In 2017, Arkansas native and outdoor enthusiast Samuel Ellis spent his savings on three kayaks, insurance and a business license and started taking people out on the Arkansas River three at a time for guided sunset tours through downtown Little Rock. Since the establishment of his kayak/bicycle tourism business, Rock Town River Outfitters, he’s confronted Lime scooters, a historic flood and a pandemic. Despite all of these disasters, he’s been able to expand his business. In addition to guided sunset tours through downtown, locals and tourists can rent kayaks and float the Little Maumelle River, rent road or hybrid bikes from the River Market or explore the bike trails at River Mountain Park on mountain bikes from Rock Town’s new location in Two Rivers Park.
Ellis was no stranger to the River Market before he opened his second Rock Town River Outfitters location in the market’s Ottenheimer Hall. When Ellis was 13 years old, he’d go to the River Market with his parents on Saturday mornings and while they’d shop at the farmers market, he’d open up his bluegrass fiddle case and play the instrument for tips.
“I played down there pretty much all the way through high school,” Ellis said.
After Ellis graduated from college, he moved to Buena Vista, Colorado, to work as a professional white water rafting guide, taking people out on the Arkansas River about 30 miles south from the river’s origin source in the Rocky Mountains near Leadville, Colorado.
“I wanted to learn more about whitewater and tourism and recreation,” he said. “I pretty much sold everything I owned and loaded up in the back of a ’91 Ford Ranger that I was going to be living out of for the next couple of months.”
Ellis would spend the next three summers whitewater rafting in Colorado. When he moved back to Little Rock “to get a real job, as my mom called it,” he found himself drawn to the Arkansas River again.
“I was working a desk job when I moved back, so I found myself in every free chance I got after work, and even on lunch breaks, taking my little whitewater kayak out here and exploring the Little Maumelle River and the Arkansas River,” he said.
Like many of us who grew up in Central Arkansas, Ellis was often warned about the dangers of the Arkansas River.
“My parents told me as a young kid, ‘Don’t ever go near the Arkansas River,’ ” he said. After returning to Little Rock as a professional whitewater rafting guide, he started to wonder why the river seemed to be universally feared by his parents’ generation. And so he started researching it.
“Before Murray Lock and Dam, it was a very dangerous river,” he said. Nowadays, Ellis said, the river is controlled for navigation and he can use modern technology to check on the river’s relative safety.
“I can look at an app on my phone every day and decide if the river is safe or in flood stage,” he said. “A lot of people don’t realize that the Arkansas River is a lake 10 months out of the year.”
Ellis started Rock River Outfitters in 2017 out of Rockwater Marina in North Little Rock, and he estimates that he took 200 people out on the river that year.
“It seemed like a million people to me at the time,” he said. Now, he says, they take out more than 1,000 people a season.
After his first year in business, Ellis found out that the bicycle rental company Bobby’s Bike Hike, which was located in the River Market, was relocating to Chicago. “They were the only bicycle rental company in Central Arkansas,” he said. Ellis decided to take over the space in Ottenheimer Hall because as an outfitter, he felt a responsibility to make bike rentals available. The leap into bicycle rentals was a scary one, he said. It also happened to be around the same time that Lime scooters, those pesky, green, electric ridesharing scooters, started popping up on sidewalks all over town.
“I call [it] the Lime scooter epidemic,” he said.
Ellis called other bike shops in Asheville, North Carolina, Chattanooga, Tennessee and Austin, Texas, to find out if the pay-to-ride scooters had flattened the demand for bike rentals. “The general consensus was that the people that are looking to hop on a scooter and ride up and down the street from bar to bar are not the same people that want to hop on a bike and explore the Arkansas River Trail, so I decided to move forward with it,” he said. “And so in our first two years we went from one location, one employee — me and my dog — to two locations, and we had to have a few more employees to keep both locations up and running.”
In 2019 Ellis learned that the Arkansas Boathouse Club, a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating interest in rowing and other water sports in the state, was moving from North Little Rock to a new location in Two Rivers Park on River Mountain Road. The Boathouse Club provides equipment for Rock City Rowing and the UA Little Rock Club Crew.
“The boathouse is run by the Little Rock Athletic Club, and I was on the board at the time and just wanted to make sure that kayaks out there were available. Now we essentially both work and share the boathouse. They moved up there because the water was so much calmer all year round.”
With use of the additional location, Rock Town River Outfitters was able to offer kayak rentals and tours on the Little Maumelle River. The timing of the move proved to be crucial for Ellis’ business because between May and June of 2019, heavy rainfall over the southern central region of the country caused historic flooding of the Arkansas River that set high water records and caused more than a billion dollars in damage.
“It really did keep us off the Arkansas River almost all season, and it would have greatly affected how we could do business and how we could move forward,” Ellis said.
The Little Maumelle River flooded that spring, too, but only for a couple of weeks, Ellis said.
“We were able to get people safely back on the water here on the Little Maumelle River while the Arkansas River was still flooded. So yeah, you know the Lime scooter epidemic and then 100 year flood, I was like, ‘OK we survived. I got this. Bring it on.’ I thought I’d faced it all, then 2020 came and we had a worldwide pandemic.’ ”
Ellis’ locations at Rockwater Marina and Ottenheimer Hall both closed in March of 2020 due to the pandemic.
“I frantically grabbed as many bikes as I could before the River Market shutdown and moved them down here to our boathouse at Two Rivers,” he said.
Biking and kayaking were viewed as relatively safe outdoor activities during the first pandemic summer. The boat house in Two Rivers Park is an open-air space with a roof and while kayaking can be a group activity, “you don’t get too close to anybody in a kayak,” Ellis said.
Ellis said in a February interview that pre-COVID, most of Rock Town River Outfitters’ business came from tourism. During the pandemic, though, many locals were stuck at home looking to get outside and explore, and his business became a beacon for in-state tourism.
“It’s almost like everyone in Little Rock Googled ‘Things to do in Little Rock’ for the first time. … We really turned our biggest weakness into our biggest strength because now 95% or so of our business is local business. … They didn’t know you could come out and float the Little Maumelle River or the Arkansas River. They didn’t know [about] the huge network of bicycle trails we have here in Little Rock, and when COVID hit they just started finding out about us. It was really great because I love showing our city’s visitors how beautiful Little Rock is because I grew up here. This is my hometown. I’m proud to be from Little Rock and I think there’s a lot of potential here.”
Ellis said he’s also seen an increase in bicycle rentals with the addition of the new bike trails in Hot Springs, the Monument Trail at Pinnacle Mountain and the new pro-built River Mountain trails that opened in River Mountain Park, just above Two Rivers Park on June 17.
“We kind of ramped up our bikes and got new full-suspension mountain bikes so people can come try the trails out on some really high quality bikes,” Ellis said.” We have really been staying busy down at Two Rivers.”
Ellis is seeing what outdoor industry can do for city tourism, but he already knew it was possible through his own research and what he learned getting a degree in city planning.
“Seeing all the growth up in Bentonville, which we all have, I knew that if we were to get any of that down here in Little Rock, it would only increase the quality of life as well as the tourism industry. I think it’s just turned Little Rock into another destination location for outdoor recreation,” adding, “Wow, I didn’t mean to rhyme that. That just became a slogan.”
Ellis said that now that tourism is coming back, Rock Town River Outfitters is seeing more of a mix of locals and tourists this season. The location in the River Market opened back up in May when Ottenheimer Hall reopened. It’s open five days a week and while Ellis isn’t staffing the original Rockwater Marina location, the company is taking reservations for sunset tours.
Now, Ellis has about 30 kayaks, in addition to six stand-up paddleboards and 40 bicycles.
“We’ve got a pretty simple business plan; we just want to get people outdoors and showcase all these beautiful natural resources that are in our backyard that make Little Rock as great as it is,” he said. “It just blew me away that people weren’t out here enjoying this river, so I just have kind of set a mission to educate people on when the river’s safe and give them the resources and the kayaks to get out [t]here.”