Ozarkian resilience helps river resorts recover from devastating 2017 losses
Ozark County’s resorts on the North Fork of the White River took a huge hit during the historic flood that ravaged the area a year ago this week. But Ozarkians are known for their resilience, and river resort owners are proving the truth of that reputation. All the resorts on the North Fork have rebuilt over the last year, and they tell the Times they’re ready to open their doors to the summer tourist season.
One difference in how the resorts operate now and how some of them operated in the past is that they are no longer willing to transport customers to put-in and take-out points if they want to float the river in their own vessels (canoes, kayaks or rafts). Transportation is offered only to resort guests and those renting vessels from the resort.
Sunburst Ranch was decimated by the floodwaters of the historic flood of 2017, but resort owners Justin and Amy Spencer have been busy rebuilding the North Fork River retreat over the past year. Now things are looking up, they say.
It was one year ago that the waters of the North Fork River swelled, covering the entire Sunburst Ranch resort and campground. The Spencers were initially unsure of the extent of the damage as the water rose on Friday and Saturday, April 28-29, 2017 – until they watched several of their resort’s sleeper cabins float away. When the river receded Sunday and Monday, it was evident that the river had taken everything from the resort.
“We have experienced high water before, but nothing could have prepared us for what took place this weekend….The campground you know is unrecognizable. The river house, camp store, bathhouse, sleeper cabins and barn are all gone. A few foundations are all that is left. The new cabin was broken into pieces and there was at least six feet of water in the landing,” Amy posted on the resort’s Facebook a few days later. A total of nine structures were swept away from the resort.
Justin and Amy have been working hard over the fall and winter to rebuild Sunburst, and the campground and canoe outfitter officially opened at the beginning of April. They’ve rebuilt the campground, clearing debris and leveling the campsite area. Today’s campground, which is slightly smaller than the previous campground, features multiple campsites including 10 situated right along the river. The riverside sites are slightly larger than the campsites were before the flood. All the riverside sites have water for cooking and drinking, and two sites will have electrical hookups. The center section of the campground includes several more campsites located a little way off the river. Toward the back of the campground a number of RV sites await summer guests. Each RV site will have water and electric hookups. Four of the sites currently have accessible 20-, 50- and 50-amp electric service and are available for reservations. They are “back-in sites” so longer pull-behind campers fit nicely. The on-site camp store is also up and running and is stocked with firewood, ice, snacks and T-shirts.
The Spencers planted fescue throughout the campground and hope it will grow and create a grassy carpet before summer. They also have planted 100 mature shade trees in the campground and plan to plant another 100 mature trees in another part of the campground next fall. The trees were funded in part by a “Sponsor a Shade Tree” fundraiser last summer. Nearly 200 people donated funds to purchase trees through the effort. The mature trees include hybrid poplar, pin oak, red maple, river birch, Siouxland cottonwood, sycamore and tulip poplar. Justin and Amy are currently making arrangements for a donation sign to list the names of all who donated.
Since the resort’s bathrooms and showerhouse were knocked off their foundation and washed downstream, the Spencers decided to rethink the traditional fixed structure attached to a foundation. Instead, they have built individual bathroom and shower buildings that can be picked up and moved with heavy machinery if the need arises in another flood-type situation. The bathrooms and showerhouses are painted bright turquoise, lime green and other festive colors.
As for getting out on the water, Sunburst is ready for river-goers. The resort is currently putting floaters in the water in canoes, kayaks, rafts and tubes. The resort welcomes “drop-in” canoe and kayak floaters before 2 p.m. to float in rental vessels from Sunburst to the resort’s private take-out area called “The Landing,” a 7-mile float. Rafters are also able to put in for that stretch of the river before noon, but reservations are recommended for those wishing to rent rafts. A second float from Hammond Camp to Sunburst Ranch, a stretch that totals 12 miles, is also available to float in canoes or kayaks. Reservations are required for the Hammond-to-Sunburst float.
For more information or to make reservations, call Sunburst Ranch at 417-284-3443 or visit sunburstranchcanoe.com.
Dawt Mill Resort
Dawt Mill also suffered extensive damage during last year’s flood. Resort manager Ron Harden told the Times that four of the resort’s riverfront cabins floated away in the raging floodwaters. Three of the cabins were recovered, but two of them had been totally destroyed, and the fourth cabin was never found. The Cotton Gin Inn cabins, located a little farther away from the natural riverbank, were also pulled from their foundations and came to rest as far as 75 yards away. Harden says the Cotton Gin Inn cabins have been replaced and are ready to be reserved. The riverfront cabins have not been replaced yet, but the resort will probably replace them in the future, he said. Dawt Mill also features other lodging units that were not damaged in the flood, including lodge-style accommodations in the Cotton Gin Inn, the resort’s log cabin, deluxe cabins and Hodgson House. Camping is also available.
Henegar’s Grist Mill Restaurant, a casual fine-dining restaurant that operated in the historic mill itself, filled with more than 10 feet of water during the flood, destroying the dining rooms, kitchen and virtually everything inside, Harden said. The nearby Chef’s Table, a dining area known for specialty dinners featuring culinary creativity, filled with more than 13 feet of water. Extensive repairs and renovations have been made to both structures, Harden said.
The Chef’s Table was rebuilt to accommodate more people inside, and now seats 28. Harden says the Chef’s Table will be open throughout the summer. The Grist Mill Restaurant, however, will not reopen in the historic mill. Instead, the mill will house a bridal suite for wedding parties and the new Dawt Mill Historium, a museum of Ozark culture and Dawt Mill history. The outdoor Beach Bar will also reopen on Memorial Day weekend, and an on-site food truck will provide resort guests with a more informal option to the Chef’s Table.
Dawt is also ready to provide North Fork River floaters with rental canoes, kayaks, rafts and tubes. The resort offers a float trip from Blair Bridge back to the mill, an 8-mile float that generally takes four to five hours. “But I’ve done it in an hour and 12 minutes, and I’ve done it in 12 hours before,” Harden said, laughing. “I don’t recommend trying to do it in either of those amounts of time, but what I’m saying is that you can make it what you want by adjusting your pace.”
Dawt is known for live music on the Beach Bar’s outdoor stage most weekends throughout the summer, along with a variety of other events at the resort. This summer will be no different. The resort has live music scheduled for April 28, June 2, June 9, June 16 and July 14. A “Cinco De Mayo Cruise-In” is also planned for May 5. “Like” Dawt Mill on Facebook to see a list of upcoming events.
To make reservations or for more information, all Dawt Mill at 417-284-3540 or visit www.dawtmill.com.
Pettit’s Canoe Rental
Craig Pettit, who owns Pettit’s Canoe Rental with wife Shareen, says they were one of the lucky ones during last year’s flood.
“We didn’t have any structures right on the river, like a lot of the other resorts did,” Craig said. “So the impact wasn’t nearly as bad on us as it was on our neighboring resorts.”
However, the resort’s campground was located directly on the banks of the North Fork of the White River and was impacted in a huge way. Trees were ripped from the ground, all of the picnic tables were washed away and the showerhouses were damaged.
The Pettits rebuilt the picnic tables, leveled the land in the campground area, repaired the showerhouses and bathrooms, and were able to get the resort back up and ready for guests.
Craig says the business is currently renting canoes, kayaks, rafts and tubes, and they have tent and RV campsites available at the campground. The resort also has four cabins available to rent.
“We just want people to know we’re open, the river is open and it’s a great place to be this summer,” Craig said. “We’ve heard from a lot of people who call and say they think the river is closed. So we want to make sure people realize that isn’t the case.”
For more information or to make reservations, call Pettit’s Canoe Rental at 417-284-3290 or visit www.pettitscanoerental.com.
River of Life Farm
Myron and Ann McKee, owners of River of Life Farm, say their resort is in fast-track mode to get three new cabins built and ready for guests by Memorial Day weekend.
“We’re sprinting up to Memorial Day weekend; then the marathon begins,” Myron told the Times last week. The “marathon” work includes getting two additional cabins up and ready for guests by the weekend following Memorial Day and three others built before the end of the summer. With the new additions, River of Life will have grown from the 16 cabins it had before the flood to a full lineup of 20 reservable cabins. The resort qualified for a $1.4 million loan through the Small Business Administration, which allowed Myron to pay the carpenters and purchase the building materials after the flood swept away half of his livelihood.
The resort, known for its unique stilted-treehouse structures situated over the famed Blue Ribbon Trout Area on the North Fork of the White River, sustained a huge loss from the floodwaters last year. When the cabins disappeared under the river’s rushing water, which grew to be over five stories tall, the McKees knew the resort wouldn’t be the same; however, it wasn’t quite apparent how bad the situation was until the water receded. Then they saw that half of the cabins, eight of the resort’s 16, were completely gone without a trace. The restaurant and kitchen were 9 feet underwater. The campground and the McKees’ home, also located on the property, were destroyed. But, with perseverance, a faith in God’s plan and a dedicated crew of neighbors and friends, River of Life began its journey to rebuild.
“When our banker showed up after the flood, the first question I asked was, ‘Are we even going to make it?’” Myron said. “He said we would, but we needed to get the new cabins built and on line as soon as we could to help keep the revenue coming in – because at that point, with half the rentable cabins completely gone, we were barely keeping our nose above water.”
So even though the resort endured a total of 20 days without electricity, work began right away to get the three cabins that were under construction at the time of the flood finished and ready for the guests who had reserved them.
“We were spending $110 in unleaded gasoline for the generators so the builders could keep working,” Myron said. “We had three weeks to get them done, which was a big feat. We finished just in time. Literally, we had to detain a few guests after they arrived for just a few minutes so the artwork and finishing touches could be added to their cabins before we sent them over to enjoy them.”
A lot of the work focused on one of River of Life’s newest planned offerings, the Cliff House, a six-bedroom, five-and-a-half-bath “cabin” that filled a niche for larger groups and families after some of the other large cabins were washed away. Myron said the builders started work right away on the Cliff House, working throughout the week.
“Then, when we’d have guests arrive for their weekend reservations, the builders would put away their tools, and we’d offer out whatever we had done. When the guests left, the builders would pull out their tools and start working again until the next guests arrived. We started out offering three bedrooms; then it grew to four, then five, then finally six. Now, it’s our best lodge offering.”
Help also came from neighbors, friends and long-time customers.
“We had an overwhelming response of community spirit during those dark times. We are profoundly grateful. It’s times like these that you realize who your real friends are, and we know we have wonderful neighbors,” Myron said. “Dozens of people came here when we were still 6 inches deep in river silt and mud, and they helped every single day they could,” Myron said. “We had people take home huge black garbage bags of linens, towels and T-shirts, spraying off all the mud and washing them in their own washing machines. Then they kept them for us at their houses until we had things restored.”
The hard work paid off, and River of Life was able to welcome guests throughout the summer last year with the eight remaining cabins and the three that were completed after the flood. Now the restaurant and kitchen have been restored, and two new chefs have opened a new eatery on site, the Broke Paddle Restaurant, which is open to lodging guests and also to the general public.
The resort also offers canoe, kayak, raft and tube rentals, including their main trip from Hammond Camp back to the resort, a 7-mile stretch that generally takes about four hours. They offer a longer trip from Twin Bridges to River of Life, which adds another 5 miles onto that length, totaling 12 miles. Myron said guests can also schedule multi-day floats if interested.
Surrounded by one of the best stretches of wild rainbow trout fishery streams in the Midwest, River of Life Farm is happy to continue offering guided fly fishing trips. Myron said the trout population is probably down by about a third following the flood, but the river is still an amazing place to cast a line.
The campground at River of Life hasn’t yet been restored and won’t reopen this year. The Rainbow Springs Lodge will also need additional repairs before it can be rented out. Myron says with the other plans to rebuild, it will likely be at least five years before it can be restored. Also, the McKees’ own house is still damaged quite drastically, but Myron says he can’t think about working on it until they get the resort back up to its original condition.
“The Lord has restored beyond measure to both the resort and beyond. One of the special things was that we’ve had people stand with us on our orphanage projects,” Myron said, referring to the $5,500 monthly support the resort sends to orphanages in India, Myanmar and other countries. “I had a doctor call me from West Plains after the flood and tell me the Lord laid it on his heart to come see me. He came down, and I showed him around the flood-devastated place. He pulled out his checkbook and asked what was needed. I told him, ‘Listen, we’re going to make it. I don’t know how, but we are. What is excruciating to me is that we don’t have any money to send to the orphanages this month.’ He asked how much it’d be to cover it for the month. I told him, and he wrote the check.”
Myron says he’s been able to continue the support for the orphanage projects throughout the rest of the rebuilding, including one specifically hard time last February when one of the orphanages he works with asked for an additional $2,500. Myron later learned the orphanage had been scheduled to be evicted, and 20 orphans would have lost their home.
“We didn’t have any guests at that time, and we weren’t bringing in money. I thought to myself, Who needs that stupid IRA anyway?’ So I cashed it in and sent them the extra payment,” Myron said. “We’ve come to realize that what we do here makes a difference on the other side of the world. If we do this right, if we use what we’re given, manage our resources and be good stewards of time and talent, we can make a difference. It’s been kind of like a ship going through a typhoon. The band has to keep on playing. Just plug holes in the bottom of the boat, grin and keep on picking. Life goes on.”
For more information or to make reservations, call River of Life Farm at 417-261-7777 or visit www.riveroflifefarm.com.