The Buffalo

October 29, 2009

   Part V
The Buffalo National River was awarded federal protection by Congress in 1972, squashing plans by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build more than one dam across its flow to provide electrical power to the surrounding area.
   The 150-mile-long river flows through numerous counties in the Ozark Mountains and makes its way across the Salem Plateau to finally empty into the White River. It is one of the few unpolluted rivers left in the United States. A groundswell of community protest saved it from the Corps’ plans to dam and destroy it.
   After carefully studying maps, we decided to take a long, meandering ride to the river and its various access points. Under the auspices of the National Park Service, there is no highway running alongside the river. A zigzagging series of county roads cross it, and there are access points along its run.
   Several communities passed by our doors, most interestingly the town of Flippin. That kinda got us to giggling, as it sounded like a Brit semi-cuss word. “The flippin’ boat is sinking, man!”
   It became more amusing as we read the signs that we passed: The Flippin’ Recreation Center, the Flippin’ City Hall, the Flippin’ Food Mart and my personal favorite, the Flippin’ First United Church, proving once again that God has a sense of humor, even if his followers often don’t. The next town over was Yellville, and well, you can imagine.
   We reached our first access at the Pruitt ranger station area. You get a sudden sense of decline as you enter the river’s gorge, far away from the access itself. Your ears start to pop and the descent was at times nerve-wracking. In all, I got the sense of descending into something wonderful.
   Nothing could have prepared us for this river. We walked down from the parking area, along a red-dirt path and to a wide, shining gravel bar, and stopped in our tracks.
   I don’t know how high the bluffs were across the river from us. At least as tall as the courthouse here in town. Downstream, the water hit a shallow run under a bridge and turned into a clamoring, childish melody of laughter. Upstream, it was slow, deep, and a trio of canoes were just making the bend heading to where we stood.
   The stone was gray, spotted brown, layered in grayscale shades. Huge trees rose from its crags, crevices and cracks. The canoeists turned out to be three park rangers, who were coming back from surveying the river for obstructions to paddling traffic, and Suzie and I talked them into taking pictures with us. All three were professional, courteous and friendly, a credit to the Park Service uniform.

   After that we checked out another nearby Pruitt river access, and even more dramatic bluffs and fantastic gravel bars met us there.
   We headed west, to a place called Kyles Landing, near the Ponca Wilderness. Here we traveled a dirt and stone access road that I swear was at a 45-degree rate of descent. It was a rumbling, bumping, hair-raising ride down.
   But there at the very nice park facilities, we walked down to the river and again were dumbstruck by the hand of nature.
   The bluffs here were towering: three, four hundred feet? I couldn’t even guess. Again, upstream the river was slow and seemed to hardly move at all; below, a run of rock turned it frantic. It was more pristine here than at the first access, and if we rounded the first bend away from the parking lot, we could imagine that we were far and away from people, concrete and utility poles.
   But it was too much to bear: I went back to the car, put on my waders and grabbed a bamboo fly rod to hurry back and step into the Buffalo River.
   This is prime smallmouth bass water. I was fishing a yellow and black popper, and though no smallies graced my offering, the bream and goggle-eye loved it. Up there, they call goggle-eye “warmouth” or sometimes “rock bass.” I fished for an hour or so, and the bluffs to my left seemed to reach to heaven itself. The river was the clearest I had seen in Arkansas, so clear that a seemingly ankle-deep step might send you into a deep pool over your head.
   My friends, this was in the top tier most enchanted, beautiful place I have seen in all my days. Up there with Otatsa Creek, 6,000 feet up in the Rocky Mountains, where the air is so thin you have to pace yourself to breathe; and with the Roaring Fork in Tennessee, where I half expected hobbits to suddenly emerge from woods so lush they seemed imaginary. Like those, the Buffalo River is the rarest of gems.
   We lingered there after I was done fishing, arms around each other and whispering, as if speaking too loud might awaken us to find it was all a dream. Such places are hard to believe in, when surrounded by concrete walls and humming electrical lines. Then it was time to go, darkness approaching, and a long ride to follow. Suzie’s little Kia proved a champ, clamoring up the slope out of Kyle’s Landing as if it were nothing.
   That night, we trudged dog-tired and sore into a Mexican restaurant in Mountain Home, had a drink and some of the best food I’ve ever tasted, and talked nonstop about the Buffalo River. Anyone who might have overheard us from the next booth probably would have thought us stricken with fever. Perhaps we were. Woods and water. Clean air, rounded stones, evergreen scents.
   It thundered and rained all night, torrential sheets of downpour penetrating my dreams of the river. I woke up Friday morning, made coffee and went out on to the balcony for a smoke. During the night, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had stopped generating at the dam on the Norfork River.
   And all of a sudden, there were those gravel bars and shoals. All the wading access I could ever want or hope for.
   At last, right? At last, I could fish the Norfork and the White, eh?
   Of course not. The cascading sheets of rain had all run off into the river, turning its emerald-green, now low and accessible water, into chocolate milk. I swear, it looked like Bayou Teche after a rainstorm.
   We were supposed to leave Saturday, but with the weather foul and my mood fouler, we headed home Friday. It was with a heavy heart, nonetheless, that I left the Ozarks, and by the time we were south of Alexandria I began to wonder if I had seen them at all, as we flung ourselves down the flatlander roads of south Louisiana toward home.
   That night, upon arriving home, I fell into a deep, dense sleep and through it a river flowed. The river, Norman Maclean said, “was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
   “I am haunted by waters.”