eager to take advantage of the Natural State’s great outdoors.
The Saline is a prime spot for recreation and relaxation. It and other waterways in Saline County offer everything from a laidback float with your family to adrenaline-charged runs in the Village or tributaries of the river. Something people may not realize about the Saline River, Michael maintains, is that there are upper stretches on some of the forks that have higher difficulty level ratings – even whitewater at some levels.
“The great thing about this river is it is suited for all levels of paddlers and the fishing is always ideal,” Michael says. Although there are no real names for good places to stop along the way for lunch or a break, several large gravel bars make popular stopping points for visitors and enthusiasts.
A unique aspect of the Saline River is that it is relatively free from development. It is planked by dense forests, which are home to wildlife including bear, deer, mink, otters, beaver, muskrats, turkey and even alligators in the southern sections of the river.
The Saline River is one of the most underrated fishing rivers in the state, according to Arkansas.com. “Fishing during much of the year is a ‘wade a little, fish a little,’ proposition, and for this reason, canoes are much preferred over the traditional flatbottom johnboat.” Fish that inhabit the river include smallmouth, largemouth and rock bass, and spotted bass as well as warmouth, longear, green sunfish, bluegills, channel catfish and crappie.
The river begins in the eastern foothills of the Ouachita Mountains in Saline and Garland counties. The upper section of the Saline is a clear, cold-water stream with a series of fast running water sections. The central section has a clear to murky water with long, slower moving pools. The lower section is sluggish with murky water.
Access to the Saline is at state highway crossings, country road crossings and numerous little-known fords and ferry sites. Floats through Saline River Canoe depart from Lyle Park in Benton.
Saline River Canoe services about 25 miles of river; however, on occasion they receive requests for much longer trips of the river’s 200-mile stretch, Michael says. The busiest months of activity are from April to July.
Michael says they find that the Saline River is often overlooked in comparison to other river spots around the state. “However, I’m doing my best to promote it one rental at a time. I have hopes that with the help of the city of Benton we can make the Saline, along with other attractions in Benton, a top destination.”
Based on the Sacomanis’ experience, it is safe to say that beginners to experts are in good hands.
On a personal note, Michael enjoys canoeing throughout the state as well as whitewater kayaking. He has kayaked all the forks of the Saline, the Big Piney, Little Missouri, the Cossatot, Little Red, Quachita, Sugar, Cadron, all the spillways in the Village, the Lake Norell spillway, Gulpha Gorge, Rock Creek, Hot Springs Creek, Baker Creek and “countless others as well as any runnable urban creeks I can find.”
Tonya is a Certified ACA (American Canoe Association) Level 1 SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard) Instructor. She’s paddled some whitewater level waterways, such as the Little Missouri and Ouachita rivers.
“Both our boys paddle. Our oldest paddles kayaks mainly for fishing on the Saline.
Recreationally, we’ve paddled most of the Saline, the lower Buffalo and the Eleven Point River in Missouri and a few bays in Fort Walton, Florida – to name a few.”