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story.lead_photo.caption National Park Duck Tours board passengers on Central Avenue across from Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs. - Photo by Special to the Democrat-Gazette / MARCIA SCHNEDLER

HOT SPRINGS -- In his boyhood hometown, Bill Clinton gets no respect on a sunny summer day as 15 tourists take a Hot Springs Duck Tours ride across the Spa City and on Lake Hamilton.

Early in the amphibious tour, our driver/guide points out Hot Springs High School. There, he jibes, the future 42nd U.S. president "got his education. He learned to lie, cheat and steal."

Passing Oaklawn Park's slot-machine emporium, the guide observes that casino gambling is illegal in Arkansas, "so we call this an electronic gaming facility. We can call it whatever we want to, because we're in Clinton country."

The nigh ceaseless banter draws chuckles from some passengers, although nattering nabobs of negativism might find snatches of the spiel witless or even offensive -- such as a hateful remark suggesting that California brims with gays.

Happily, there's also a lot of local lore and history packed into the running monologue. And the tour, which spends about a third of its 75 minutes puttering on the lake, does give visitors a brisk once-over of the Hot Springs sights.

The commentary goes all the way back to Hernando de Soto's likely visit in the 16th century. There are details about the curative powers, real and supposed, of the natural hot springs. Al Capone's presence during the Prohibition era inevitably gets spotlighted, with Hot Springs described as "the original Sin City."

As the guide recounts, the amphibious ducks were invented for military use in World War II. He reports that 22,000 were built in those war years, with some sold as surplus in the late 1940s for $50 to $75, while more than 20,000 were scrapped by sinking.

National Park Duck Tours runs a dozen of the antique craft, he says, with another 20 or so held in reserve to be scavenged for spare parts. A duck's cruising speed is 38 mph on land, 5 mph in the water, and fuel consumption is 3 miles per gallon.

Hot Springs ducks were in the news in May 1999 when 13 passengers died in the Lake Hamilton sinking of a vehicle owned by a former operator, Land and Lake Tours.

Anyone who remembers that bit of history may be surprised at the lighthearted way safety instructions are given as the duck prepares to enter the water. Having pointed out the life jackets tucked below the roof, the guide advises that an emergency exit should be made over the side or front of the craft to avoid the rotating propeller in the back.

"Just follow me," he jokes. "I guarantee I won't be the last one off" He adds, "I'm sure about one thing: A nonswimmer will always bail water out of a sinking boat faster than a swimmer."

Laughter ensues, perhaps with the slightest tinge of nervousness. And the excursion continues without incident, as fortunately has been the case here since 1999.

Back on Central Avenue near tour's end, the guide points out the large sign at the front of the vehicle: "Driver works for tips." Presumably that qualifies as a gentle hint to passengers, who've previously been told that these are the least expensive duck tours in America.

National Park Duck Tours depart from 418 Central Ave., across from Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs. Daily departures are scheduled for 9:30 and 11 a.m. as well as 12:30, 2, 4 and 6 p.m., lake conditions permitting. The fare is $18 ($12 for children 3-12, $5 for those 2 and under).

For additional information or reservations, call (501) 321-2911 or visit rideaduck.com.

Weekend on 09/03/2015

Print Headline: Wisequacks set tone of Hot Springs Duck tour

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