River Revival: A year after flood, river lovers return to Ozark County’s beautiful streams
Many folks may have wondered a year ago, following the most devastating flood on record, if Ozark County’s rivers would rebound. County officials and those operating tourist-dependent businesses worried that tourists and locals who had flocked to the river in previous years might not come back.
But the first few weeks of the 2018 summer season seem to be indicating a river revival in Ozark County. With washed-away bridges replaced by strong new spans and the worst of the debris gone or pushed aside, crowds of river lovers are returning to the clear, cold waters of the North Fork of the White River and Bryant Creek.
If last weekend was any indication, the 2018 season will be a busy one for riverside outfitters and resorts who worked hard during the last year to recover from the horrific damage inflicted by the flood that struck April 29-30, 2017.
Saturday morning at Hammond Campground (known officially as the Mark Twain National Forest North Fork Recreation Area), the boat-launch area was jam packed with outfitters and individuals unloading canoes, kayaks and rafts.
Sunburst Ranch owner Justin Spencer said he had put 50 canoes and 25 kayaks into the river at the Hammond Campground for his customers, and another 20 canoes and 26 rafts were launched from the business’s headquarters campground farther downstream.
Spencer’s wife, Amy, said Monday that this summer’s reservations for their cabins, RV sites and campground aren’t quite what they were before the flood, “but it’s getting there – and it’s sure better than last year.” On some upcoming weekends, some of their offerings (cabins, camp or RV sites) are sold out, she said.
With most of the large trees that once shaded the rivers knocked down by the flood waters, shade is in short supply, and Amy Spencer said she’s “seeing more sunburns” this year. “But people have been pretty understanding” about the changes in the river, she said.
Upstream, at River of Life Farms, Amanda McKee said the resort is “packed this summer. The last two weekends, we’ve been slammed and even had to turn people away. It’s awesome.”
After the flood destroyed several of the resort’s lodging units, including some of its popular “treehouse cabins” on the river, last summer was a “heartache,” McKee said. But the business was able to get three of its rebuilt cabins ready and opened in time for the Memorial Day holiday crowd last month, and things have been rocking since then, she said.
Craig Pettit at Pettit’s Canoe and Campground near Blair Bridge said business is “slowly but surely” coming back. He, too, put dozens of canoes and kayaks on the river last weekend, and customers seem to be enjoying themselves, he said. He hasn’t heard complaints about debris or changes in the river. “Everybody we’re talking to, they’re saying it’s good – and definitely better than last year,” he said.
Like the other North Fork outfitters, Dawt Mill resort was also busy with river-goers and lodgers last weekend.
One of the changes for this year’s river floaters is that the James Bridge access on the North Fork – which wasn’t an official access but for years was used by many as a take-out point – is no longer accessible. And Dawt Mill, the last downstream outfitter, no longer allows those in private boats to take out there due to liability and other issues.
That means the last public take-out point is Patrick Bridge on H Highway, where the Missouri Department of Conservation maintains an access and campground. The area was badly damaged by the flood, and huge piles of downed timber still line the river and tower over the area. But MDC has cleared away enough flood debris so that floaters can launch or take out boats and water lovers of all ages can play on the riverbank. A path has been cleared to nearby Althea Spring. And the nearby campground was unharmed. “One of the things that needs to be said is the lack of places for people with their own stuff to take out,” said Sunburst owner Amy Spencer. She and husband Justin will shuttle customers with their own boats “but it’s a hassle, and we charge the same as if they rented our boats,” she said.
Sunburst customers can put in upstream and take out at the Sunburst headquarters campground off of H Highway, or they can continue downstream to the business’s second site, a privately owned campground and take-out point near James Bridge. Dawt Mill has agreements with some of the other outfitters to let their customers take out at Dawt if they choose to.
On Saturday, several vehicles were parked on the privately owned gravel bank on the west end of Dawt Bridge, making one wonder if the vehicles were owned by river floaters who planned to take out there at the end of a float. When asked about the cars and trucks there, a Dawt employee said, “They are trespassing, and they can be cited. That side of the river is private property, and the owner doesn’t want people parking there. We tell people that, but they do it anyway.”
On the North Fork, the next public takeout point below Patrick Bridge is the Corps of Engineers park at Tecumseh, which is closed as a campground but still open to walk-in fishermen and other visitors. It’s possible to take out a canoe or kayak there, but it would have to be carried up the crumbling park road to a vehicle parked or waiting on the shoulder of Highway 160.
The next downstream takeout point below Tecumseh is the MDC Bridges Creek access (known locally as Stump Hole) on Norfork Lake. But with the current high-water conditions on the lake, that area is not accessible by car or truck.
On weekends and other “high-traffic” days on the North Fork, some locals choose to float the quieter Bryant Creek, often putting in at Sycamore access near Hodgson Mill and floating to Warren Bridge. Taking out at Warren on what was an MDC access point isn’t as easy as it was before the flood due to changes in the stream bank and road and bridge repairs completed by the county. But it’s possible, and last weekend, several floaters told the Times they were making that float. Another option is to continue downstream on the Bryant to Cook’s Landing, another takeout point that poses lift-and-haul challenges for those who may have to carry their boat 50 yards or more to vehicles parked on the stream bank.
Everyone agrees that floating the river has changed. But for the most part, those changes don’t seem to bother floaters who flock to the streams for a fun and refreshing day on the water.
“Things are a little different,” said Amanda McKee. “There are some spots where the river is a little wider than it used to be. But it’s still just as peaceful and beautiful as ever. Even though you can see the destruction in some areas, people still comment on how beautiful it is. That’s so encouraging for everyone. In the midst of the storm, you can still find the beauty.”