When my husband and I left the pristine wilds of Montana back in 1996, I never thought I would ever again see rivers that were as lovely and clear as those high mountain streams – but then we found the Ozarks. Some of the rivers in these hills are so clear that you can count the rocks at the bottom six feet down, and so cold they’ll take your breath away. Obviously, Ozark rivers are the pride and joy of south central Missourians and in the depths of the hot summer months, they are also our respite. But the rivers in the Ozarks also have a long history – some of which is much more recent than most realize.
The river we like to float is not the most popular, it is the coldest and most secluded of them all. It is the remoteness of the river; the feeling of being in a wild and wondrous place, that makes a journey down its waters so enchanting. When I take to the river, I am buoyed upon a living, breathing entity that not only supports life, but is life itself. And not just for the wild things, either. This river, like many here in the Ozarks, wasn’t always this devoid of humans. In fact, the river corridors were among the first places to be settled. They bristled with homes, farms, fields and commerce.
The first settlers to arrive in the Ozarks often built grist mills, water-powered saw mills, tram lines and water dams in the mouths of rocky hollows and springs. They located their cabins along the gentle slopes of the river valleys and farmed the fertile flats where the deep alluvial soils supported fruit orchards and corn fields. Later, trading posts and villages were built in the wider river valleys where people and livestock could have easy access to the free-flowing water. But while the rivers were life-giving arteries, they were also unpredictable. At times, they were downright deadly. One doesn’t have to look to deeply into the historical records to find incidences of these calamities. In some cases, entire communities were simply washed away, never to be seen again.
Prior to settlement, the hills of the Ozarks were covered in a thick forest of virgin short-leaf pine, while the valleys and draws were thick with ancient oaks. But by the end of the Civil War, just about every tree worth a nickel had been cut down. Of course, some of the lumber was used to build homes and towns here in the Ozarks, but the vast majority of it was shipped off to the big cities far away from here. The timber boom brought a few select individuals incredible wealth and in the short term, provided an abundance of low-wage jobs. But when the sawdust settled and all the profitable trees had been cut and sold down the river, all that was left to the local economy was a scarred and barren landscape, ripe only for rampant wild fires that ravaged the area for years afterwards.
With no vegetation left to hold the barren earth in place and temper the raging summer sun, a destructive cycle of drought and erosion set in. Wildlife disappeared, crops failed and entire hillsides collapsed into the rivers, choking out native plant, fish and animal species. The once pristine waters of the Ozarks became fouled, killing fish and reducing the numbers of furbearing creatures that relied on them for food.
All of this was made worse due to the fact that people often plowed the low river flats and gentle hillsides for food crops without any precaution at all. When the droughts hit, there was no vegetation along the river corridors to stop the choking sediment from moving down the watershed into the already distressed river system. This affected not only the families living along the river, but everyone who relied on the rivers for food, water and a source of income. Everyone knew that something had to be done to protect the rivers before it was too late.
After much discussion, dissension and political wrangling, the National Park Service and the Forest Service vied for the rights to manage the proposed river corridor restorations. But in 1964, Congress accepted and approved the National Park Service’s Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which authorized the formation of The Ozark National Scenic Riverways System.
Originally, the system was to include eight of the most outstanding rivers in the Ozarks. All eight rivers were recommended because of their scenic, recreational, historic, geological and cultural value. The ONSR was to be the first national park in the world to be based not on a land mass, but on a series of river systems.
Due to funding constraints the list of rivers was eventually reduced to two. The Current and Jacks Fork river systems were to include huge swaths of forestland and numerous springs, caves, creeks and other natural areas directly attributed to their respective watersheds. Today, these two Wild and Scenic Riverways include some 80,000 acres of land and are managed by the National Park Service.
In 1968, 44 miles of the famed Eleven Point River were added to the program, but unlike the previous two rivers, which were designated as both wild and scenic, the Eleven Point was designated only as scenic. This still protected the river and surrounding areas from development while still allowing many forms of recreation and public access. The majority of public land in this riverway system is owned and managed by the National Forest Service.
The plans were so popular, that in 1972, the Buffalo River (located in the Ozarks of Arkansas) would be the first river in the nation to be designated as a national park.
As already mentioned, these rivers and their watersheds were not vast, empty wilderness, but populated by families, homes, towns, churches, mills and cemeteries. Convincing the people who lived in these areas to leave was a difficult and emotional venture and stories about the relocation can still be heard from those who experienced it first hand. After many years of political wrangling, personal threats and some say, coercion of the worst kind, the remaining families along these rivers were eventually removed through eminent domain.
Even though the removal happened long ago, people in these parts still have very strong feelings about it.
For a few years Dean and I lived near the lovely Eleven Point River and Greer Spring. This had always been our favorite river and we were thrilled to have many years to explore its nooks and crannies.
During that time, our closest neighbors were Gene and Dorothy Boze. Both Gene and Dorothy’s families go back to the earliest settlements in the area and to the founding of Oregon County. Gene’s family founded the historic Boze Mill (1880) and Dorothy’s family ran Turner Mill (1850). All that is left of Boze Mill is the damworks that hold back the lovely blue waters of the mill pond. And at the site of Turner’s Mill, only the skeleton of the 26 foot steel overshot water wheel remains. As if to defy all time and gravity, it stands straight up in the cold spring branch, rusted firmly to the rocks in the stream. Unmovable in its historic significance.
One afternoon, as I sat drinking coffee with the then 82-year-old Dorothy about her family’s life on the river, I couldn’t help but gaze at the large oil painting of Turner Mill hanging on the wall behind her. As she told me her stories about growing up along the river and how so many families were moved away to make way for the preservation of the river, tears shone brightly in her eyes.
For several minutes she gazed out of the window in silence. Undoubtedly, reliving her life along the river and the day she and her family were made to leave their home. I watched her closely. Her small birdlike hands cupped the oversized mug she held. And not for the first time, I saw the slim beauty she had been in her youth. She suddenly turned back to me and ever so softly and sadly said, “They stole our river. They just stole it from us.”
My heart went out to Dorothy on that day. Her tears were infectious and I felt a real sadness at her loss. I spent many days thinking of our conversation and how, though she was less than three miles from her beloved river, it might as well have been a thousand. But I also know the river had been in dire peril and the people living there, unable to protect it by themselves. I have read the history and seen the images of that horrible time. I know that had the river not been protected at that moment, myself and millions of other residents and visitors would not have the opportunity to enjoy it in the way that we do.
Just think of all the times you or your family and friends have gone to the river to swim or fish or picnic, or to public forestlands to hunt, hike or camp. Now, imagine not ever being able to do that.
I’ve lived in places where entire river corridors were in private hands. Where there was little or no access to the rivers and streams. I have floated down rivers where private property prevailed and what I found – what I always find – are eroded embankments, cattle in the river, trees that have been cut to provide a view and manicured lawns and septic tanks leaching pollutants into the water. Those that do try can’t ever make up for those who don’t.
I’m sorry for what happened to my friend. Truly sorry. But for the river’s sake and for the sake of the ever-shrinking bit of wilderness we have left to us as a nation, I am so very happy. What little public land we do have here in the Ozarks have been – and still are being – restored to some semblance of its former glory.
Standing on a bluff high above the river with a dear friend and generational native to the river corridor, looking down at a forest-covered river flat flanked by the sparkling blue-green river, he turns to us and says, “When I was a kid, there were no trees here at all.”
Nowadays, this part of the river is almost lonesome in its seclusion. At times it feels as though you are the first person to have ever seen it – a veritable explorer in a place lost by time. All along the river course, huge trees loom over the water and the vegetation on both sides clamor for precious light. The banks are lined with wildflowers blooming profusely. Bald eagles soar overhead, while otters play on the banks and fish slap their tales on the still water. As I lay belly down on my inner tube and gaze into the crystal clear water, I can see each and every rock on the bottom as clearly as if I were looking through an old, hand-blown piece of window glass. And I feel blessed.
Filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of hillbilly humor.
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