Rock Town River Outfitters bridges Little Rock and North Little Rock
July 30 - August 5, 2018
By Becca Bona
“It’s not safe!”
“Don’t get near the Arkansas river.”
These are adages passed from concerned parents to their offspring in Central Arkansas. Samuel Ellis, like most Little Rockers, is familiar with these warnings.
“My mom had always told me never to go near the Arkansas river,” he recalls. “That’s the way a lot of Arkansas feels about it. You don’t really see anything about the river. If it’s in the news it’s because of flooding […] or someone swimming near a damn or a boating accident.”
Getting his feet wet
Ellis developed a passion for water iiactivities back to his college days. While attending the University of Central Arkansas his weekends were largely devoted to camping trips with floating top of the list. He and his friends marked familiar destinations like Big Piney and Eleven Point River as well as everything in between.
“We would just get our stuff together and go,” he remembers.
After graduating, Ellis moved to Colorado and trained to be a whitewater rafting guide for the summer. “It was a thrill and it is a lot to keep up with all seven people while rafting,” he says. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through – and that includes the three week training.”
After the summer, however, he came back home and tried his hand at office job.
“I worked in a little cubicle farm in a law firm,” he says. He began questioning if he was doing the right thing with his life, and to break the monotony, he headed outside.
“For my therapy I would bring a kayak out and I would hop on the Arkansas River up at Two Rivers Park,” he says. With his whitewater training, he felt confident that certain areas of the river were actually kind to kayakers, and after testing it out himself, found it to be so.
“After a couple of years of doing this I realized this is a beautiful lake and a calm wonderful spot to be that a lot of people don’t know about,” he says. Plus, the area is largely controlled by Murray Lock and Dam, which makes leading tours all the more safe.
“The fact that the Arkansas River is controlled by [the dam] lets us forecast and gauge the river flows so that we can take our tours on safe water levels and conditions,” he explains.
Ellis began posting pictures on social media, and people started to ask how they, too, could find these beautiful destinations. Ellis says, “At that point it became pretty obvious to me that there is a need for this in Arkansas.”
Open for business
There were a couple of elements iithat fell into place and pushed Ellis to open Rock Town River Outfitters. The first piece came from his travels and observations of other river communities.
He had seen many cities with active water communities, but while visiting his friend Brent Williamson in Portland, Ore., one of his college camping comrades, he had an epiphany.
“I was just amazed by seeing that river community, that want for people to get out and utilize the water in their city. I thought, Little Rock has these ingredients. We have a great thriving city, we have this beautiful river than runs right through it.”
Not long after, he made what turned out to be an important phone call to Rockwater Marina, a facility that he first discovered while kayaking.
Owner Lisa Ferrell called him back immediately, and in answer to his general request for more information on the marina, offered him the opportunity to set up shop on the premises.
“Rockwater is everything you could need, it’s a full-service marina, and it’s top quality on every end of it. This has been a fantastic place to set up our kayaking shop and owners Jim Jackson and Lisa Ferrell have been more than helpful with getting everything started,” he says.
Ellis opened shop in the spring of 2017. The word slowly began to spread, as he recalls, “We got slowly busier that first year and more and more people started coming out.”
He tallied up the amount of people he took out during his first whole season to be near 150. This season, he likely has 150 people come out on a busy weekend.
“I have a day job right now,” he says, with a chuckle. “We’re still in the small stages. […] You never know if it’s ok or not. You just kind of have to trial and error with a new business, trust your judgment, and take your licks when you have to.”
Amping up the ride
This past spring, Ellis began to prepare for his second season. It turns out, he would experience growth that he hadn’t quite planned for.
Around March, the owner of Bobby’s Bike Hike, the bike renting authority in downtown Little Rock, called Ellis to let him know that he was moving and was selling his business.
The owner wanted Ellis to have the first chance to buy the shop, and whichever way that he looked at it, Ellis couldn’t let the opportunity slip away.
“I worked out a payment scale for me to handle all this, but I essentially bought all his material and I talked to the River Market and they let me take over the shop space,” he says. “Bobby’s is no longer in Little Rock – but we continue the same services under the Rock Town River Outfitters umbrella.”
Ellis also kept the staff from Bobby’s, and introduced them to the marina and the kayak rental side of the business so they would be familiar with the process.
Locals might have not even noticed Bobby’s was gone, save for the addition of large kayaks that now adorn the familiar River Market space. Ellis, however, definitely noticed the additional workload.
Luckily, he found help and fast.
“Brent came and saved me, actually,” he laughs. “I realized that it was going to be more than I could do on the weekends.” Williamson, who was stopping through Little Rock before starting a road trip, is now a familiar face at the marina.
“It’s great because [Brent] has the same background and history as I do,” Ellis continues. “He has the same love of the outdoors in Arkansas, we went on all the same floating and camping trips, and he has a whole other side of certifications that we get to use out here. Brent actually teaches our kayaking classes, as he was an instructor in Portland, Ore., for four years.”
Just keep paddling
Since adding biking to the mix, Ellis has found himself in a unique position – with storefronts in both Little Rock and North Little Rock, near each respective downtown. While he is able to take locals out on the water and change their perception of the river, he also enjoys a tourism angle that bridges the two cities.
“Getting to see people come down the ramp for the first time, they might be uncertain and it can be intimidating but within five minutes of being in the boat, they don’t want to get out again,” says Ellis. “We get people saying after two miles, ‘Can we not just keep going? Do we have to paddle back?’”
Currently, the marina is open for kayak rentals throughout the week and weekend. Particularly popular are the sunset tours on Fridays through Sundays starting at 7:30 p.m.
Ellis notes, “We have cut back on our day tours during the heat of the summer but still offer kayak and stand-up paddle board rentals at Rockwater Marina for a more affordable and cooler experience. We want to make our services available for the adventure seeker as well as the families and locals that have helped shape this city.”
Rock Town River Outfitters is a dynamic venture, and Ellis has plans in the works to mix up both the cycling and kayaking side of things. He hopes to get brunch tours going, and is pleased to be positioned in Central Arkansas, which he thinks has untapped potential.
“The breweries, the really great restaurants and local food we have here […] we get to take people and show them these great businesses and activities in Little Rock,” Ellis says. “What’s more, we connect Little Rock and North Little Rock with an activity – from kayaking in the middle of the Arkansas River and also biking around it on the river trail.”
For more information on Rock Town River Outfitters visit their website or stop by their Facebook: https://www.rocktownriveroutfitters.com/, https://www.facebook.com/Rocktownriveroutfitters/.
As the sun set on a recent Friday night, instructor Brent Williamson led a troupe of eager kayakers down the Arkansas River.
(Photos by Becca Bona)