There is a river that runs deep down in the Ozark Mountains that over the years has become a family favorite for floating, camping, and fishing. The views along the river are spectacular, with towering bluffs and full growth forests blocking the sun at different points during the day, which brings much needed shade on those ninety plus degree summer days. Along the miles of river you will find caves which are home to albino and blind fish, as well as deep springs flowing out of the sides of the mountains, springs so cold that you begin hastily exiting the water as soon as you enter.
At the upper end of the river the smallmouth fishing is good, but as the springs create a much colder and deeper current, the smallmouth give way to trout, with both self- sustaining rainbows and stocked brown trout being prevalent. The river is called North Fork River and it winds southward through the Ozarks in southern Missouri until it enters Arkansas and empties into Norfork Lake.
We began floating the river as a family (including aunts, uncles and cousins) when I was ten years old, and the trips have continued over the years, with my sons able to enjoy the same experiences as I did. Swimming in the springs, paddling canoes, and fishing, as well as jumping and diving off of the surrounding bluffs into deep pools of blue water, with coolers full of sandwiches, pop and the ever popular beanie weenies and Vienna sausages, all being a part of the adventure.
I remember a trip that we took a few years ago that had a unique ending and plenty of fun and mischief along the way. My two boys were into their early teen years and we got together with my brother and his son, along with my brother-in-law and my two nephews, and decided to camp out and canoe the North Fork once again. Although we had camped in tents on one of the many gravel bars in times past, we were offered the opportunity to stay in an air-conditioned pop up camper, and this time we accepted. Roughing it never felt better than this set up (sleeping in a stuffy tent on a rock filled gravel bar sounds adventurous, but it hurts!). We would camp for two nights and canoe two days.
Our first day at the campsite we were taken upstream a few miles and dropped off with our canoes at the “Steel Bridge,” where we would presumably float downstream and end up back at the campsite, an eight-hour trip if we took our time fishing, swimming and goofing around. For years I had heard about the Steel Bridge from Dad. He used to tell of the time when he was a teenager and he and his buddies would dive off the top of the bridge and into the waiting pool of water below. It was now my turn, albeit not in my teen years, to experience the thrill of diving from the top of the bridge. As most of our group were not up for the challenge, it was left to my youngest son Christopher and me to show off for the timid cousins and uncles.
The bridge was indeed made of steel, rusty with age by this time, and had a beam running up and over the top and down the other side, each side of the bridge framed in this way, which extended its height above the water by another ten feet. Christopher and I slowly scaled up the foot wide beam and finally made it to the top, a good twenty plus feet above the surface of the, what looked to be, deep pool. With all eyes on the two of us we shouted down toward the canoes, “Stick your paddle into the water to see how deep it is,” which isn’t really the best way to gauge the depth of the river. The paddles were only four feet in length and once the paddle was submerged, the current would take it downstream, with the result being an inefficient measuring tool. In addition to that drawback, the clarity of the water this far upstream, compared to the spring fed water we would encounter the next day, was such that a large boulder could remain unseen, just under the surface of the water, and not be discovered until entry. We were much more brave than smart, but the envy and admiration we were sure to receive when the feat was completed made it worth the risk.
Christopher, never shy about taking chances, jumped first, and as his tennis shoes smacked the water and I saw him surface with a huge smile on his face, my nervousness as his father (knowing that if anything happened to him Julie would kill me) subsided and I could now concentrate on my jump. Unlike Dad those many years before, I jumped rather than dove (after all I was approaching forty by this time, no spring chicken to be sure), but since no one else even attempted the effort, the jump was impressive enough. . Once we had jumped successfully, we both swam quickly to shore to climb back up on the bridge and do it again (not wanting to miss our moment of glory and a captive audience). For our second attempt, rather than jump we decided to dive, only not from the top of the frame, but instead from the rail along the side of the bridge, but it was still an impressive feat, just not equal to the master, Dad (the murmurs coming from the canoes were inaudible, but probably sounded like this, “Those two are nuts!”). We both dove in and with the audience in the canoes growing restless, we exited the water and began our trip downstream.
After a full day of floating, swimming, fishing, and eating, we made it back to the campsite, sunburned and weary. The best part of the day came that evening. As we sat around the campfire, eating some of the day’s catch as well as a few staples brought from home, we told stories, smoked some fine cigars, watched the nephews play with burning embers from the fire and let the evening slowly fade from dusk to deep darkness.
We knew we weren’t alone in the campsite, and it became evident not long after dark. With Lynyrd Skynyrd blaring from an automobile in the next camp we could hear some rather comical language coming from some of the neighbors. The boys were listening intently and thought the obviously intoxicated men were pretty funny. At one point we heard one of them yell over the blaring sound of “Sweet Home Alabama”, “I’ve got boots in my water!” as he struggled half in and half out of his car to remove his wet cowboy boots, eventually falling to the ground and letting out a string of swear words that would make a sailor blush. The boys couldn’t contain their laughter and we let them have their fun, knowing there wasn’t any risk of him taking offense as he was passed out on the ground next to his car. At last, the warm glow of the fire and the sounds of the crickets and other night creatures caused a tiredness to set in and we all folded up our chairs and climbed into the camper, with the air conditioner blasting away ( that night had to be one of the most restful nights of sleep I’ve ever had).
The next morning we got up early and fixed some coffee over the remaining embers in the campfire and after some pop tarts and milk, we were ready for another day of fun. This time we would start directly below the campsite and float downstream to a point designated by the canoe rental operator, to be picked up and taken back to camp after another eight hour float. As we entered the stream, the water seemed much colder in the early morning than it had the day before, but it wouldn’t take the summer sun long to heat things up and make the cool water a welcome respite from the ninety degree day awaiting us.
Not long after taking off we noticed a cave way up the mountainside, carved into the limestone bluff. We parked our canoes and climbed up the side of the mountain to explore. Once we had navigated the steep climb, we reached the entrance to the cave. It was large enough to walk into and standing in front of the entrance you could smell the dank and musty rock as well as feel the cool air on your face, a stark contrast to the warm air on your back. We didn’t have flashlights, but not too far in we realized we wouldn’t need them. The authorities had placed a fence over the entrance blocking any further exploration, and there was a “NO TRESPASSING” sign hung for all to see. In addition, there was an informational sign that told of blind and albino fish. I suppose we had to take their word for it since we weren’t allowed to go in and verify it for ourselves. And how would you verify a blind fish anyway?
Returning to the waiting canoes, we continued our journey, swimming and fishing along the way. Occasionally you would hear “Bail Out!” echoing across the water and notice an empty canoe floating down the river. When canoeing along stretches of deeper, slower water the paddling and heat would take its toll and it was common to suddenly and dramatically fall out of your canoe, into the refreshingly cool water. If you were the first one out of the canoe, it was a common courtesy to loudly shout “bail out”, which would signify to your partner that you were no longer assisting in the paddling effort and lead them to follow suit (even without the shout the other occupant would notice something amiss as his lone paddling would cause the canoe to go in circles). Once sufficiently cooled off, it was back in the canoe and the journey continued.
Halfway through the day we began to notice a change in the water; it was becoming clearer, colder and deeper. At one point we came across a cutout in the bluff and someone shouted, “Hey, it’s Blue Spring!” Blue Spring is a well-known spring along the river that maintains a water flow of 7 million gallons per day. Nestled into the side of the mountain, it is surrounded by low bluffs about ten feet above the surface of the water, which are perfect for jumping and diving. We parked the canoes along the bank and all of us climbed up on the bluff and stood in line, waiting for our turns to jump into the spring. To say it was exhilarating would be understating the experience. The water temperature is so cold that it is impossible to stay submerged for longer than a few seconds and each person upon entering, quickly swam to the edge of the pool and climbed the rock wall back to the top, with their knees and teeth clacking and chattering.
After fully enjoying Blue Spring, we continued on our journey (the water in the main river felt bathtub warm compared to the spring). A mile or so down the river is Rainbow Spring, which also dumps millions of gallons of water into the river, but unlike Blue Spring, it appears to dump into the river from an open field, with no bluffs to jump off. After these springs the river grew deep and the current slowed, which made the paddling much more of a chore and also caused us to paddle faster, not knowing exactly how far downstream our destination lie and not wanting to be caught on the river after dark.
We finally saw the take out point and by this time we were all exhausted and ready to call it a day. We pulled the canoes to shore and emptied them, as well as the coolers, of all the excess water and began the wait for the outfitter to pick us up. After about thirty minutes of waiting, we saw the canoe rental guy coming down the hill. He was driving an old yellow school bus designed to haul all of us and our equipment, and behind the bus was a trailer, with modified steel beams designed to stack up to ten canoes, five on either side. While we loaded our equipment into the bus, one of us helped the outfitter flip the canoes and stack them onto the trailer. Once they were tied down, he climbed into the bus and we started on our journey back to camp.
As a group we were spread out randomly throughout the bus, zoned out, not even engaging in conversation, a result of being bone tired and exhausted. The driver engaged us in conversation as the bus began the long journey back to camp. The bus drove up and down steep dirt roads filled with potholes and ravines, the result of being washed out after heavy rains. He asked us where we were from and the small talk proceeded from there. Then he began talking about himself. “I live over a couple of ridges due south, right off county road N.” We snodded our heads as if we knew exactly where the ridge off county road N was located. He continued, “I live out here to get away from people. I hate the government and all their rules. They better not come out to my place, because I’m armed. I have some artillery buried in a bunker out in the woods, so if they come out here they better be ready for a fight.” At this point the boy’s eyes began to widen and the adults sat up straight in their seats. He continued to describe numerous weapons and explosive devices that he had hidden in the woods near his house.
The boys each shot glances toward their respective dads with anxious looks on their faces, hoping for some reassurance. In this case they didn’t find any as we adults were just as anxious as they were and began to wonder if this guy was taking us back to camp or diverting our trip to somewhere else. After he finished describing his weapons cache, the bus became silent the remainder of the way home, with the driver occasionally looking in his mirror to the back of the bus, and us occasionally looking in his mirror, and then quickly looking away if we caught his gaze. As we sat in silence, half awake from being so tired, I pictured a small boy sitting on a bridge with his feet dangling over the edge, with a head that was out of proportion to the rest of his body and for a moment I thought I heard the faint sounds of a banjo and guitar off in the distance. I shivered, but not from being wet or cold.
That night as we sat around the campfire, staring into the blaze, we each said our own prayer of thanksgiving that the bus driver/survivalist had decided to take us back to camp and not to his compound in the woods, where he might have done unspeakable things to boys and men alike.