WATTS, Okla. -- The WOKA Whitewater Park didn't disappoint those who showed up for its opening day Friday.
The park is a joint endeavor of the Grand River Dam Authority and Siloam Springs, supported by the Walton Family Foundation. WOKA is a combination of the words water, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
The park will be open again today and Sunday. It's billed as "Welcome to WOKA" weekend. The forecast shows highs of 79 degrees today and 82 degrees Sunday, according to the National Weather Service in Tulsa.
The park will remain open after this weekend, but visitors are encouraged to check the website visitwoka.com for hours and other information on what to expect, according to Jared Skaggs, director of outdoor experience for the dam authority.
An official grand opening is scheduled for next spring.
The park opened at noon Friday after media were given a sneak peek two hours beforehand.
People involved with the project in various ways were able to have fun on the course before the official opening as a way to say thank you, Skaggs said.
Gil Comeaux of Springdale said he was the first one at the park gate Friday morning.
"I've been waiting for three years, almost 1,000 days, for this day today," he said. "It's a great, safe place and the fact there is so much money invested for the kayakers and the tubers and the canoers and the whitewater enthusiasts, man, this is like Mecca for us."
Brian Prince, his wife and two sons drove an an hour and a half from Vinita, Okla., to visit the park.
"Our family is pretty adventurous," he said. "With this development right here, it's local, and we're able to come over here and work on our skills. It's really a great location for this type of adventure. This is a controlled environment, which is good for safety."
The Grand River Dam Authority and Siloam Springs announced plans for the park in October 2020. The authority, based in Tulsa, will oversee and manage the park.
The 30-acre whitewater park, at 474986 E. Twin Falls Road just off U.S. 59, is on the old Lake Frances spillway on the upper Illinois River. Lake Frances was essentially depleted in 1990 when its dam was severely damaged, according to a 2017 report in the Siloam Springs Herald-Leader.
Materials repurposed from the course construction were used to create a stair-step dam, mitigating hydraulic conditions and dangerous currents, according to the authority.
The park is just north of Watts, a town of about 300 residents.
Crossland Construction built the park. Derek Salmonson, project manager, said between 6o,000 and 70,000 cubic yards of limestone were blasted out during construction.
The park boasts a 1,200-foot-long channel with eight drop features designed to challenge and thrill kayakers, surfers and tubers, according to the authority. Amenities include waterfront, shaded spectator seating; rental services; trails; public restrooms; and course put-in and take-outs. There are more than 300 parking spaces.
"I think it's going to be a fantastic park," Skaggs said. "Everyone is going to have a lot of fun."
But he said WOKA isn't an amusement ride. It will be stressed to those who are in the water to follow park rules. Wearing a whitewater-specific helmet and a life jacket along with secure footwear is required.
"It is like natural whitewater," he said, adding it will be "a whitewater experience and not a theme-park ride."
The Walton Family Foundation paid 95% of the park's $33 million construction cost, according to the October 2020 news release that announced the park. The foundation also provided money for the park's design.
Siloam Springs operates a water park 8 miles upstream on Fisher Ford Road, which served as the inspiration for WOKA, according to the 2020 news release.
"What we think we've got is a world-class whitewater park right here in this part of the world," said Justin Alberty, Grand River Dam Authority corporate spokesman. "Now is your chance to come and check it out. If you're not ready to get in the water, come out and spectate. There's plenty of room for that, and there will be plenty of people in the water to watch."
Weekend hours, other info
Hours will be 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. today and Sunday at the WOKA Whitewater Park near Watts, Okla. There will be free parking and limited concessions with equipment available for rent on a first-come, first-served basis. Whitewater-specific personal equipment is also welcome. WOKA is a cashless park accepting credit and debit cards only.
Source: WOKA Whitewater Park