Ozark rivers tend to meander through their valleys alternating back and forth, curving to the left then the right. Along the inside of each bend there is usually a gravel bar. Gravel bar camping is a special pleasure in the Ozarks. The bars are our version of the beach. If there is any breeze at all, you get it on the bar. Views of the stars are wonderful and mosquitoes are usually minimal. Nights spent on Ozark gravel bars are an experience to treasure. The week before Halloween, this year my friend David Thrasher, my wife, Sharon, and I canoed for five days from North Maumee on the Buffalo River down to Shipp’s Ferry on the White River. Along the way, we camped on some of the best gravel bars that the Ozarks have to offer.
Gravel bar camping may be a somewhat new experience in the Ozarks. In the records of early explorers of the White River system, descriptions of gravel bars are rare. Henry Schoolcraft, who explored the Ozarks in 1819, kept a very complete and interesting journal. Schoolcraft first floated the North Fork river down into the White and on to Batesville. Then on another trip he came down the James River and through what is now Bull Shoals Lake. In all of his exploring there is just one mention of camping on a gravel bar. It seems most nights he was able to stay in the cabin of one of the settlers along the river. So where did all the gravel come from?
Go stand at the head of a riffle sometime, and watch for a few minutes and you will see fine grains of sand slowly cover your feet. You are experiencing one of the two geological functions of rivers, to transport sediment. The other function is to move water downstream. In fact, it is the force of the water that is moving the sand. Gravel bars are deposited sediment that was transported out of the watershed during flood events. In a pristine watershed, the supply of sediment to the river will be fairly closely balanced by the capacity of the river to transport sediment. If that balance gets out of kilter, then the river either erodes sediment from its bed and banks, or it deposits sediment from the watershed onto the floodplain.
As a river gets deeper and faster, it has capacity to move more and larger sediment. During a flood, the river is moving large cobble and even boulders. So we know that Ozark rivers, like all rivers, have always moved sediment. We also know that the gravel on gravel bars is in transit. If the gravel were permanent, plants would quickly colonize the bar and re-establish vegetation.
To understand the origin of gravel bars in the Ozarks, you need to first understand the history of European settlement in the Ozark region and the influence that changing land use had on the river. Back in 1997 Robert Jacobson, a hydrologist at the United States Geological Survey, and historian Alexander Primm did a study on just that subject. They used the Current River and Jacks Fork as their laboratory. The interesting thing about this study was that they actually used oral histories to recreate conditions around the turn of the 20th century. Then they applied the science of hydrology to make sense of everything. What follows is my interpretation of Jacobson and Primm’s paper, Historical Land-use Changes and Potential Effects on Stream Disturbance in the Ozark Plateaus, Missouri, and a follow-up study done by Jacobson and Marcia Panful in 2001, Physiography, Land Use, and Stream Habitat Conditions in the Buffalo and Current River Systems, Missouri and Arkansas.
Prior to European settlement of the Ozarks, our streams and rivers pretty well balanced the supply of sediment with the capacity of the streams to move sediment. That is not to say that the Native Americans didn’t have any impact on the rivers. They most certainly used the land along our rivers and within the watersheds and had to have some impact on the streams themselves. But their lifestyle apparently didn’t disrupt the streams to a large extent.
Schoolcraft hardly mentioned gravel bars in his journal; however, he provided a really good description of the riparian (stream side) zones of the rivers. He was especially impressed with the deep soils and dense vegetation in these zones. Frequently, he discussed how difficult it was to traverse the riparian areas because of the dense vegetation.
According to Jacobson and Primm, the early settlers saw the potential of the deep soil and settled in the river bottoms. As I mentioned above, Schoolcraft frequently stayed with stream side settlers on his explorations. The settlers cleared garden plots in the deep soil to feed themselves. They did have cattle and other livestock, but at the time, most of the country was open range so the cattle roamed as they wished. Gradually, wagon paths and then roads developed along the river bottoms connecting the settlements.
From around 1880 until roughly 1920, there was a boom in the Ozarks based on harvesting the hardwood forest. The logs were marked and floated down the rivers to mills where much of it was converted into railroad ties. Of course, the men who moved into the Ozarks to harvest the timber had to have homes for themselves and their families and garden plots to feed themselves.
There is a somewhat prevalent theory that the gravel currently forming our gravel bars was released when the foresters removed the timber exposing the chert gravel in the forest floor to erosion. That may be part of the answer, but Jacobson and Primm found that the timber operations by themselves were not sufficient to cause the massive movement of gravel.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, timber was harvested primarily by the labor of humans and mules. They efficiently removed timber from the relatively level ridge tops and the flood plains. But getting timber off of the steep slopes was just too difficult. So the trees were left where they stood. The recollections of the folks that lived during the time did not include description of massive erosion at the timber sites.
After the timber boom, the open range was mostly closed and cattle had to be kept in fenced pastures, frequently in the wide valley bottoms. Through the 1930s and 1940s, the Ozarks lost population.
The cleared hilltops likely did contribute to more runoff into the streams and more frequent flooding. The cleared floodplains provided less resistance to flow than the dense native vegetation described by Schoolcraft. As a result, water moved with higher velocity; therefore, it had more capacity to transport sediment. As the streams move more and more sediment, headward (upstream) erosion started working its way up the tributaries into the steep hillsides. As the drainage system expanded up the hillsides, the cherty gravel in the hillside soils was freed to move downstream. This was the gravel that initially formed gravel bars.
As people moved out, lots of land reverted to nature. Jacobson and Primm were able to show recovery of the Current River and Jacks Fork toward a more natural balance of sediment supply and transport through measurements of the elevation of the steam bed long-term stream gages. Then they saw a second wave of gravel starting after World War II. This second wave they thought was the result of widespread availability of tracked vehicles after the war. Foresters were then able to get to the trees on the steep hillsides that had been left behind earlier. Apparently, it wasn’t long till the forestry industry figured out how to avoid serious erosion problems, as Jacobson and Primm found that the streams are once again recovering. At least that’s the case up until 1993, when they collected their data.
Jacobson and Panfil’s 2001 paper indicated the situation on the Buffalo River was similar to the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers with one exception. In the Buffalo basin, there is much more relief in the topography and smaller floodplains. As a result, more of the steep hillsides were cleared, possibly originally for the timber, then maintained as pasture for cattle. While the events that started the movement of massive amounts of gravel were similar to the Current and Jacks Forks, the recovery of the Buffalo has not been as pronounced. The clearing of the steep hillsides and roads to those clearings is continuing to supply excessive gravel to the river. Thus our gravel bars, for better or for worse, are sustaining themselves.
Gravel bar camping is a wonderful experience. However, it is not without its downside. On Memorial Day in 2000, I was floating the Buffalo River with a group of the usual suspects. We started at Tyler Bend and planned on floating over three days down to Dillards Ferry. After a good day of floating, we camped on the gravel bar across from Red Bluff, just four miles downstream from Gilbert. It was a balmy evening. We sat out and watched fireflies across the river and told all the usual lies. As the evening progressed, a moderate but steady rain set in. We noted the water level and condition of the river and all looked ok. So one by one we headed into our tents to bed. Periodically through the night, I got up to check the river. At about 4 a.m., I was out and all seemed well. Then at 4:30 we woke up when one of the Bubbas started hollering, “Big Trouble!” I set up on my cot and found water about ankle deep in the tent. We scampered out and pulled our stuff uphill as fast as we could. Some, well make that most, of our gear had already washed away. By daylight, the gravel bar that was a hundred or so feet wide at dusk had about 10 feet left.
We were lucky in that we had a couple of large inflatable rafts onto which we could load our remaining gear and float out. Along the way, we saw the wrecks of several camps, lots of canoes washed up into trees and even one truck underwater. It is always wise to be sure there is an un-interrupted escape route uphill and out of the flood plain.