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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/BEN GOFF @NWABENGOFF Allison Byford of Springdale (from left) and her sons Walker Byford, 9, and Will Byford, 11, listen as Rebekah Penny, interpreter at Hobbs State Park - Conservation Area, explains how to use a snorkel July 10, as a snorkeling class offered by the park heads out onto Beaver Lake from Rocky Branch Marina.

"There's no swimming required. You can just float."

NWA Democrat-Gazette/BEN GOFF @NWABENGOFF Will Byford searches for life under the water of Beaver Lake. The limestone bluffs of the Ozark shoreline continue underwater, in many places providing overhanging shelters for exploring.

Rebekah Penny, park interpreter for Hobbs State Park -- Conservation Area, described snorkeling as that easy. A serious snorkeling hobbyist, she leads a series of classes on snorkeling in Beaver Lake.

Snorkeling classes

Who: Hobbs State Park

Where: Rocky Branch Marina, Beaver Lake

When: 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday, July 28, Aug. 4, Aug 10, Aug. 25, Aug. 31

Cost: $20, adults; $10, children through age 12

Information and registration: 789-5000

By the numbers

Beaver Lake

Flood-control act passed by Congress: 1954

Construction began: 1963

Lake filled: 1968

Flood damage lake saved: $6 million

Shoreline: 487 miles

Surface area: 31,700 acres, 44 square miles

Averge depth: 60 feet

Gallons of drinking water: 539 billion gallons

Arkansans who get drinking water from lake: 420,000; one out of 7

Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Little Rock office

More information here.

"[Snorkeling] is just a new way for people to explore the lake," Penny continued. "You get to explore the hidden diversity and take a peek at the geology under water.

"You get to see the lake as few people have," she said. "You get to discover the beauty under water -- and there's beauty above water, too, so keep your eyes open."

Allison Byford and her sons Will, 11, and Walker, 9, met Penny and Dwayne Culmer on the afternoon of July 10 at the Rocky Branch Marina. Culmer's sister Deb Culmer, based in Santa Cruz, Calif., but with a home in Bentonville, joined the snorkelers.

After a short ride in the park's pontoon boat captained by Dwayne Culmer, the group arrived at a popular area of the lake known as "Party Cove."

"It has great rock bluffs," Penny said. "It's a nice deep cove, with a flat shoreline. You might see sunfish and perch. You can see the rock layers underwater. It's a great time to relax."

Each participant was provided with a life jacket, a snorkel (which he got to take home) and goggles. "It can be disorienting and challenging breathing through your mouth (via the snorkel)," Penny pointed out, so participants tried out their equipment during the boat ride across the lake.

"I want everyone to be comfortable breathing through their mask and in their life vest," she said.

Thus ended the technical instruction. With boat stopped and tied to a tree, Penny sent the fledgling snorkelers out.

"Be your own guide," she said. "We won't see the same things. Everyone can have their own adventure."

Penny encouraged snorkelers to follow the shoreline, where the water was more shallow and visibility better. The shoreline also offered a close look at the layers of limestone that build the bluffs of the Ozarks and several bluff overhangs for exploring. Large holes in the bluffs might indicate the home of a creature, perhaps a mink, Penny speculated.

With the snorkeler simply floating, staying still, various types of fish approached. Allison Byford, who spent the afternoon with her face in the water, reported several schools of fish swimming by, which might have been one of many types of bass, buffalo and shiner. Her sons described a light green sunfish with red stripes.

Penny provided laminated pictures of fish found in Beaver Lake and helped with the identification of the longear sunfish, a type of bream.

Allison Byford reported this was her first snorkeling experience, and that she will do it again. Previously, her family had participated in a kayaking class offered by the park, and now they own craft of their own.

"I love being outside," Byford said. "It was my first time looking underwater -- anywhere."

She noted the bluffs that continued from the shore of the lake underwater. "I didn't really understand the terrain before. There were some really deep drop-offs."

Byford also admitted she is not a great swimmer, so the activity level of the class was perfect. Her sons, on the other hand, had the skills of youngsters who have spent many summer days in the water. They viewed the underwater world for awhile, then just enjoyed the time playing in the water.

Byford said that even if her sons didn't know how to swim, she would feel comfortable with them participating in the program.

"Safety is always of utmost importance," Penny said. "It is key to a good time! That is why we practice with the snorkel and mask before venturing off."

Penny wore a bright, neon-yellow T-shirt under her life preserver, "to be visible if anyone needs me or if a boat is headed our way," she said. "We also chose a quiet cove, so there will be less boat traffic."

As the group swam across the cove to view formations, Penny positioned herself between the snorkelers and the rest of the lake in case a boat arrived. One did, with no danger to the snorkelers.

"We also limit the number of participants to ensure that we 'can keep an eye on everyone,'" Penny said. She kept close watch of all participants, and as the Byford boys played, she was always near.

Deb Culmer, who has snorkeled in many places around the world, couldn't see much in Beaver Lake without her prescription goggles. She took the park's off, but stayed in the water with the others.

She said she wasn't disappointed. She loved the calm of the lake compared to the ocean. "And I just love being in the water and being in the lake."

"It was a great afternoon of entertainment," Byford concluded.

NAN Our Town on 07/20/2017

Print Headline: Just float

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