By TEDDYE SNELL
Tourism season has kicked into high gear in Cherokee County, and visitors will soon be flocking to the Illinois River and Lake Tenkiller to celebrate the Fourth of July.
Jack Spears, owner of Arrowhead Resort on the river, is expecting a good holiday crowd.
“We’re having a good year,” said Spears. “The river levels are good, floating is nice and we’re very positive about everything.”
Spears said overnight accommodations are booked solid for the weekend, but there are still ample opportunities for floating.
“We still have sleeping accommodations during the week, but the way we work it is, we allow people to book rooms and campsites a year in advance. Consequently, we have very few weekend openings,” he said.
Arrowhead offers complete floating services, including rafts, kayaks and canoes. The site also is home to Smokin’ T’s barbecue on the weekends.
“They have some really good barbecue, and they serve breakfast, too,” said Spears.
Ed Fite, administrator of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission, indicated most operators are reporting heavy crowds for the weekend.
“The majority of our operators are reporting they’re completely booked [for overnight stays],” said Fite. “They seem to have some flexibility for floating on Saturday, but I would strongly recommend anyone planning on heading down to float to call their operator ahead of time and make a reservation.”
Fite said river flow remains above average for this time of year, and the water is in good condition.
“E. coli continues to be in the news, but is rarely an issue on the river,” said Fite. “We only get concerned if the water is a muddy, chocolate color, as it indicates a runoff event. Right now, the water is a nice bluish-green color and is flowing well.”
A generation ago, canoes were the most popular flotation device, Fite said.
“But now, rafts are certainly No. 1,” said Fite. “There’s also been a strong surge and demand for kayaks, so commercial operators are working to keep up with that demand. You’ll see a lot more Jackson and Riviera kayaks, for one and two people, on the river now. It’s amazing how it’s changed. Now, fewer than 5 percent of the devices on the river are canoes.”
Despite optimum floating conditions, Fite said safety is always a concern. He reminds visitors that rafts are not to be tied together.
“Also, if you’re not a strong swimmer or boater, you should always wear a life jacket,” said Fite. “Our rangers will be out, and we also discourage the use of rope swings, as they have become an issue this summer. We’ve had to fly two individuals out to seek medical care after having a mishap with rope swings. It’s important for people to check below the water’s surface for debris, and never, ever dive.”
Barbara Kelly, owner of Diamondhead Resort, also indicated her operation is booked solid for overnight accommodations. Diamondhead also offers kayaks, rafts and canoes, and visitors should call ahead for a reservation.
“The Fourth of July is our big weekend,” said Kelly. “We’ll have live music, with Red Eye Gravy playing Thursday, July 3, and Randy Crouch and Flying Horse on Friday, July 4, along with our big fireworks display.”
Diamondhead now also offers a full bar and grill. The Gravel Bar opened Memorial Day weekend, with a full menu.
Those who prefer wide open spaces won’t want to miss the recreational activities at Lake Tenkiller. The state of Oklahoma and the U.S. Corps of Engineers manage 10 marinas and 14 parks with many different facilities around the lake. There are 24 boat launching ramps around the lake, three floating restaurants, and many islands to explore.
According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers all swimming beaches at the lake are open for visitors. Earlier in June, Snake Creek, Chicken Creek and Cookson Bend beaches were temporarily closed due to high elevations of E. coli. As of June 26, all beaches were re-opened after testing indicated E. coli levels were within acceptable ranges.
The Greater Tenkiller Area Association will host the Fireworks Extravaganza Friday, July 4, beginning around dusk, on the south end of the lake near Tenkiller State Park. According to organizers, the area between the two big islands should afford excellent viewing for boaters. In addition, the shoot site is somewhat higher in elevation this year, so there should be excellent viewing in the central part of the lake, perhaps as far north as Cookson Bend and Sixshooter.