Beaver Water District Blog

Editor’s Note

Dr. Robert “Bob” Morgan is the Manager of Environmental Quality for Beaver Water District.

Gravel Bar Camping

bar-campingOzark 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.


Streams transport not just water but also countless particles of sediment.

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.

Sharon, David Thrasher, Honey, And Peppe enjoying a perfect evening on a Buffalo River gravel bar.

Sharon, David Thrasher, Honey, and Peppe enjoying a perfect evening on a Buffalo River gravel bar.

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.

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Going Under

Over the last several years, I have made many trips on or around Beaver Lake. I have not, however, been under the surface of Beaver for more than a few seconds. This is unfortunate because all the action, limnologically speaking, is under the water. Beaver Water District’s plant engineer, Bill HagenBurger, is on the other hand an avid scuba diver. It turns out that Bill is also an excellent writer. The following is an article that Bill wrote for the Fall 2015 issue of the Southwest Water Works Journal, the official publication of the Southwest Section of the American Water Works Association. It describes a diving trip that he and his daughter made on Beaver late this last summer. Enjoy! – Bob

October-2015-Bill-ScubaBy Bill HagenBurger, P.E.

Plant Engineer, Beaver Water District

I was suffering from a bad case of writer’s block when trying to figure out what to write about for this journal article. I had planned on going for a dive at Beaver Lake and thought, “What better place to think about an idea for an article about water than 40 feet underwater at Beaver Lake, the raw water source for Northwest Arkansas?”

So, we packed the Jeep and my daughter’s boyfriend’s truck up with scuba gear and kayaks and headed to the lake. The scuba gear was for my oldest daughter and myself and the three kayaks for my wife, youngest daughter and her boyfriend. We got to the lake at the Dam site north park. The water level on Beaver Lake was so high that we were able to park within 10 feet of the water. My wife, daughter and her boyfriend unloaded the kayaks while my other daughter and I went to the local dive shop to pick up two full tanks of compressed air. When we got back to the lake, my wife, daughter and her boyfriend were out on the kayaks paddling around, my daughter was getting some sun, her boyfriend was fishing and my wife was enjoying being on the lake. So my daughter and I got on our gear, swam out about 50 feet and headed under the water. Next thing you know, I am about 30 feet down and it gets cold. I had hit the thermocline. My daughter will not get into the cold water, so we stayed right at the 30 foot mark. I did get down to 36 feet deep, but not the 40 foot mark as planned.

There I was, underwater just waiting for something to hit me for this article. Nothing. So we swam along and found a string line. We followed it to a sunken car that a dive shop had placed there. We found about a dozen fish swimming around it, mostly small perch, but what looked like some larger bass. We found another string line and followed it to the dive platform that was placed there for certification dives. I looked at my dive computer while standing on the platform and it said we were 26 feet deep. We swam down to the bottom of the platform and it started getting cold. I was at 34 feet deep. I thought the dive platform would be deeper since the lake was so high. The lake was only about a half foot below the top of the flood pool, so it could not get much higher than that.

Then I thought, “I guess they really want to keep the platform above the thermocline.” As I swam around the bottom of the platform, I saw the rope they had tied to it and it hit me, “They move the platform up and down, depending on the lake level.” A look at my pressure gauge and it was right about 600 psi (pounds per square inch), so it was time to ascend to about 15 feet for a safety stop to decompress a little and then head up. When we got to the shore, I realized I had gone through a full tank of compressed air and my daughter still had a little over a half of tank.

We ran to the dive shop to get a refill, headed back, got our gear on and went under again. I started thinking about what an unusual summer it has been for our raw water quality. We had some late spring rainfalls, and then some early summer rainfalls. Those rains managed to fill the lake up enough that the floodgates had to be opened twice, once after the 4th of July! That has never happened on Beaver Lake. The good thing about these late rains was that the spring foliage was already grown and not much sediment was washed into the lake, so we did not see the high turbidity that we normally see if the floodgates were opened in the early spring. So I was thinking, “This is a good thing… the lake is full early in the summer and no turbidity.” Then we started seeing some of our THM1, TOC2 and DOC3 numbers and, well, they were pretty high. It seems that with the spring foliage fully grown, the runoff coming into the lake did not bring a lot of sediment. But what it did bring was a lot of carbon, and to make it worse, it was a lot of dissolved carbon, which is very difficult to settle out. So now, we are struggling to remove as much dissolved carbon as we can and keep our THM numbers down. Just goes to show you — that’s the thing about water treatment – if it is not one thing it’s another.

1 trihalomethanes (THMs) A group of disinfection-by-products consisting of four separate compounds.

2 total organic carbon (TOC) A measure of the amount of carbon in a sample that originates from organic matter only.

3 dissolved organic carbon (DOC) A general description of the organic material dissolved in water.

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Why I Love Lakes

Evening in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area

Evening in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area

In June, I attended the American Water Works Association’s Annual Conference and Exposition, a huge event with more than 12,000 water professionals milling about to learn the latest news in the water business.

One of the highlights of the conference is always the keynote address. Someone at AWWA has a real knack for finding top-notch thinkers about water. This year, Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, author of “Blue Mind,” took the stage. While Dr. Nichols did his research on sea turtles, his love of water expands well beyond turtles. “Blue Mind” is the story of humans’ emotional, physical and spiritual connection to water. The book makes many interesting points regarding why we should incorporate some exposure to water in its natural state into our daily lives. After reading the book, I was convinced. I’ve modified my morning walk to take in some regular view of a lake.

As we filed into the grand ballroom, all 12,000 of us, for the keynote, we were handed a marble. Not a regular marble, this one was what we used to call a taw or shooter. It was about half again as big as a regular marble and it was a beautiful translucent blue color. We worked our way to our seats, mingled a bit, and talked about the marble. Some of us held it up to our eyes and looked around enjoying the distorted blue image it made of the ballroom. But at that time, we didn’t know the purpose of the marble or how it related to what we were about to hear.

Dr. Nichols worked his way through the address. Finally, he asked us all to hold the marble out at arms length and look at it. He said the marble at that distance would be what an astronaut one million miles from earth would see looking back at our planet. The blue was, of course, the impact of the 70% of the Earth’s surface water covers. Then Dr. Nichols challenged us to mine our memories to recall the moment at which we realized we loved water.

Dr. Nichols’ question is really difficult. For me, I simply don’t remember a time when I didn’t love water. Many of my earliest memories involved playing in water, running through the lawn sprinkler, splashing in the kiddie pool etc. Since July is Lakes Appreciation Month, I am going to modify the question and discuss when I started loving lakes.

The answer to my modified question is really easy. It’s July 1966, the year that my friends John Leflar, Jim Swearingen and I joined the Westark Area Council’s Contingent Boy Scout Troop on a trip to the Charles L. Summers Wilderness Canoe Base in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northern Minnesota and Quetico Provincial Park in southern Ontario. I suppose that I already had the water bug at the time. The trip to Summers was when it all came together.

The trip to Summers started on a Saturday morning in mid-July. The Council had borrowed a school bus from the local school district. It is immediately clear that things were different in the 1960s. For one thing, where could you find a school district that would loan you a school bus today? For another thing, the bus was not air conditioned. It is hard even to imagine getting on a hot school bus in mid-July and riding across Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota. Nevertheless, the windows opened and we stopped for colas every now and then. We did okay.

Our first night was in the town of Owatonna, Minn.. We must have stayed in either the high school gym or the local armory because there was some basketball involved. That evening, our leaders let us wander off in groups to explore downtown Owatonna (another thing that would not happen today). Back in 1966, downtowns were the place to be on Saturday evening. We wandered down to the local equivalent of the Dairy O.

The local girls were interested enough in a bunch of slow talking boys from Arkansas to make the night entertaining. It took about 15 minutes to perfect the Southern accent. For our part, we found their accents interesting as well:

Them: Hey, wheres youse guys from.
Us: Ah we just drove in from Ar-kaan-saw. How are Yaall ladies doin this fine evenin?

We pushed the curfew as far as we could and then walked back to the gym.

The next morning we got back into the bus and headed up through St. Paul and Duluth into the north woods. Mid-afternoon we stopped in Ely, Minn., just a few miles out from the Canoe Base. Most of us checked out the sport shops along Ely’s main street trying to find out what type of bait to use in the Boundary Waters. We left with a tackle box full of red and white Daredevil spoons that were about 3” long that weighed an ounce or more. Then we got back into the bus and made the short drive out to the Canoe Base. We arrived in time to get our swim checks and physicals before supper.

Evenings last a long time in the north woods. Therefore, after supper, we went into the headquarters and planned our route and menu, and then we picked up our gear and canoes. They gave us aluminum canoes that weighed about 75 lbs. each. We all picked out paddles from their paddle rack. A good fit was one that reached from the floor up to your nose. All of the paddles were of the beaver tail design with elongated oval blades. They were made of one piece of wood.

Monday morning we ate breakfast in the dining hall, picked up our provisions at the quartermaster’s hut and then we got a short lesson on how to lift a canoe and set it on our shoulders. Then we headed out into the wilderness. To put things in perspective, the combined area of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Quetico Provincial Park is over 2 million acres. That is more than the combined area of Benton, Carroll, Madison and Washington County, Arkansas. Moreover, there is not a single engine or motor in the whole place! The region contains thousands of glacial lakes of all sizes with just short carries or portages between. A canoeist can literally go for weeks without coming to the end of the area.

Each canoe was packed with three boys, a pack with our personal gear, and a pack with our share of the food and cooking gear, and our fishing tackle. We headed northeast up Moose Lake. John was the strongest paddler so he took the stern. Jim and I traded off paddling in the bow or riding on the kneeling thwart mid-ship.

Occasionally, we would pass crews returning from their outings. In addition, canoe outfitter’s barges would pass us from time to time carrying canoes and people up to the wilderness boundary. After an hour or so, we passed through a small neck and came out into New Found Lake. A bit later, we passed another neck into Sucker Lake. At the end of Sucker Lake, we arrived at Prairie Portage where we entered Canada and the Quetico Provincial Park.

In the Boundary Waters, they measure portages in rods. Each rod is roughly the length of a canoe. Prairie Portage was 34 rods long. So this portage was roughly the length of two football fields. In the North Country, it is bad form to make more than one trip across a portage. So Jim took the personal gear bag, John took the canoe, and I got the food bag. We staggered under the load. The girls back in Owatonna would not have been impressed! We stopped to rest at least once. One would think that the portage at the Canadian Customs station would be maintained to some extent, but no, it was just as rocky and muddy as the rest.

From the Prairie Portage we paddled through Besley Bay off of Basswood Lake and portaged into Sunday Lake. The water was crystal clear. Rocks below us at 10 to 20 feet deep appeared as clear as if they were right on the surface. Somewhere in there, we made our first camp. Dinner was some kind of mush. All of our meals were mush with the exception of lunch. Lunch came in the form of a huge salami and crackers with a powdered drink that we called Red-Eye. A quick swim washed the day’s grime off. John, Jim and I headed out in our canoe to see if the fishing was as good as expected. That was when I fell in love with lakes. I was in real wilderness for the first time in my life, I was on the water, I was in the company of a bunch of Bubba’s-in-Training, and I was fishing. That was as good as it could get!

We continued on our journey following trails originally established by the First Peoples, then used by the French-Canadian Voyageurs on their fur-trading expeditions and finally by us. We portaged into Agnes Lake. Agnes Lake is several miles long and runs to the north-northeast. There was a strong breeze from the south-southwest. John came up with the idea of a sail. Soon, Jim and I had a poncho stretched between our paddles and held out to the wind. John steered in the stern. Within minutes, we were passing all the other Bubba’s-in-Training. A couple minutes more and sails started popping up all over the lake.

At the end of Agnes Lake, we made a few portages and crossed a couple small lakes. We regretted the loss of our tailwind. Soon we were into Kawnipi Lake, where our route turned northeast. We paddled through several narrow channels and small lakes. The channels were referred to as rivers but there wasn’t any discernible current. We made our way up to Russell Lake.

Each evening we would make camp. Then, according to our duty roster, we would either cook, build a fire, or fetch water. Then we ate supper as a group. Some of us had to clean up, and then we headed out for some fishing. Mostly we caught Northern Pike but there were some Canadian Small-mouth Bass mixed in as well. We caught a lot of Pike in the 9- to 12 inch-range. Occasionally a large one would bite as well. I can distinctly remember catching one off a rock by our campsite. When I had him in, I held him up by the gills at my waist. His tail was just barely flicking the ground. After fishing we headed to our tent before the mosquitoes came out. Loons woke us at daybreak each morning.

About the fifth day out, it became apparent that we were alone. Not a soul other than our crew had passed in at least a day. It was a hot, sunny day. Our leaders were fairly open-minded about most things. Some of the Bubba’s-in-Training decided that clothing was optional so to speak.

Well, the combination of intense sun, aluminum canoe seats, and lily-white butts was not exactly a marriage made in heaven. There were some phenomenal sunburns and mosquito bites in inopportune places. Again, the girls back in Owatonna would not have been impressed.

At Russell Lake, we turned back to the southwest. Of course, that meant we were now paddling into the south southwest wind. Our route took us through Sturgeon Narrows into Sturgeon Lake then to Fred Lake. After Fred Lake came a series of “Beaver Creeks,” which are basically mosquito and leach infected wetlands with just enough water to pole a canoe through. It was in these Beaver Creeks that we saw our Moose. He was back in the swamp eating the water plants. We came out at Allen Lake, our camp for the evening. As best we could tell, not many crews visited Allen. After coming through miles of Beaver Creeks, it was easy to understand why. The fishing was phenomenal.

From Allen Lake we paddled more Beaver Creeks into Bernice Lake. Then we portaged into Pooh Bah Lake, crossed the lake and headed up Pooh Bah Creek into the Maligne River. Maligne River took us through Turner Lake and into giant Lac La Croix. Our route then turned back toward Summers Canoe Base roughly following the Canadian/U.S. border. We paddled through Iron Lake, Crooked Lake, down the Basswood River into Basswood Lake. We had grown accustomed to the rigors of wilderness travel. Our portage protocol was down pat — get out of the boat a few feet from shore, load our various packs or canoes on our back, trek over the portage, reload the canoe and take off. The girls back in Owatonna would now be impressed.

The last night was on Wind Lake just a mile or so from the Canoe Base. A scout named Stauffer was the cook that night. It being the last night out, there wasn’t any reason to save any food. All of the leftovers went into the pot. The result was a green mush forevermore referred to by our group as “Stauffer Stew.” The stew was vaguely edible. The next morning we paddled on back to the base. The rest of the day was spent sorting and returning equipment, removing the smell of two weeks in the wilderness from our bodies, hitting the sauna, and generally fooling around. The following morning we loaded on the bus for the two-day trip home.

Shane Morgan on portage trail 1998.

Shane Morgan on portage trail 1998.

Over the last 49 years, there have been many more lake trips. I have likely visited Beaver Lake a few hundred times at least. Every trip has some special quality to remember. Sometimes it is a large fish, sometimes it’s good company, sometimes solitude and even sometimes exceptionally bad weather. But the Boundary Waters are my favorite.

I have returned to the Boundary Waters twice since 1966. The first time was in 1998 when my son, Shane, and I made a trip to the Summers Canoe Base (now called the Northern Tier Wilderness Canoe Base). We lived in Conway at the time, but we joined a Scout Troop from Rogers for the trip. John and Jim were both along with their boys who were also Scouts. The rules of travel in the Boundary Waters and Quetico changed in the intervening 32 years. Now crews were limited to 15 people including a guide and at least two leaders. Therefore, we had to split into two crews. John and his boys went along with Shane and me. Jim and his kids were in another crew that went further north. Then in 2011 David Thrasher, Bill Elder, Karen Freeman and I made a trip on our own. That trip was in late August and also further east in the Sawbill portion of the Boundary Waters. Shane has returned to the Boundary Waters on his own at least once as well. After each trip, all have vowed to return. Hol-Ry!

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May 2015 – River or Creek?

Austin and Peter Neirengarten enjoying a day on War Eagle Creek

Austin and Peter Neirengarten enjoying a day on War Eagle Creek

This May I have had the privilege to be on War Eagle Creek three times. May 9 was the inaugural running of the annual Morgan-Mhoon float trip. Then May 16, Sharon and I kayaked on the War Eagle arm of Beaver Lake with my friends Steve Patterson and Ed Fite. Finally on the Saturday before Memorial Day, I once again paddled on War Eagle Creek with my friend David Thrasher, whom I have written about before, Bill Elder and his wife, Karen Freeman, along with their daughter, Meredith, son-in-law Peter Neirengarten, and their son Austin. All three were great trips with their own special character.

Every time I make a trip to the War Eagle with folks that have not been there before, I get the same question, “Is it a creek or a river?”  That question is easy to answer. United States Geographic Survey (USGS) maps all give the name of the stream as “War Eagle Creek.” War Eagle Creek is the official name as determined by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names and subsequently is listed in the USGS’s Geographic Names Information System. It just doesn’t get any more official than that! It’s the next question that is difficult, “What is the difference between a creek and a river?”

This is really a tough question with no clear answer. We tend to think of a hierarchy of water body sizes starting from brook and working up to river.  One reference on the internet says you can step over a brook, jump across a creek, wade a stream and swim across a river. That might work, but I distinctly remember my childhood friend Steve Wilson showing me a photo of his dad standing with one foot on each side of the Mississippi River.  I have also been to places on the White River where it is an easy step from one side to the other. Also, I have been to places on War Eagle Creek that definitely require swimming. So the size category breaks down at some point.

Another idea is that creeks are tributaries (flow into) of rivers. That may be generally true, but some creeks flow directly into bays or estuaries. And, as Steve Sobieszczyk of the USGS points out, the Little River behind the USGS office in Reston, Va. flows into Goose Creek. In the case of War Eagle Creek and the White River, it is hard to determine which is tributary to which. Both streams start on the same hill outside of Red Star, Ark., at about the same elevation and both are generally the same size at the confluence (joining of streams).

War Eagle at High Water May 2015

War Eagle at High Water May 2015

Length is another criterion that can be considered. But we can quickly rule that out as well. A quick surf of the internet gave four claims for the longest creek in the United States, including the French Creek in W. Va., the Elkhorn Creek in Ken. (124 miles), Crab Creek in Wash. (165 miles), and Laughery Creek in Ind. (90-some miles). However, Lodgepole Creek in Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado at 278 miles is the longest creek in the United States. An interesting fact about Lodgepole Creek is that the highest average annual flow in the stream ever recorded at the one and only gage in Bushnell, Neb, was 18.1 cubic feet per second (CFS). However, the last year when the average annual flow exceeded 1 CFS was 2003 when it reached 3.18 CFS. Several years since then, the averageflow was 0.  For comparison, the highest average annual flow in the War Eagle was 641.5 CFS in 1957.  Each CFS equals 449 gallons per minute. The title of shortest river is also contested. The Guinness Book of World Records currently lists the Roe River, which flows 200 feet from Giant Springs to the Missouri River, as the shortest. However, the citizens of Lincoln City, Ore., claim the D river that flows from Devil’s Lake into the Pacific Ocean is that shortest. Their measurement of 120 feet is suspect since they measured to the line of “extreme high tide.” Either way, it is clear that length alone does not determine river or creek.

So there is no clear answer to what differentiates a creek from a river. We can say that a river is generally larger and longer than a creek and that creeks are frequently tributary to rivers. But there are always exceptions. Likely the name is just a matter of the preference of the person who named the stream.  There are in fact over a hundred terms that refer to flowing bodies of water. These terms include brook, run, creek, crick, kill, run, runnel, stream, rio, river, arroyo, branch, fork, gut, rill and many more.

The term “creek” comes from old English which likely got it from the Norse. In England, creek refers to an inlet or bay where ships can find shelter from the sea. Settlers from England and Scotland brought the term with them, but for some reason referred to small streams as creeks as well. River on the other hand is from the Latin term “riparia.” French explorers who took the name from the native Osage Indians named the White River. The name War Eagle Creek did not appear until around 1820 after the United States purchased Louisiana (as in Louisiana Purchase, not the State of Louisiana) from the French.  Since the United States was heavily influenced by its English settlers, my speculation is that the descriptor of creek or river just is a reflection of who was in charge when the stream was named.

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Hiking in Portland

In March of this year, I found myself at a meeting in Portland, Oregon. The meeting, which lasted three and a half days, ended at noon on a Wednesday. With flights from Portland to northwest Arkansas being as they are, it didn’t matter whether I caught the late evening flight home or the early morning flight. Either way, I would arrive in Arkansas at 1:30 the next afternoon. So I decided to hang around Portland instead of sitting in an airport all night.

Portland is the kind of place where it only rains once a year. Usually, the rain starts in October and ends around the middle of June. But this is a strange year in the west. With the exception of one day when it poured, the rest of my stay was clear and mild. Mt. Hood, roughly 60 miles to the east, stood out clearly.

Portland is good at three things: beer, coffee, and walking. With the better part of an afternoon on my hands, I did what I normally won’t to do. That is I went for a long walk. Downtown sits on the bank of the Willamette (will-lam-it) River. Forty-five minutes’ walk to the west is the International Rose Test Garden. Clearly, there weren’t going to be any roses in bloom the day after St. Patrick’s Day, but it was a destination. What I didn’t know was that the Rose Garden was just a small part of the 400-acre Washington Park. Not only is Washington Park home to the Rose Garden, there also is a Japanese Garden, a Magnolia Garden, a Winter Garden, and several miles of wildland trail. Washington Park also is home to at least three of Portland’s infamous open water reservoirs.

Open drinking water reservoir in Portland

Open drinking water reservoir in Portland

Let me explain the open water reservoirs. These are, or were, reservoirs for storing drinking water. They are not round storage tanks like you might expect. You or I would likely call them lakes. They fit into the terrain and are very attractive features.

Portland’s source of water is the Bull Run Watershed. Bull Run is in the Mt. Hood National Forest northeast of Portland. The entire watershed is protected for the water supply. You are not even allowed to hike the watershed. The water is as pure as it gets.

Because Portland’s water source was so well protected, when EPA promulgated the Surface Water Treatment Rule, that required filtration of surface water, Portland was able to get a waiver. That waiver saved the city literally hundreds of millions of dollars because of not building filters. For years, they have drawn water from their reservoir in the Bull Run, disinfected it, then piped it into the mentioned open reservoirs. From the reservoirs, the water flows by gravity into the people’s homes. That is until last year. In 2009, EPA promulgated a new rule that prohibited the use of open reservoirs for treated water. The basis of that prohibition is that open reservoirs are open to contamination from animals, birds, trash and people. Indeed, in April of 2014, the city had to drain an entire reservoir because a young man found it amusing to pee into it. The citizens of Portland fought the new rule, but ultimately they lost. It is less expensive to build new closed reservoirs than to cover the existing open ones. Today the reservoirs sit empty. Likely it was time to close them anyway. After all, they were decades old and in poor shape. Portland’s website indicates that maintenance of the reservoirs was going to cost $125 million over the next few years.

Moving on past the reservoirs, I headed on up the hill to the Rose Garden. Roses really don’t interest me that much and they weren’t blooming anyway, so I walked on past and headed up the hill. While the roses were not blooming, spring does come early in Portland. Cherry trees were in full bloom as were many other blooming shrubs that I couldn’t identify. Eventually, I left the paved trail in favor of a less developed woodland trail. A couple coming off the trail stopped to talk for a minute. They told me that the trail I was on would eventually loop back to the Rose Garden. They also advised that I take a short side trip to the Magnolia Garden that was in full bloom. That being the best advice I had, I headed on up the trail into a forest of giant western red cedars figuring on a couple of hours of pleasant walking. That’s when I was surprised to find one of my favorite wildflowers, the trillium.

Pacific Trillium

Pacific Trillium

Anyone who walks the woods in Arkansas, or anywhere in North America, should be familiar with the trillium. In the Ozarks, trilliums grow along the base of moist hillsides. They have a brown stem up to several inches high, three ovate green leaves topped by three oval green sepals, and then three petals. The petals are usually a maroon color. Some references say that the leaves aren’t really leaves but they are actually bracts. That is a little beyond my horticultural expertise. They look like leaves and act like leaves so I call them leaves. Trilliums are members of the lily family.

In the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s database, there is a list of 22 different species of trillium. The one that I saw in Portland was the Trillium ovatum or the Pacific trillium, also called the western wake-robin. It was about 6 to 10 inches tall and a similar dimension across. The flower was white with petals maybe an inch and a half long. As I moved along the trail, I realized that the trillium was numerous in the park. It was a great day to be out.

I eventually headed down the mountain back to downtown. I stopped at a gastro-pub to enjoy another of the good things of Portland. Then, I headed back to the hotel to get into bed early. My morning flight left at 5:45.

As I already mentioned, trilliums are also called “wake-robins.” The name has a nice flow to it. Why it is called wake-robin is hard to say. The only reference I could find was from John Burroughs, a 19th century naturalist who lived in upstate New York. Burroughs’ first book was titled “Wake-Robin.” He used the term exactly once in the book: “When I have found the wake-robin in bloom I know the season (of birds returning to upstate New York) is fairly inaugurated.”

Arkansas is much further south than New York, and it seems to me that here the birds arrive first, and then the wake-robin blooms. Another common name is “birthroot.” Herbalists have in the past used trillium to stop the hemorrhaging of blood after childbirth.

Green trillium growing near Beaver Lake

Green trillium growing near Beaver Lake

Carl Hunter’s book, “Wildflowers of Arkansas,” describes five species of trillium growing in our state. We have the green, purple, and sessile trilliums in the Ozark and Ouachita mountains. The Ozark and the white flowered trilliums have a much smaller range. The Ozark may be found in Montgomery, Polk and Pulaski counties, according to Hunter. The white flowered is found in Stone County. The Ozark and sessile trilliums are likely the ones that we see most often. These plants are relatively large for woodland wildflowers, have wide green ovate leaves and the petals are a maroon color. The leaves, sepals and petals are always in threes. Usually, the petals are oriented vertically. The green trillium is the largest that we have at up to two feet tall.

Trillium can be found around Beaver Lake. Try cruising (paddling is best) slowly along a moist wooded hillside. Look for a small spot of maroon color. You can also try walking up the creek beds in the Devil’s Eyebrow or along Hobbs State Park and Conservation Area. April and May are the best times.





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March 2015 — 800 Moons and Counting

For the last 40 years or so it has been my habit to rise early, go outdoors and get 30 to 45 minutes of exercise most every day. Early morning seems to be the one time that life doesn’t get in the way of this exercise habit. Perhaps one day I will be able to wait until sunrise. But until I retire, it looks like pre-dawn is my time.

There are advantages to being out before dawn. You almost always have the place to yourself, it’s cooler during the summer, and all day long you have a good feeling created by exercise. Sometimes it is really cold. But being cold is hardly ever a problem when you are exercising. Another advantage is that it helps you keep up with the phases of the moon.


The first full moon of 2015 was Jan. 5th. In our part of the world, the latest sunrise occurs around Jan. 11. So when I arrived at the park that morning it was still two hours before daylight. The full moon sets in the west just as the sun rises in the east. So the moon was still two hours from setting. In the east, Scorpio was just rising. Jupiter was high in the southwestern sky right below Leo the lion. The Gemini twins were setting in the west. Had I been out at dusk instead of dawn, the full moon would have been rising in the east just as the sun set.

This particular night it was so bright that when walking to the west I had to squint to see the paved trail. Forty-five minutes later as I finished up, the moon was still hanging above the western horizon.

The moon looks huge when it is setting. But I remember my astronomy professor telling us back in college that it actually was the same size as when it is high in the sky. It is just the reference to features on the horizon that make it look large. You can check that out if you want. Hold your thumb out at arms’ length and put it in front of the full moon when it is high in the sky. Your thumb should just about cover the moon. Then when the moon is low in the sky, try again. If your thumb covers the same part of the moon, then my instructor was right.

The morning following the full moon, and each subsequent morning, the moon climbs higher in the sky. It’s 12 ½ degrees higher each morning if you really need to know. During this period it is referred to as a waning gibbous moon. After about a week, the third quarter moon is high overhead. It’s strange that we have full moons and quarter moons but no half moons. Over the next week, the waning crescent is a little lower in the eastern sky in the morning. By the end of the second week, a sliver of a crescent moon is just rising in the east when I arrive at the park.  Every now and then during the sliver of a crescent, the rest of the moon will be just visible. That is referred to as the new moon in the old moon’s arms. It is really the dark part of the moon being lit by earthshine. The next day the moon will be new and I won’t see it at all.

After the new moon I don’t see the moon at all for a couple of weeks. That is because it doesn’t rise until after daylight and it has already set when I arrive at the park at 5:30 a.m. The moon is going through its waxing crescent and waxing gibbous phases during these two weeks. Then one day I see a glow in the western sky in the morning. The next morning it – starts all over again.

A few thousand years ago, there was a priest in some castle in the desert whose job was to stay up at night and watch the heavens. Over time, he figured out that the cycle of the moon from full moon to full moon took 29½ days. That is close to a month, but not quite. So the date of the full moon moves up a day or two each month. Since it was regular, it was only natural to keep time by the moon. But unfortunately, the 365 days in a year do not divide equally by the 29½ days in the lunar cycle so the moon didn’t make a very convenient calendar. That is to say you couldn’t figure out when to plant the corn by the cycle of the moon. The Persians figured that out about 4,000 years ago and shifted over to the solar calendar.

April 4th will mark the 800th time that I have watched the cycle of the moon. With some luck, I may live to see 200 more lunar cycles. With a lot of luck, I may see 300 more. Could I see another 400? Well, it’s not likely.

By coincidence, there also will be a partial lunar eclipse the morning of April 4th. But you will have to get up early to see it. By partial I mean only a portion of the moon will be covered by the earth’s shadow. Later this year on Sept. 27th, we will get to see a total lunar eclipse. The moon will be completely covered by the earth’s shadow.

Some mornings, there is a ring circling the moon. An old saying goes, “ring around the moon, rain comes soon.” There is actually some truth to the old saying. Cold fronts are often preceded for a couple of days by high cirrus clouds. Those clouds are made of millions of tiny ice crystals. The ring is caused by moonlight being refracted by ice crystals. If you measured it, you would find the ring to be about 44 times as large as the moon.

Out of the 800 lunar cycles that I’ve lived, I guess a hundred or so cycles went by before I figured out there was something other than moon at night and sun during the day. One day at Central Ward Elementary School in Rogers, I looked up during recess and saw the moon overhead. It amazed me to see the moon during the daytime. I guess I was lucky that a softball didn’t hit me while I was staring at the moon. Ms. Simpkins explained the lunar cycle as best she could to a bunch of knot-headed fourth-graders. After a couple hundred cycles, I pretty much had the phases figured out. Since then, the cycles have simply marked time. But it is fun to watch anyway.

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January 2015 – Just For Fun

According to the U.S. Corps of Engineers, the shoreline of Beaver Lake is 487 miles long. The word mile, according to tradition, comes from the Latin word “millia” (thousand). Millia passuum, or one thousand paces, was a unit of length used by the Roman Legion . Every 1,000 paces the legion would push a stake into the ground to mark the distance marched. A pace is the distance from where your left foot leaves the ground to where it lands again when you are walking at a normal cadence. It takes two steps to make a pace. The Romans standardized the pace at 2 gradus. Each gradus was determined to be 2 ½ pedes. A pede was just under a foot long . Thus a passuum, or pace, was 2 ½ pedes of roughly 1 foot each times two pedes per passuum or roughly 5 feet. One millia passuum was then 1000 times 5 feet or 5,000 feet.


An illustration from Jules Verne’s novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” (1866-69) drawn by George Roux.

Today’s statute mile is 5,280 feet, slightly longer than the Roman mile for several reasons. But, at 5’ 9 1/2”, the average American is slightly taller than the average Roman Legionnaire (approximately 5’ 7” ) so a mile is still close to 1000 paces. A walk around Beaver Lake’s shoreline then, if it could actually be walked, would be 487,000 paces or 974,000 steps. Currently, there is a fitness fad that sets a personal goal of taking at least 10,000 steps per day. If a person started walking around Beaver Lake’s shoreline taking the prescribed 10,000 steps per day, then they would finish the walk in approximately 3 ¼ months. claims the length of the Atlantic Coastline from Florida to Maine is 2,069 miles. That means walking 4 ¼ laps around the shoreline of Beaver Lake is the same distance as walking the eastern seaboard of the United States. But it really isn’t that simple. As it turns out, when measuring the distance of something like the shoreline of a lake, the distance is highly dependent on the length of your ruler . A shorter ruler measures more nooks and crannies than a longer one. Therefore, the length measured with a short ruler is longer than that which is measured with a long one. The length of the eastern seaboard was measured using a unit of 30 minutes of latitude, roughly 30 miles. The length of Beaver’s shoreline was measured using a much shorter ruler. Nevertheless, it is a long way around Beaver Lake.

beaver_0363 Courtesy of Clifton Eoff

Photo courtesy of Clifton Eoff.


When Beaver Lake is full to the brim, elevation 1130 msl (mean sea level), the surface area of the lake is 31,700 acres (Wikipedia). Frequently, you will hear or even read a reference to a “square acre.” The term “square acre” makes little sense. First of all, an acre is a unit of area itself, not one of length. An acre is an area consisting of 43,560 square feet. If you were to square an acre, then you would have 43,560 square feet times 43,560 square feet or 1,897,473,600 feet raised to the fourth power (when you square a square you get the fourth power). Feet to the fourth power are difficult to visualize, much less to lay out on the ground. Moreover, acres were never intended to be square to begin with.

Back in the Middle Ages in what is now England, the Anglo Saxons measured distance in rods, furlongs and miles. In our modern day system of measurement, a rod is equal to 16 ½ feet. To the Anglo Saxons, it was likely equal to the length of the pole used to control a team of 8 oxen . Or it may have been equal to the length of 20 “natural feet” or possibly 30 “shaftments” or hand-widths. A mile has already been described. A furlong referred to the distance that a man with an ox could pull a wooden plow (plow a furrow) before the ox had to rest. A furlong as it turns out was 40 rods.

Oxen are hard workers, but they apparently keep banker’s hours as it was considered bad form to work your ox both morning and afternoon. The Anglo Saxons determined that during a normal morning of plowing in good soil, an ox could plow an area one furlong long by four rods wide. That area that could be worked in a morning was referred to as an “acre” .

Thus, an acre is a long thin area one furlong long and four rods wide. Since the Middle Ages, the length of a furlong has been standardized at 660 feet and a rod at 16 ½ feet. Four rods are 16 ½ times 4 equals 66 feet long. So the area of an acre is 660 feet long times 66 feet wide equals 43,560 square feet. Today we refer to any parcel of land with an area of 43,560 square feet as being one acre in size regardless of the shape of the land.

Now getting back to the mile. A mile, as stated earlier, was a millia passuum or 1,000 paces of the Roman Legion. In 1592, the English Parliament standardized the mile at 8 furlongs, 5,280 feet (Russ Rowlett). Since the length of the mile was established by statute (law), we now have a “statute” mile.

While the units of furlong and rod are not frequently used these days, they are still around. Canoeists traveling in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Northern Minnesota quickly become familiar with rods. The Boundary Waters are hundreds, possibly thousands of lakes in the wilderness. When canoeists come to the end of one lake, they pick up their canoe and equipment and carry it all to the next lake. These carries are called “portages” and they are measured in rods. So you will see on the maps a portage of 80 rods or 320 rods etc. A portage of 320 rods is a mile long. Furlongs appear most frequently in horse racing. The Kentucky Derby for instance is run over a distance of one mile and two furlongs. Also, the home stretch is usually the last furlong of the race.

Furrows and rods show up other places as well. Those of us who took surveying in college were introduced to the “Gunter Chain.” The surveyors of the Louisiana Purchase used Gunter’s chain as they mapped out the land. The chain consisted of 100 links with each link being 7.92 inches in length making the total length of the chain 66 feet, or four rods. Now that might be handy for laying out 1-acre fields as the field would be 10 chains long by 1 chain wide. Every 10 links on the chain were marked with a ring. That means that each ring was 1/100 furlong and each link was 1/1000 furlong.

When cities were being laid out for the first time, they were typically divided up into standard city blocks with 16 blocks to a mile. So each block is ½ furlong long or maybe you prefer 5 chains.

So getting back to Beaver Lake. Our lake of 31,700 acres is equal to the area that a man with an ox could furrow in 31,700 mornings or roughly 87 years. That is more than a lifetime of plowing. The length of the shoreline is 487 miles. That could be expressed as 3,896 furlongs.

The length of Beaver from the headwaters down to the dam along the submerged river channel is 50 miles. But wait, that distance is measured over the water so it should be measured in “nautical miles” (6,076.12 feet) not statute miles. To save the pain of conversion, 50 statute miles is 43.45 nautical miles. Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo measured distance traveled under the sea by the Nautilus in “leagues.” A league is three nautical miles. That makes our lake 14.5 leagues long.

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December 2014 — Love the One You’re With

The rocky hills of the Ozarks are my home and favorite spot in the whole world. The deep valleys and clear rivers are just hard to beat. Nowhere else do rivers have bluffs like ours. Our fall color may not match New England, but it isn’t bad at all. Then add in our lakes and reservoirs and you have the formula for an outdoor wonderland. There is just no better place to spend a weekend. Over the years, I must confess, I have become very Ozark-centric.

However, sometimes you just can’t be where you want to be. Business and family obligations have to be met. For several years now, I have had to travel to Texas three or four times per year. My son now lives in Houston, and my mother-in-law lives on Lake Palestine southwest of Tyler. Don’t take this wrong, I love visiting family. But sometimes when the weather is great you just want to get outdoors. Sitting around fretting about not being in the Ozarks is a waste of good time. So paraphrasing a line from Stephen Stills, if you can’t be in the hills you love, love the hills you’re in.

Lake Palestine, Texas. The wide and shallow nature of Lake Palestine along with relatively little water level fluctuation make it possible for large grassy flats to develop.

Lake Palestine, Texas. The wide and shallow nature of Lake Palestine along with relatively little water level fluctuation make it possible for large grassy flats to develop.

Lake Palestine sits in the ranch country of East Texas about 15 miles southwest of Tyler. The lake is a reservoir formed in 1962 by a dam on the Neches River. The lake was built and is operated by the Upper Neches River Municipal Water Authority (UNMWA). Currently the reservoir provides drinking water to the City of Palestine, Texas. Dallas and Tyler, Texas also have contracts to withdraw water from the lake. Palestine is a typical East Texas lake, which is to say it is wide and shallow. At 25,560 acres, Palestine’s surface area is similar to Arkansas’ Beaver Lake. However Palestine’s average depth is only 16 feet compared to roughly 60 feet at Beaver. Now that means Beaver has about four times the volume of Palestine. Palestine is also only 18 miles from headwater to dam compared to 65 miles at Beaver. So Palestine is much wider and shallower. At my mother-in-law’s house on the lake, the lake is over four miles wide.

The weekend before Thanksgiving I once again found myself traveling to Texas. This time I planned ahead and loaded the kayak on the red truck. The original plan was to get up Saturday morning and drive up to Lake Caddo. But the weather forecast kept going downhill. It looked like some really crummy weather was going to move in just after noon. Besides, Arkansas and Ole Miss were on television at 2:30.

A Google Earth tour of Lake Palestine revealed a stretch of shoreline along the Flat Creek arm that was about two miles long and for some reason had not been developed. So at daybreak Saturday morning, I found myself in my red truck heading down Smith County road 315 headed for Flat Creek Landing on Lake Palestine. The countryside around Lake Palestine is kind of a rolling savanna. It’s cattle country. The ranches have vast pastures with scattered trees. Then where the forest has been left, it is really dense. Thicket is the word that best describes the forest in the area.

The sign at the landing said “Flat Creek Grill” but apparently the grill closed several years ago. I headed on down to the lake and unloaded the kayak. Another sign warned about spreading invasive species. Zebra mussels like to hitchhike in boats as the boats move from lake to lake. The kayak had been thoroughly washed and dried since it was last in the water and my wet suit booties were completely dry, so I was good to go. I made a mental note to do my part by being sure the kayak dried out before I used it again.

At eight o’clock I was ready to launch. I headed upstream into the Flat Creek arm going under the highway 315 bridge and across a bay. Upstream from the bridge, the UNMWA did not clear the forest before the lake filled. Over the last 50 years or so, all of the old trees have broken off just above or below the water surface. The result is that not many boats head up that direction.

The sky was mostly overcast with just some breaks. A fair breeze blew from the southeast heading into Flat Creek. The water was choppy. The tip of my paddle blade was barely visible in the green water. That is another difference from Arkansas’ Beaver Lake. The water in Beaver is mostly very clear. Limnologists would say that the water in Palestine is more productive than that in Beaver. By that, they mean the water has more organic content. Likely, the fishing is better in Palestine because of the higher productivity. I didn’t get a chance to check that hypothesis out. It is really impossible to compare water quality from different reservoirs. Palestine and Beaver are in two entirely different ecosystems. Some people around Palestine likely wish the water was clearer, but clear water is just not what nature provides in this situation.

Around the bay upstream from the bridge, there were several cormorants standing on the stumps of long submerged trees. The kayak never got very close to a cormorant. As I moved along, one after another, the cormorants would take off from their stump running along the water flapping their wings until they had enough air speed to fly. Landing on the other hand is precise, each bird lands on its own stump with no hassles.

Fifteen minutes later, I was across the bay at the start of the undeveloped shoreline. Coming from the Ozarks, I don’t think of East Texas as a place to go for fall color. But I was wrong, wrong, wrong. The forest was full of bright red, or vermilion maples, brownish-yellow cypress, reddish-brown cherry bark oak, green post and water oaks as well as American red holly, deep wine-colored gum and light green pine. It was certainly the equal of the fall color along Beaver’s shores.

Texas Color

Texas Color

I poked along the shoreline for about an hour checking out this nook and that cranny. Every once in a while I would pick a leaf off or a tree or bush to identify back at the house. Lots of birds were around, but the dense forest left them well hidden. I did see kingfishers, several types of ducks, lots of great blue herons and several black vultures. And I heard lots of birds singing, including white-throated sparrows, cardinals, phoebes, chickadees, titmice and red-headed woodpeckers.

Eventually, I came around a bend to an expanse of grassy flats. I never did identify the grass, but it was about six feet tall and in clumps. I poked around in the grass for a while. Then I spotted some white wings flapping like crazy. After a bit of confusion, I realized that I had been duped by a couple of “robo” decoys. Duck season was open on Lake Palestine. Poking around grassy flats in a small boat out of sight of guys with guns trying to shoot things was likely not the best plan at that point. Respecting the hunter’s space, I backed out into open water and headed on out along the shoreline.

Another hour poking along the shore and it was time to head in. The bridge at Flat Creek landing was still visible, but just barely. It was going to take at least an hour and a half to get back. The other side of the lake was more sheltered from the wind so I headed across, cormorants scattering along the way. I moved along into the wind at a steady pace and arrived back at my red truck just in time to get back for the ballgame.

Nature happens where you find it. And, beauty is spread around this world for everyone to enjoy. An opportunity to get outdoors is a unique experience every time.

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October 2014 — The “Get-Up-Early” Syndrome

The saving grace of jet skiers and other power boaters is that they tend to sleep late. That habit provides an opportunity for those of us affected with the “get-up-early” syndrome a chance to enjoy our lake in relative peace and quiet. Yes, there is an occasional bass boat speeding by, but fishermen tend to have someplace to go so the interruption of peace and quiet is temporary. So on a Sunday morning in late August, I found myself pulling my kayak off of the red truck at 6:38 a.m. The sun made itself just barely visible on the east horizon. The temperature was slightly cool and there was just a bit of a breeze. But it was clearly going to be a hot, muggy day. In this unusually cool August, real summer had finally arrived in the Ozarks. I should have been here 45 minutes earlier, I thought to myself. There may be two or three hours of tolerable temperature before the heat sets in for the day. Ah well, one of the benefits of the get-up-early syndrome is getting to take advantage of these two or three hours of coolness.

The next thing I know, the kayak and I head off to the west, for “it” seems to know where it wants to go. As for me, I am just going along to see what happens and to provide the power. The wind is in our face but the kayak can slip under most of it. The water is unusually clear for this area of Beaver Lake. I attributed that to the season. August is in a period that limnologists, a.k.a. lake scientists, call the clear zone. During springtime and into early summer, there is a bloom of diatoms. Diatoms are algae that form little glassy shells out of silica. They like the cooler temperatures and a bit of sediment in their water. As summer progresses, the diatoms start to die off. During late summer, shortly after Labor Day, blue-green algae start to bloom. Blue-greens are the ones that cause the earthy taste and odor that we experience here in northwest Arkansas each fall in our drinking water. In between these blooms, there may be a small bloom of green algae, but usually the algae are less abundant, which leads to clearer water.

Friendship Creek is a great place to explore Beaver Lake’s in the micro instead of the macro. Back in 2012 Sharon and I paddled our canoe into this cave.

Friendship Creek is a great place to explore Beaver Lake’s in the micro instead of the macro. Back in 2012 Sharon and I paddled our canoe into this cave.

After 10 minutes or so the two of us, the kayak and I, turn into Friendship Creek cove. Off to the right almost out of earshot, the pumps at Beaver Water District’s intake are humming. There are some birds chirping. Other than that, there isn’t much noise at all. Up ahead something is swimming across the cove. At first glance it looked like a snake, but as we drew closer together it became clear that it was a beaver. At about 10 boat-lengths distance, the beaver spooked, slapped its tail on the water and dove. He must have been 5 to 6 feet from head to tail. I make a mental note of the beaver. Beaver waste is a significant source of giardia and cryptosporidium, two parasitic protozoans.  Protozoa are mobile, one-cell animals, many of which can infect humans and cause severe gastrointestinal illness. Giardia and cryptosporidium form chlorine resistant cysts and therefore are difficult to kill. EPA regulations require water suppliers to step up their treatment process when the cysts are found in their source water.

The kayak carries me on back into Friendship Creek cove. The hills block the wind and everything is calm. The only noise is the call of a pileated woodpecker. I catch a glimpse of it as it flies back into the wooded shoreline. Pileated woodpeckers are the great big ones that look like the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker. Back when I was a Boy Scout, our scoutmaster referred to pileated woodpeckers as “Good Lord” birds. That was because when you see one, your first words are always “Good Lord, look at that bird.” Pileated woodpeckers eat insects, mostly carpenter ants and wood-boring beetle larva and can help keep those pests in check. Interestingly, they also eat the berries of poison ivy.

Goldenrod (Solidago) is one of my favorite late summer wildflowers. They start blooming in mid August and stay in bloom through September. There are over 50 species of goldenrod in North America.

Goldenrod (Solidago) is one of my favorite late summer wildflowers. They start blooming in mid August and stay in bloom through September. There are over 50 species of goldenrod in North America.

At some point in a trip, a decision has to be made whether to focus on the macro or the micro. Friendship Creek is one of the best places on Beaver Lake to focus on the micro. The entire south shore is lined with a bluff that ranges from maybe 15 to 30 feet high. It is a fractured rock with lots of crevices, caves, and at least one natural bridge. The interaction of light, water and rock makes fascinating patterns. Then there are the wildflowers growing on nooks and crannies on the bluff. This Sunday, goldenrod is starting to bloom. The kayak pulled in close to the rock so I could examine what was there.

From the amount of rubble lying on any flat spot along the bluff, it is clear that these bluffs are active. Someday I may get a chance to see one of the rocks fall. It will be interesting so long as I am not watching from below. Last July, a bluff on Lake Whitney west of Fort Worth, Texas, crumbled taking a $700,000 house with it. The saying, “solid as a rock” may not apply in all cases.

A standing rock along the bluff in Friendship Creek.

A standing rock along the bluff in Friendship Creek.

With a mind of its own, the kayak continues its exploration on back into the cove. At one point, it sticks its nose into an especially large nook. A couple of years ago when the water was lower, Sharon and I paddled our canoe completely into this nook. The rising and falling of the water level in Beaver Lake is significant. Usually there is a 15 to 20 foot fluctuation during a year. I don’t know for sure, but I can speculate that the fluctuation has a huge impact on the rocks falling off of the bluff.

Good hunters and fisherpeople, in my opinion, are victims of the get-up-early syndrome. The best hunters and fisherpeople that I know really don’t care a lot about killing game or catching fish. They are there to commune with the outdoors. They have learned the value of slowly exploring a shoreline, or observing the woods. It is because of their good observational skills, they become good hunters and fisherpeople in the first place. Most of them try to be out at daybreak. Maybe it is a form of meditation, or maybe it’s just getting away from the crowd.  Either way, this brief respite is a pleasant way to start the day.


It is now 8:45 a.m. The temperature is rising, and the kayak is riding the wind back toward the red truck. At the landing, I stop to take a look around. There are a couple dozen turkey vultures huddled around something down the shore a bit. Out on the lake, the first jet ski goes by. Breakfast is waiting. Time to go.

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July 2014 – Why I Appreciate Lakes

Upper White Lake is an oxbow lake in the White River National Wildlife Reserve

Arkansas has always been considered a water-rich state, and for good reasons. Rainfall in Arkansas ranges from a little over 45 inches per year in Benton County to over 54 inches in extreme Southeast Arkansas. Even in years of extreme drought we get something between 25 and 30 inches, which is more than many states in the West get in a good year. Even so, rainfall can be fickle at times. Almost every year there is a dry spell that starts late June to mid-July and extends into the fall. Some years, the dry spell starts as early as mid-Spring. Many, and perhaps most, of our roughly 90,000 miles of creeks, streams and rivers cease to flow during the annual dry season. Fortunately, lakes and reservoirs exist that help us make it through.

Arkansas has more than 2,400 named lakes and reservoirs larger than 5 acres in total and covering over 600,000 acres. These lakes range from small, privately owned farm ponds and reservoirs up to the gigantic Bull Shoals Reservoir that at times covers more than 71,000 acres. These lakes and reservoirs help us get through our dry seasons by storing water from the abundant rain in quantities that will survive the drought. Uses of our lakes include fishing, irrigation, recreation, wildlife habitat, fire protection, water supply, power production, flood control, and even more.

Many people will tell you that Arkansas does not have natural lakes. But that is not true. In fact, Arkansas has at least two types of natural lakes. The first and most dominant is the oxbow. People who live along the Arkansas, Lower White, Mississippi, Red and Lower Ouachita Rivers are very familiar with oxbows. Oxbow lakes are formed by natural erosion processes. As a river flows around its meanders, alternating bends to the right and left, the flow of water tends to erode along the bank on the outside of the curve and deposit material along the inside of the curve. If you are looking downstream and the stream is curving to the right, the outside of the curve is on your left and the inside on your right. The river slowly moves around its floodplain as the erosion progresses. Sometimes, the erosion from an upstream meander will catch up with a downstream meander and the river will shortcut across the new connection. The result is that the bend between the points of contact is cut off from the stream and it forms a lake. The shape of these lakes is a kind of big omega (as in the letter from the Greek alphabet). When oxen were the primary source of power for plows, they were connected to the plow by a yoke. The collar that went around the ox’s neck was shaped the same way and was referred to as an “ox bow.” Hence, these lakes are referred to as oxbows. Did you know that Lake Chico in Chico County is the biggest oxbow lake in the world? Well, it is!

Lower Greasy Falls is an example of a plunge pool lake on Greasy Creek in the Hurricane Creek Wilderness Area

The other natural lake, one that is not normally recognized as a lake at all, is the plunge pool. When water flows over a waterfall, it erodes a pool at the base of the fall. These pools are referred to as plunge pools. Plunge pool lakes can be quite large, but most in Arkansas are small. Frequently, they are referred to as “skinny-dipping holes” because they are usually secluded, clear and very cool places. Skinny-dippers likely are not aware of the number of snakes that like these cool places, too.

By far the most common lake in Arkansas is the reservoir. Reservoirs are artificial lakes. Reservoirs can be created by putting a dam across a valley where a stream flows, or by building a levee or digging out a hole that can be filled with water pumped from a nearby stream. The latter type sometimes are referred to as tanks. Reservoirs have one function, to store water. The stored water and the habitat it creates can be used for all of the purposes listed above but the function of the reservoir is to store water. In fact, the term reservoir is French for “storehouse.” It is this storage function that helps us get through our long dry Julys and Augusts.

Governor Beebe declared July to be “Lakes Appreciation Month” in Arkansas. The declaration is part of a larger effort by the North American Lake Management Society to have July declared as Lakes Appreciation Month in every state of the United States. So, just why is it that I appreciate lakes and reservoirs?

Boaters appreciating Hog Scald Hollow on Beaver Lake this month

First of all, they provide us with a steady supply of drinking water. Those of us in Northwest Arkansas who are more than 60 years old can remember the big drought of the mid-1950s. It never really got bad enough that we were in danger of not having drinking water. But we were restricted as to how much water we could use. I can remember driving down to Lake Atalanta in Rogers with Mom and Dad and looking at how dry it was getting. We would stand on the road that normally was right next to the west shoreline and throw rocks to see if we could reach the water. Fortunately back then we only took baths on Saturday evening so we got through the summer. (Seriously. I’m not kidding!) Today, Beaver Lake, a giant reservoir created by damming the White River, provides us with more water than we use. At least we are good for the next few decades.

Of course, the value of lakes to our economy has to be appreciated as well. Up here in Northwest Arkansas, we have several industries that use water at a rate of hundreds of thousands of gallons per day. Our groundwater resource in this part of the state just will not provide that quantity. Back in the days when our water came from springs and stream withdrawal, it was not possible to get a steady supply in the quantity needed during drought years. And those years occur about two or three times per decade. In other parts of Arkansas, the economy is based upon row crop agriculture. With the declining water table in the Mississippi Alluvial Aquifer and other aquifers, more and more of these farms are relying on farm reservoirs to provide the needed irrigation water. Those reservoirs may also become great sources of recreation for the residents of the region. Then, there is the electrical power produced in some of our reservoirs.

The economic value of water is an intellectual and professional interest for me. However deep down in my heart, I have to say that my greatest appreciation is for the simple beauty that is provided by lakes and the wildlife habitat provided by them. In most of Arkansas, lakes are not the natural environment. But once built, the lakes evolve fairly quickly. In a few years, an aquatic community complete with bacteria, biofilm, algae, plankton, insects and bugs, and fish develops. If the water level is fairly constant, a vegetative community will develop as well. Then around those lakes where the water level doesn’t fluctuate constantly, riparian vegetation develops providing cover for all sorts of terrestrial reptile, mammals and birds. Days just don’t get any better than those spent simply poking around a lake in a canoe on a cool still morning looking at the birds and wildflowers.

And then speaking of lakes and boats, I come to one of my favorite pastimes, messing around with boats. Any kind of boat will do, but kayaks, canoes, rowboats and sailboats are my favorites. I know that some people also like powerboats, but I find them to be less interesting and generally aesthetically less pleasing. But to each his/her own. With Arkansas’ 2,400 lakes, there is plenty of room for us all. Plus, I can spend a good part of the rest of my life exploring new (to me) lakes.

There has been controversy in Arkansas, sometimes heated, over whether or not streams should be dammed to form lakes. The epic battles over the Buffalo River and Lee Creek come to mind. Well intentioned people sat on both sides of those arguments. Kelly and Donna Mulhollan of the folk music group Still on the Hill recently produced a CD titled “Once a River” that addresses that controversy. The subject of the CD is the history of Beaver Lake. There are songs about the watershed before the lake existed as well as afterward. One of the songs is based on a discussion as to whether or not Beaver Lake should have ever been built. The conclusion was “what’s done is done and it’s time to move on.” Yes, we did lose a beautiful valley and river along with all of the ecological services that was provided by that valley, but the resource we gained is also priceless. Our parents and grandparents made the decision to dam White River using the best knowledge they had at the time. I don’t know that I would ever support the building of another large dam in the Ozarks. What I do know is that the resource we have needs to be protected and appreciated. Please go out to a lake and say “thank you.”


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