Beaver Water District Blog

Editor’s Note

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


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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April 2014 — A Gathering of Waters

In late September or early October, the first snow falls in the mountains of Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. At first, the snow melts before the next storm hits. Eventually though, snowfall exceeds melt. As the weeks go by, storm after storm hits the mountains. The snow stacks up to 10, 20, even 30 feet in places. A tremendous amount of water is stored on top of the mountains! When spring arrives, days warm above freezing and the snow starts to melt. For several weeks, new snow more than makes up for the melt. But as spring progresses and temperatures warm, melting wins out. What once formed a white layer for as far as the eye could see begins running downhill. The melt water flows in sheets over land, then it comes together to form small rills. Rills merge and form riverlets. The riverlets flow downhill, all the while slowly eroding canyons and valleys into the mountainsides. Riverlets join riverlets to form streams. Streams join streams to form rivers. And eventually, all the water from the watershed merges together and flows to the sea in one, single mighty river. It is a gathering of waters.

At least that is the way it is supposed to work. In the desert southwest of the United States, water is scarce and water use is heavy. Some of our rivers no longer reach the sea. The Colorado River has been the poster child of overuse. It has been decades since water regularly flowed all the way to the Gulf of California. An interesting experiment was started this spring to re-establish flow to the Gulf through controlled release of water from the giant reservoirs on the river.  We will see how that works out over the next several years. The Rio Grande, which starts in southern Colorado and flows through New Mexico on its way to the Gulf of Mexico like the Colorado River, at times goes dry before it reaches its destination.

Last year, a group of people in New Mexico decided to restore the flow of the Rio Grande. They wanted to see that at least some water in the river made it to the Gulf. A canteen was carried to the headwaters of the Rio Grande and partially filled. Then the canteen was carried downstream. At each confluence with another stream, the original group of people met other people who had a small amount of water of that stream’s headwater. The waters were mixed in the canteen. All the way down the river, people brought water from tributaries to the canteen. Eventually, the canteen was carried to the mouth of the Rio Grande where the contents were poured into the Gulf of Mexico. The gathering of the waters of the Rio Grande was complete.

Sharon and I had the opportunity to visit the desert southwest and the Rio Grande basin this past April. As it turned out, I had business with the American Water Works Association which required me to be in Denver from March 30 through April 2. And what the heck, if you are going to drive 800 miles you might as well stay a while. By chance, there was a workshop titled “A Gathering of Waters: Human Relationship with Water” scheduled for the following weekend at the Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico. This workshop was a follow-up to the original gathering from last year. Sharon and I had been looking for the right chance to visit the Ghost Ranch for a couple of years. And this was the perfect opportunity. I could juxtapose the highly technical aspects of my AWWA committee work with the more spiritual side of water.

Abiquiu is famous for being the New Mexico home of artist Georgia O’Keefe and the subject of many of her paintings. The Ghost Ranch is a 23,000-acre retreat owned by the Presbyterian Church; it sits adjacent to O’Keefe’s home. Ghost Ranch offers spiritual retreats and workshops on a variety of topics through the spring, summer and fall. Our workshop started Friday evening right after dinner.

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Bob and Sharon at Chimney Rock

The terrain around the Ghost Ranch is high desert. It is the kind of country where Wile E. Coyote chased Road Runner through hundreds of cartoons. We arrived shortly before noon on Friday. Since we couldn’t check in until 3 p.m., we took a hike out to Chimney Rock. Chimney Rock is one of dozens of hoodoos, large columnar rocks at the edge of the mesas, in the ranch. It was cool and breezy; the temperature was in the 40’s. We climbed up toward the Mesa. The climb warmed us quickly. No one else was on the trail. The vista just kept getting bigger and bigger, with seemingly dozens if not hundreds of square miles of nothing. At lunchtime, we found a big rock to shelter us from the wind and settled in. The sun kept us warm. We made little burritos out of tortilla, avocados and tomatoes. Shortly after lunch, we topped out on the Mesa and walked over to Chimney Rock. I snapped a few photos and Sharon sketched a gnarly old juniper tree. Then we wandered back down to the ranch and checked in.

Accommodations at the Ghost Ranch are, well, rustic, but entirely appropriate for the setting. Our neighbors were also settling in. She was a retired Episcopal priest and an artist. He was retired engineer. We were friends right off the bat.

Our workshop started Friday evening with a reproduction of the “Gathering.” We had all been told in emails to bring water from our home. Unfortunately, the email didn’t arrive until Monday prior to the Gathering and we were already on the road. Fortunately, Sharon had a bottle of Beaver Water District water in the car. We put that bottle aside and filled another bottle with Denver water for drinking. During the introductory session of the Gathering, each of us, in turn, presented our water by describing its origin and something interesting about its watershed. Then we poured our water into a communal urn. In addition to my water from the White River, there was water from Minnesota, Illinois, Colorado, California, New Mexico and Queensland, Australia. Artist Basia Irland brought a bottle of pee that she said represented the way we treat water. (Visit basiairland.com for more about her work.) Fortunately, she graciously declined to pour her bottle into the communal urn, which would be used later in the workshop.

I took a short walk out through the desert before breakfast Saturday morning. There is something about the desert southwest that brings out the spiritual side of people. Maybe it is the inherent natural beauty of the desert region. I also find the natural beauty of the Ozark Mountains unsurpassed, but my spiritual experience differs from the mountains to the desert. It’s hard to explain. Maybe it’s the fact that a person is never far from death in the desert. Maybe it’s the solitude and silence. Or perhaps there really is something spiritual going on. Regardless, I’ve concluded that the desert southwest experience is unique unto itself. I suggest you visit there, if you haven’t already, and make up your own mind.

But back to my story … .  After my walk, we all met for breakfast in the dining hall. Then we wandered over to the meeting room. Not surprisingly since we were in New Mexico, most of the presentations centered on the value of water in a water scarce region. Of particular interest to me were the presentations by Dr. Sue Jackson from Griffith University in Queensland and Dr. Jose Rivera from the University of New Mexico. Dr. Jackson’s presentation was on the significance of water to the indigenous people of Australia. Dr. Rivera gave a discussion of New Mexico’s Asequias. Asequias are hand dug canals that carry water from snow pack in the mountains to irrigated crops. Everybody that belonged to an Asequia was entitled to use water in proportion to the amount of land that they cultivated. The one requirement was that to use the water, you had to participate in the annual cleanout of the Asequia — no work, no water. Asequias distributed water equably to farmers in New Mexico for centuries. It was a sustainable system governed by local citizens. Other presentations included the use of art to spread the message of water, water ethics, and the discontinuities and outright contradictions of New Mexico water law. That evening we watched the video “Watershed,” produced by the Redford Center. (Watch the movie at redfordcenter.org.)

Building the Medicine Water Wheel

Building the Medicine Water Wheel

Sunday started with another hike. This time Sharon accompanied me and we walked out into a box canyon. The canyon sat between two mesas. Nearly shear walls rose on each side. There was a small arroyo down the middle of the canyon. This arroyo was the source of water for the Ghost Ranch. If you followed the canyon all the way to the end, the two mesas merged to form the “box.” We hiked all the way to the end of the box canyon a couple of years ago, but this time we stopped at the first creek crossing and turned back. Back at the ranch, we gathered for another great breakfast and then headed back out to the box canyon to build a medicine water wheel.

The medicine wheel is sacred in Native American culture. The wheels have been used for millennia in traditional ceremonies. The wheel, according to Wikipedia, represents the never-ending cycle of life.  That is entirely appropriate since about everything in our ecosystem follows a cycle of some sort. The term “medicine” does not refer to medicine you get from the local pharmacy. The term refers to the vital force of nature and to the personal power within each and every one of us. My understanding of the function of the wheel then is that it focuses the force of nature onto its surrounding area, but only if we use our personal power to activate the wheel.

The medicine water wheel is a relatively new phenomenon. The history that we were given was that prior to World War II, medicine men of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest disappeared into the mountains each spring and conducted ceremonies at the headwaters of important water sources. Those ceremonies helped to protect the flow and quality of the vital waters in the valleys below. After the war, the tradition was lost. Concurrently, the quantity and quality of waters in the regional streams began to degrade. During the 1960s, elders of the northwestern Native Americans instituted the medicine water wheel ceremony to reconnect mankind to the natural cycle of water. The wheel is an appropriate symbol as water moves in a great cycle around the earth, the hydrologic cycle.

Completed Medicine Water Wheel

The completed Medicine Water Wheel at Ghost Ranch.

According to Marshall Jack (goldeneagleceremonies.com), the purpose of the medicine water wheel is to “energize, celebrate and honor water.” The medicine water wheel is also a place to “deepen our relationship with the spirit of water.” Golden Eagle Ceremonies has initiated a project to “create a web of 172,000 Water Wheels linked together across the planet that serves to renew our sacred relationship with water.” Our medicine water wheel at the Ghost Ranch completed 1/172,000th of the vision. Unfortunately, I had to get back to Northwest Arkansas so I didn’t get to stick around for the dedication ceremony. Next time I will plan better.

I personally cannot say what is sacred and what is not. My background is Judeo-Christian strongly influenced by Greco-Roman logic and reductionist science. However, even in my Judeo-Christian heritage, water is frequently used in Christian sacraments and symbolism. I venture out into speculation here, but my opinion is that the biggest challenge we face as water resource managers today is to get people to think about and value water. With that said, one might determine that anything that helps us renew our sacred relationship with water — even a medicine water wheel ceremony — has got to be a good thing.

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March 2014 – The White Rock Death March

It was 7:58 a.m. Sunday morning when I drove my red truck into the parking lot of the Visitor’s Center at Hobbs State Park. I pulled my hiking boots out of the back seat, sat down on the tailgate and started lacing them up. These boots are old friends. For the last 10 years they have carried me to lots of interesting places. The leather is starting to crack just like me, but they still have sole. (I couldn’t help myself on that one!) Our goal for the day was simple, to put in some mileage! With 31 miles of hiking trails, Hobbs is a perfect place to do just that.

Several years ago, a group of us were training for a climb on Mt. Rainier in Washington. Rainier is roughly 14,500 feet above sea level. The “standard route” up Rainier starts at the Paradise Lodge at roughly 5,000 feet. Climbing crews leave late morning and hike up to Camp Muir at just above 10,000 feet. The first half mile or so of the climb is on a developed trail. Beyond that, it’s uphill through deep snow, even in late July. Once crews reach Camp Muir, they find a spot in the snow and make camp. Then they spend the night and lounge around the next day acclimating to the altitude and waiting on evening. Around midnight the crew puts on the alpine gear, ropes up and heads out across the glacier toward the summit. If you climb steadily, you reach the summit right at sunrise. The view is spectacular. Then you descend all 9,500 feet back to Paradise picking up your camping gear along the way.

Training for Rainier in Arkansas is difficult. A person could run five miles a day and lift weights every night and still not be fit for Rainier. Alpine mountaineering just uses a different set of muscles than anything else. With your share of the crew gear, your crampons, carabiners, ice screws, helmet, storm gear, food, ice axe etc., it is nearly impossible to get your pack down below 65 lbs. Then you walk uphill. After reaching the summit, you walk downhill, a long way down. Each step pounds your knees. The only way to train is to put a bunch of heavy stuff on your back and then walk up and down hills.

Aggressive use of prescribed burns in the Hobbs State Park and Conservation Area are restoring the “open forest” characteristic of the Ozark Mountains.

Aggressive use of prescribed burns in the Hobbs State Park and Conservation Area are restoring the “open forest” characteristic of the Ozark Mountains.

A difficulty of training for Rainier in the Ozarks was finding hikes that replicated the 4,500-foot daily climbs that we would be doing on Rainier. One approach was to climb Pinnacle Mountain seven times in one day. That does get kind of boring after around the forth climb. So we looked for other alternatives. One of us figured out that if you counted all the climbs on the 20 miles of the Ozark Highland Trail (OHT) between the Cherry Bend trailhead on Highway 23 and White Rock Mountain, the total elevation gain was just over 4,000 feet. Hence, the White Rock Death March was born.

The first death march occurred in late January 2001. Days are short in January so we planned on meeting at Cherry Bend at eight in the morning. There were 10 of us in the crew. The guys that had camped the night before at White Rock were late so we were on the trail promptly at 9:30. Snow had fallen earlier in the week and some was still on the ground. The temperature was just below freezing. It was a grueling day. We placed cars at intermediate trailheads in case someone came up lame. By the time we left from Potato Knob for the last decent into Salt Fork Creek and the final climb up White Rock Mountain, there were only three of us left — Charlie, David and me. It was pitch dark when we forded Salt Fork. Then we started the climb. We were cold, tired and out of snacks. David swore that I spoke in tongues during the climb. He was right. Charlie and David had walked me into the ground.

David Thrasher preparing to ford Salt Fork on the White Rock Death March. Only one climb remained.

David Thrasher preparing to ford Salt Fork on the White Rock Death March. Only one climb remained.

Since 2001, occasionally one or the other of us will challenge the others to a repeat of the Death March. Last January David, who is semi-retired, was lounging around in Florida. Every few days I would get an email with a photo of a different fish that he had caught. One afternoon I got to thinking that David would be getting soft after all that lounging around. I on the other hand was dealing with the rigors of a hard Arkansas winter. My chance to get even had arrived. I issued the challenge. To my surprise, David accepted. The death march was on for the first weekend of spring. There was no backing out. And that explains why I was sitting on my red truck pulling on my boots Sunday morning.

Going into woods alone, you never know what you will find. But it is almost guaranteed that you will find something interesting. On this trip it was fire!

Before Europeans “settled” the Ozarks in the early 1800s, forest fires were a regular event. A little bit less often than once per decade, low intensity fires burned through the forest. Mature, resilient trees survived the fire but underbrush tended to be killed back. The result of the fire was a forest that was much more open than the one we have today. During the 1820s and ‘30s, the General Land Office surveyed the country. The surveyors marked all of the section and township lines and described the landscape. The description that you see most often in North Arkansas is “open forest.” Some references speak of being able to see a quarter of a mile through the forest.

Many of these fires were ignited by Native Americans who were managing the land for game. The idea was simple. Burn off the underbrush, let lush grasses and bushes grow up, and soon deer and elk move to eat the grass and you live fat and happy for years. White Oak, Hickory and Shortleaf Pine are also more resistant to fire than other native trees so their shoots survived while the others were suppressed by the fire. This additional resistance to fire led to the Oak-Hickory forest that we have become accustomed to in the Ozark mountains. The fires, along with other occasional disturbances such as blow downs or tornados, led to multi-aged stands. The multi-aged forest was more resistant to infestations and thus was very resilient. On the forest floor, the thick duff of leaves and twigs was controlled to a much thinner layer, allowing the emergence of grasses, forbs and herbs. Biodiversity actually increased.

As Europeans moved in, they continued the practice of burning through the 1800s. Then starting in the 1920s and ’30s forest managers, using the best science they had at the time, started suppressing fire. It took about 50 years for managers to realize that the increase of understory and deadfall caused by the suppression of fire was actually increasing the potential for a catastrophic fire. During the 1970s and 1980s, experimentation with prescribed burns started. Today, prescribed burn is a standard practice for forest management.

The crew out at Hobbs has implemented an aggressive prescribed fire program. That is what I walked into on Sunday morning. It wasn’t entirely a surprise, since on Friday afternoon, smoke was billowing up on the east side of Beaver Lake indicating a large fire in the area. As I walked into Van Hollow, smoke was in the air, the ground became charred, and small fires continued to burn here and there. It was a surreal experience walking through miles of burnt forest. The Hobbs crew has been at this for several years; in Van Hollow the open forest is actually starting to become a reality.

Some controversy still remains regarding the environmental impact of prescribed burn. Obviously, burning releases tons of carbon into the atmosphere. But the consensus of the science seems to be that the luxuriant growth that occurs after the burn more than compensates for the carbon released during the burn. Similarly, the impact of water quality is a mix. An intense storm occurring shortly after the burn would cause excessive erosion. But the impact is short-lived. Within a few weeks new growth covers the landscape reducing the potential for erosion. All in all, it seems the short-term impact of a prescribed burn is more than made up for by the long-term improvements.

I walked on through Van Hollow and around the Bashore loop. At the far end of Bashore loop there is an overlook with a view of Blackburn Hollow on Beaver Lake. I made a vow to come back in my kayak later in the spring. Then I returned to the Visitor’s Center via the south side of the Clifty Creek loop. Along the way I met a young man headed the opposite direction. He greeted me with “Hello Sir.” It’s a horrible thing to be called “Sir” on the trail. What he really meant was, “look at this old coot, he must be older than my father-in-law’s uncle.” The next thing you know, I will meet some girl who took one of my classes and she will greet me with “Dr. Morgan, you sure are looking good!” Oh well, it is what it is. At least I am still out on the trail.

The death march came off without a hitch. OK, there was that episode of head-to-toe cramps during the return shuttle from White Rock. But that only lasted 10 minutes or so. The challenge has been issued for next year, first weekend of spring.

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Freddy 2002-2014

Freddy

Freddy

When we take a dog into our lives, we know full well that in 10 to 15 years we will have to deal with its death. It’s a pact that dog lovers make; a couple weeks of grief in exchange for several years of companionship and unconditional love. Even so, when the day comes it is not easy. Freddy died Monday morning, Jan. 27. He takes his place in my soul alongside Wags, Willie, Pepper, Dogmatix, Jodie, and Rascal.

Freddy was a “miniature” schnauzer. He shared our home for 11 years and 21 days. Sharon and I picked him up from a breeder in Joplin, Missouri, on Jan. 6, 2003, just two days after our wedding. The literature said he would be 18 to 24 pounds when grown. Well, he went right on past 24 pounds in 18 months. Eventually, he topped out at 35 pounds. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on him, just pure lean muscle. He was built like a fullback, 35 pounds in a package the size of a basketball. He was fast and quick as a rabbit. He loved to play chase. Try as you might, you never could catch him if he didn’t want to be caught.

Freddy was good-looking and he knew it. He walked with confidence. At the park, he looked everyone directly in the eye. If you listened closely you could hear him say to the passersby, “You love me, don’t you.” It wasn’t a question, it was a statement.

Speaking of walking, hiking in the Ozarks was another of Freddy’s favorite pastimes. Over the last 11 years, he and I hiked roughly 100 miles of the Highland Trail. Freddy wasn’t exactly the standard trail dog being only 15 inches tall, but that didn’t slow him down a bit, although sometimes he seemed to overestimate his size. Once when we were hiking up Jacks Fork Creek, we sat down by a sluice to have lunch. Freddy was about 2 years old at the time. The creek flowed through a slot in the rock roughly 6 feet wide and 2 or 3 feet deep. There was a little waterfall above the sluice and another below. Freddy was poking around on the other side of the sluice sniffing trees and peeing on rocks when he decided to rejoin the pack for lunch. Instead of walking around, he headed full speed straight for the sluice and jumped. He landed about halfway up the side! Immediately, he went into four-paw drive but to no avail. I worked my way down the bank and retrieved him from the pool below.

Freddy must have read John Muir somewhere. I say this because when we went hiking, he sauntered into the woods just as Muir described. He checked out everything. He got to know trees personally. Every few yards he would find something to sniff. When he finally finished sniffing, he circled three or four times, then peed on whatever he was sniffing. Then he moved on with a smug satisfied look on his face. Just like Muir, Freddy always brought some of the woods home with him. Usually a bath would get it off.

Canoeing was a different story. When Freddy was young, I tried to make him a canoe dog. He didn’t care for it at all. Usually, I ended up having to fish him out of the river after he jumped from the canoe when we got close to shore. He was sure to shake water off in my face just to tell me of his dissatisfaction. Freddy always watched hopefully when I started getting my outdoor gear together. But when the paddles came down he headed for the back yard.

Freddy was clearly a pack animal. The more the merrier. Visitors to our house were greeted with a special ear splitting shrill bark. The more he liked the visitor, the more shrill the bark. The most shrill bark was reserved for my sister, Kay. She must have been his favorite. It was an annoying habit, but there was no breaking him of it. I am sure we have friends who don’t go to the Morgan’s house because of the obnoxious dog.

On Monday afternoon, I buried Freddy in a 2’ by 4’ grave down between our Pine Tree and Silver Maple. His body is already starting to decompose. By spring, all that will be left will be some minerals and water. Hair roots from the trees are likely working their way into the grave as I write. When sap starts flowing up the tree this spring, part of it will be Freddy’s atoms. Those atoms will become part of the leaves, needles, pine nuts and maple seeds. The squirrels that Freddy used to chase around the yard will eat the seeds and pine nuts and make nests from the leaves and needles. Some of Freddy will then become squirrel. The squirrels will drop detritus and squirrel waste on the ground where it will nourish the grass in our yard and flowers in our bird garden. So Freddy will slowly be spread around the yard. He will become grass and flowers and even bird. The local rabbits will eat the grass and Freddy will become part rabbit. Maybe our resident Red-shouldered Hawk will catch and eat a rabbit and Freddy will then take flight. Several summers from now, when I have my coffee on the back porch, I will look out and say, “There’s Freddy.”

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January 2014 – On Walking

There are 61 miles of hiking trails in the Beaver Lake watershed. And that doesn’t count some short segments of the Ozark Highlands Trail that runs along the divide between the White River and the Mulberry River. Hiking those 61 miles is my resolution for this year. The majority of the miles of trail are within the Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area, frequently referred to just as Hobbs.

Hobbs is a 12,000+ acre property owned by the people of Arkansas and managed by Arkansas State Parks, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. Hobbs is east of Beaver Lake and lies between War Eagle Creek to the south and the lake to the north. Several miles of Beaver Lake shoreline abut Hobbs. The property sits on the Salem Plateau. But because of its proximity to War Eagle Creek and Beaver Lake, the local streams have cut deeply into the plateau leaving deep hollows and steep hills. The forest is a mixture of hardwood and shortleaf pine.

Little Clifty Creek in Van Hollow, Hobbs State Park and Conservation Area.

Little Clifty Creek in Van Hollow, Hobbs State Park and Conservation Area.

It was likely the shortleaf pine that first attracted Peter Van Winkle to the property in the mid-1800s. Van Winkle was a lumberman. He established a home, mill and an active community along Little Clifty Creek in what is now referred to as Van Hollow. Like most lumbermen of the time, Van Winkle was mostly interested in harvesting the timber. Most of the forest was cleared during his tenure on the property. Later Mr. Roscoe Hobbs acquired the property. Hobbs was a railroad man. His main interest in the Hobbs property was to produce railroad ties. Hobbs also had an interest it the property for its natural value. According to the Park History posted on the Friends of Hobbs website, Hobbs never used herbicides on the property and practiced only selective harvest. He apparently also enjoyed hunting and walking on the property.

On Saturday, Jan. 11, and Sunday, Jan. 12, I ventured out to Hobbs to start hiking and re-hiking the trails. Both hikes started at the Townsend Ridge road. I walked the War Eagle loop on Saturday. Then on Sunday I walked the Little Clifty loop. The two hikes totaled 15 miles. Both trails primarily follow ridges around the deep hollows in the park. As you hike along, you keep thinking, “I have to cross that hollow someplace to get back to my truck.” Eventually, the trail does drop down into the hollow and then back out. But the trails have been worked out to where there isn’t a really steep grade anywhere.

It was the condition of the trails at Hobbs that impressed me the most. They are exquisitely well built and maintained. On Friday before my trip, it rained all day, and really hard in the evening. These trails are built for multiple users including hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians. Even so, there was very little trail erosion. And there were just a few spots where the trails were even wet. The trails are spread out across the park with plenty of space between. This low density of trails provides plenty of solitude, even on a nice day in January. The parking lot was crowded, but I only met people on the trail occasionally. The staff thought this one through well. Even though this blog is usually about boating on Beaver, for the last 30 or so years, my real passion has been hiking, or walking in general. Last year I walked 1,116 miles. I walked in California, Colorado, Kansas, Texas, Tennessee, New York, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, and Arkansas. It was a good year.

I share my passion for walking with some pretty good company. Famous Americans who were also notable walkers included Abraham Lincoln (who liked to slip out of the White House at night without his bodyguards and walk around Washington), Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman (who could out-walk all of the reporters), Bob Marshall (who has a wilderness named after him), Rachel Carson (author of “Silent Spring”), Robert Frost, Louis L’Amour, James Michener, Henry Thoreau and, of course, John Muir. Other walkers included Mother Teresa, Emily Bronte, Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, Carl Jung, and Mohandas Gandhi. William Wordsworth, the poet, is said to have walked over 175,000 miles during his life.

John Muir really didn’t like to hike. He preferred to saunter into the woods. As his story went, the word saunter dated from the Middle Ages when Europeans started making pilgrimages to the holy land. When the pilgrims passed through villages, people would ask them where they were going. The answer was “a la sainte terre” or to the holy land. The villagers referred to the pilgrims as “sainte-terrers,” and the term eventually became saunterers. Muir thought of the mountains as holy land, so he sauntered into the mountains.

Along War Eagle loop trail in Hobbs State Park and Conservation Area

Along War Eagle loop trail in Hobbs State Park and Conservation Area

Thoreau’s version of the etymology of saunter was less flattering of the saunterers. In his version, idlers and vagabonds wandering around Europe would go to houses asking for food. When asked where they were going they answered, “a la sainte terre.” The kids picked up on the term and started calling the idlers “sainte terrers.” So saunterer was a derogatory term referring to hobos.

Dr. Andrew Weil, director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, says walking is the best exercise. People of almost any age can walk, the exercise is mostly injury free, it can be done anywhere and it is inexpensive. The only equipment required is a good pair of shoes. Walking is also a good way to view the scenery. Although it is usually the same scenery that can be seen from a car, boat or bicycle. And walking is a great way to clear your head and allow for creative thought.

None of the reasons stated above are why I walk. I just like the feeling it gives me. During 1876, Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of “Treasure Island,” published an essay titled “Walking Tours” in Cornhill Magazine. Stevenson captured what walking is all about in the opening paragraph:

“He who is indeed of the brotherhood (of walking) does not voyage in quest of the picturesque, but of certain jolly humours – of the hope and spirit with which the march begins at morning, and the peace and spiritual repletion of the evening’s rest. He cannot tell whether he puts his knapsack on, or takes it off with more delight.”

Stevenson goes on to discuss the importance of walking alone, how class disappears on a walking tour, of the joy of not having an agenda, and of the pleasure of coming down the final hill to a village inn. Then he expands upon how the rigor of the day enhances the conversation at the inn, and his enjoyment of his pipe and grog that evening.

I totally understand what Stevenson is saying. During the weeks before a big hike, I spend hours poring over maps finding the best routes and most interesting places. I check out my equipment and get everything in order. On the morning of the hike, excitement builds as I gather my trail snacks and lunch. Then the best step of the trip is the step out of the red truck onto the trail. The next best step is the one back to the truck, or better yet into camp. With luck I will spend the evening around a fire. I will have that good tired feeling that comes from being active out of doors all day. The meal will be exquisite, even if it is beanie weenies. Maybe I will enjoy a grog. Sleep will come easily.

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November 2013 — Back off Honey!

Back off Honey! It was a phrase I would repeat frequently on this trip. My friend David Thrasher and I were sliding his 20-foot Old Town Canoe into War Eagle Creek below the old Highway 412 Bridge. Honey is David’s dog. She accompanies him everywhere, even to the top of Boundary Peak, the highest point in Nevada. Honey had just taken her position in the canoe right under my seat. It’s hard to say just what kind of dog Honey is, but she is clearly descended from big dogs. Currently she weighs about 120 pounds. It was around 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 10th, a bright and sunny but cool day. We were out for a day of creek fishing.

Honey-and-the-fish-with-Dr.-Bob

Honey and the fish with Dr. Bob

The canoe drifted out into the stream and we commenced canoeing at our normal pace, slow. Wait, make that really slow. I was rigged with a chartreuse plastic worm on a 1/8th ounce jig head and an ultralight spinning rod and reel. David had a variety of rods and a different rig for each. My first cast wrapped around the branch of a low hanging tree. David reminded me that we came to catch fish, not hoot owls. The next cast was better. My worm hit the water next to a log. I reeled it back in slowly bringing with it several leaves.

For the first hour or so, as David likes to say, the fishing was great, the catching was a little slow. After every cast we would remove a collection of leaves from our lures. We had arrived at this creek just after the peak of autumn color and right in the midst of the peak of autumn leaf fall. For us, removing leaves from our lures was a minor annoyance. But for small Ozark streams in forested watersheds, leaves are an important source of food. All ecosystems ultimately rely on the sun as a source of energy. In streams where forest cover spreads over most of the channel, leaves spend their summers intercepting that solar energy and, through the process of photosynthesis, use the energy along with nutrients from the soil and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to produce organic matter. During leaf fall, the energy stored in the leaves is delivered to the stream.

Leaf-fall

Leaf fall

When a leaf falls into the stream, organic matter starts to leach out of the leaf. Ecologists call this leached material “dissolved organic matter” or DOM. Bacteria and fungi use this material as food. Scientists are not really sure yet whether that bacteria and fungi ever gets into the larger food chain or if it just remains within the microbes in the stream. The leaves themselves are referred to as “coarse particulate organic matter” or CPOM. Fungi and algae quickly colonize the leaves making a slimy surface. Some macroinvertebrates — macro meaning big, at least big enough to see, and invertebrate meaning animal with no backbone, so we are talking about big bugs and worms — love this slime and start munching. The macroinvertebrates that feed on the slime on the leaves are called “shredders” because they shred the leaves. Shredded leaf parts and feces from the shredders continue to drift downstream. This material is referred to as “fine particulate organic matter” or FPOM. There are other benthic macroinvertebrates that spin webs, kind of like spiders do, to catch the FPOM as it drifts. They then wipe the FPOM from their nets and eat it. These macroinvertebrates are referred to as collectors. Our prey for the day was smallmouth and largemouth bass, which in turn prey on macroinvertebrates. So we put up with the annoyance and just appreciated the beauty of the trees and leaves.
Eventually, I managed to convince a small bass that my plastic worm was actually an invertebrate feeding on CPOM. He picked up the worm and ran. I set the hook. Honey perked up. Somewhere Honey had figured out that it was my job to catch the fish and her job to finish them off. The battle lasted a few seconds then I lifted the fish out of the water. Honey made a lunge trying to chomp the fish in one bite. The canoe rocked but David managed to counter and keep us upright. Back off Honey was all I had to say. She continued to chomp at the air as I removed the hook and released the fish. Then she looked at me as if to say, “what’s the deal?”

David-and-Honey-on-the-War-Eagle

David and Honey on the War Eagle

We stopped for lunch on a gravel bar across from a big bluff. After lunch we fished the hole one more time. I caught a really nice bass. Our pace went from really slow to really, really slow. Fish catching picked up. With every fish, Honey did her best to get involved. We drifted along catching a fish every now and then. A few minutes before dark we pulled out at Withrow Springs State Park having canoed a total of 4 and ½ miles for the day.

War Eagle Creek doesn’t seem to get the respect that the better-known streams of the Ozarks get. Perhaps it is because the name “creek” sounds kind of diminutive while the others have the more impressive name, “river.” War Eagle has neither the crystal clear water of the Kings, nor the exciting whitewater of the Mulberry or Buffalo rivers. Nevertheless, it does have an impressive collection of bluffs. Many of the bluffs have large overhanging ledges. Almost every bluff has a deep pool below that provides good fish habitat. Plus it is a lot closer to Springdale than the aforementioned rivers.

The source of the War Eagle is in the Boston Mountains, literally on the same mountain as the source of the White. The War Eagle’s source is actually about a hundred feet higher than that of the White. The stream tumbles off the mountain to the north while the White flows west before it turns north. After some miles, the creek flows under Arkansas State Highway 23 then it travels several miles along the highway flowing north toward Huntsville. Near the town of Aurora, the highway crosses the creek one more time and then leaves the valley. The Creek continues its northerly course east of Huntsville. It is in this reach that the city once tapped the water of the War Eagle as its source of drinking water. Several miles later, the creek flows under U.S. Highway 412 northeast of Huntsville, the crossing where David and I launched his canoe. Four and a half miles later the War Eagle flows under highway 23 again in Withrow Springs State Park. From there it continues flowing north and west past the War Eagle Mill. Eventually, after 59 miles, the creek joins with the White River in Beaver Lake.

For the last 52 years, the War Eagle has been an important part of my life. In 1961 I joined Boy Scout Troop 122 sponsored by the Central Methodist Church in Rogers. Mrs. Elliott, who owned the house across the bridge from the War Eagle Mill, frequently let us camp in the pine grove down from her house. On one of those trips, we were fooling around with fly rods. After a while I got to where I could cast a popping bug without catching my ear or tying a knot in the line in the process. I waded into the head of the pool at the pine grove. A few casts and I managed to lay the bug into a pocket in the river willows along the bank. The river exploded. A few minutes later I lifted a hefty largemouth bass from the water. The bass got off easy; he was cooked on a campfire that evening. I, on the other hand, had just caught an incurable case of fishing fever. The dreaded disease has plagued me the rest of my life. Had it not been for that fish, I might have made something of myself.

When I got to high school, every time I could talk dad out of his 62 Ford Fairlane on a Saturday afternoon I headed out to the low water bridge at the “Gar Hole.” From there I could wade fish a quarter of a mile of stream. About that same time, my friend John Leflar’s dad bought a blue 17-foot square stern fiberglass canoe. It was kind of a double hull configuration and weighed roughly 150 pounds. If we worked together, three of us could lift it onto the top of John’s Volkswagen Van. We were free to roam. The War Eagle was our favorite destination. Then in college several of us bought our own canoes. Probably because of its proximity to Fayetteville, the War Eagle was where we honed our paddling skills.

After college our canoe trips in general and War Eagle trips especially became less frequent. Usually when we got away for a trip, we all gathered at one of the big name streams. In the “Conservation Esthetic,” Aldo Leopold makes the point that nature is not something that happens in exotic locations, but it goes on everywhere. He states, “the weeds in a city lot convey the same lesson as the redwoods; the farmer may see in his cow-pasture what may not be vouchsafed to the scientists adventuring in the South Seas.” War Eagle is close to home, but it is a special place.

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October 2013 – Autumn on Beaver Lake

Autumn has arrived on Beaver Lake. It’s a season of cool mornings, warm afternoons and light wind. Of the four seasons, I do believe fall is my favorite. Of course when a person passes sixty birthdays, he learns to appreciate each season for what it offers. But in autumn everything takes on a certain crispness. Skies are bluer, clouds are whiter, and the air is fresher.

Sharon and I were able to visit Beaver twice this month. Both times were short Sunday afternoon paddles. Both trips started from Doc Roufa landing just upstream from the Highway 412 bridge. We start at this landing frequently because it’s only a 10-minute drive from our house in Springdale.

Cedar Bluff

Cedar Bluff

Sunday afternoon, October 13th was mild. The temperature was in the upper 60’s. There was a fair breeze out of the south. We slid our kayak in at Doc Roufa. As is our custom, we headed upwind. Our theory being that it is easier to travel with the wind on our return when we were tired. So we paddled toward Blue Spring and Cedar Bluff.

We paddled a few hundred yards along the east shoreline. There was a low bluff and a large house. Past the house was a vacant shoreline. The shoreline was steep and rugged. As we paddled along, a dog came down the hill to the lake. He never got close enough to identify, but he at least had some Lab in him as he nonchalantly waded in and commenced swimming. His destination was the other side of the lake. It is roughly an eighth of a mile across the lake at this point. We were concerned that an approaching bass boat might hit him. But as it turned out, this dog was no novice. We observed closely as he held up to dog paddle in place until the boat cleared on by, then he powered on. Several minutes later he climbed out on the far shore and trotted up to his home.

The most notable thing about fall on Beaver is the lack of noise. Yes, there is an occasional fishing boat, but those guys tend to get on by. The jet skis and water skiers have already been driven in by the cool water. By and large, the birds are not singing in the fall as they do in the spring and summer. It is just refreshing silence. We paddled on past the bridge over Brush Creek on Blue Spring Road toward Cedar Bluff.

Cedar Bluff is one of my favorites on Beaver. Not because of the bluff itself — it’s just a nondescript rock bank — but it always has wild flowers. The bluff faces the west so it gets the brutal afternoon sun during the summer.
The rest of the year is a pleasant warm micro climate. The flowers apparently like it.

Autumn flowers seem to me to differ from spring flowers. During autumn, flowers aren’t as bright. They make up for it by blooming by the thousands. Every spot on Cedar Bluff that had any soil at all was sporting an aster. Each aster was covered with dozens of violet blooms. It was a kind of pastel violet, not too bright. Intermixed in the asters were the remnants of the goldenrod, its yellow flower starting to fade. Goldenrod is also in the aster family by the way. If you look really closely at the flowers, you can see the typical aster arrangement of petals. When there was a spot left, there was a white aster-like flower.

Asters

Asters

At the end of Cedar Bluff we turned around and headed for the car. With the breeze we were back in 30 minutes.

Sunday afternoon, October 20, was an anomaly for this time of year. It was cool and windy. Beaver was just shy of white capping. We put our kayaks in at Doc Roufa again. This time we broke the rule and headed downwind. I thought the bluffs north of Highway 412 might shield us, but I was wrong. After 15 minutes or so, we turned around, not wanting to do a major upwind paddle at the end of the day. It looked like the north facing bluffs at the entrance to the Brush Creek arm might provide shelter.

It was surprising how well the kayaks handled the wind. It as was slow but if you stayed after it you could make steady progress without too much effort. After 45 minutes we reached the mouth of Brush Creek and slipped under the bridge on Blue Springs Road and out of the wind. It was a relief.

While we paddled around in Brush Creek, our first eagle of the year soared overhead. It was riding the wind, heading northwest. Then a pair of vultures flew overhead. They came close enough that I could hear the wind in their feathers. Soon after that, we headed back.

The wind was still blowing as we reached the White River Arm. A 45-minute paddle out took about 20 minutes on the return trip. A nice young man, of about 10 years, offered to help Sharon with her kayak. We loaded the boats, thanked the boy and headed home.

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September 2013 – The Devil’s Eyebrow

Northwest Arkansas is known as a hotbed for biodiversity. We are an ecotone. That means our location is a transition from one ecosystem to another. Ecotones tend to have species from both ecosystems. Think of a map of the U.S. Arkansas sits between the Great Plains and the Gulf Coastal Plain. We also are in the transition from the humid east to the drier west. Essentially we are a mixing zone.

From a biodiversity point, The Devil’s Eyebrow is the crème de la crème. These 2000-plus rugged acres at the head of Indian Creek on Beaver Lake have so far escaped development. Every cloud has a silver lining. The silver lining of the 2008 great recession was that the Devil’s Eyebrow came up for sale. Last year the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission teamed up with The Nature Conservancy and bought the Eyebrow. Now the property is conserved. It is a boon for nature and the citizens of Arkansas.

It was cool and calm the morning of Sept. 7.  Just before dawn, our group of kayakers met in the parking lot at the Northwest Arkansas Community College. The group included an ecologist, a microbiologist, an ecological engineer, a horticulturalist, a reformed dentist, a poet, and a businessman. Our destination was the Devil’s Eyebrow via Beaver Lake. Forty-five minutes later we were launching our yaks in glassy smooth water at the Lost Bridge recreation area. Only one boat was visible from the launching ramp. The calm was about to be broken.

The intrepid kayakers launching at Lost Bridge Recreation Area

The intrepid kayakers launching at Lost Bridge Recreation Area

It’s three and a half miles from Lost Bridge to the Eyebrow. Each paddle stroke moves the kayak about 10 feet. That’s 528 strokes per mile. Three and a half miles is 1,848 strokes. For the first hundred strokes, conversation was polite. The next couple hundred we were getting familiar. Six hundred strokes and we were old friends. Stories were a flyin’. Knowledge was being transferred. The lake branched. Then it branched again. They all looked the same. At 1,500 strokes we came to yet one more branch. I went to the right. Three hundred strokes later we paddled up to a large gravel bar at the end of the lake. We got out and stretched our legs. I was relieved to see a property sign that said “The Nature Conservancy.”

Indian Creek on Beaver Lake

Indian Creek on Beaver Lake

We came to witness the biodiversity. The Eyebrow delivered. Of course, with seven folks talking full speed there was little wildlife. But the flora could not escape. A blue flower was growing on a bluff near our landing. I waded through some mud to get a closer look. It turned out to be Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia syphilitica). Lobelia is a common plant but I have never identified it before. It grows in damp woodlands in late summer. According to the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, the scientific name syphilitica comes from a mistaken belief that the plant cures syphilis. As we moved on up Indian Creek, it was one plant after another. Smartweed, wild hydrangea, spice bush, gum plant, day flower, goldenrod, and the prize of the day, pawpaws. We were in the middle of the biggest pawpaw patch I have ever seen!

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a fruit tree native to American. The fruit grows in bunches much like bananas. They ripen in late summer. Pawpaws are harvested by shaking the tree and picking the falling fruit off of the ground. Opossums, squirrels, raccoons, fox and birds all eat pawpaws. The Zebra Swallowtail butterfly also uses the tree as a host plant (Georgia Wildlife Federation).

Pawpaws

Pawpaws

Until the end of World War II, pawpaws were common in American homes. Since then, it has become easier to import tropical fruits. The pawpaw is now more of a novelty than a food. I do not remember ever eating one. The taste is a cross between bananas and vanilla custard. Pawpaws may become commercially available in the near future. There are now several pawpaw orchards. Hopefully, they will become available locally. The data on the Internet indicates the tree is easily grown. To get fruit, more than one tree is needed as the pawpaw does not fertilize itself.

The pawpaw tree goes way back in American history. According to Barry Glick of the GardenWeb, DeSoto, who explored the south in 1540, wrote of the pawpaw. At the time, Native Americans cultivated the tree for its fruit. George Washington is said to have been fond of pawpaws and Thomas Jefferson cultivated them in his gardens at Monticello (Earthy Delights). In 1810, Lewis and Clark’s expedition ran low on provisions. They survived on pawpaws and nuts (from Peterson’s PawPaws).

Unfortunately for us, the pawpaws were not ripe when we stumbled upon them. We moved on up the creek bed. Eventually, we found a trickle of running water. The highest diversity in the Devil’s Eyebrow is reported to be in the glades. In the interest of avoiding ticks and chiggers, it was decided that exploration of the glades was for a future trip. We headed back to the boats.

It is 1,800 paddle strokes from the Devil’s Eyebrow back to Lost Bridge. It was hot. There was traffic on the lake now. A guy came by on a hydrofoil water ski. That was kind of cool. It was still hot. I dipped my hat in the lake. The cool water dribbled down my neck. Thirty minutes later I repeated the hat dip. Another 45 minutes of paddling and the trip came to an end. Seven friends loaded their boats. We headed home thinking of the next trip.

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August 2013 – Walking where Thoreau walked

The East Branch of the Penobscot River. Thoreau and his crew paddled and polled their batteau upstream on the Penobscot to reach the base of Mt. Katahdin.

The East Branch of the Penobscot River. Thoreau and his crew paddled and polled their batteau upstream on the Penobscot to reach the base of Mt. Katahdin.

During the summer of 1846, Henry David Thoreau made the first of three trips from his home in Boston to the Maine woods. His goal was to experience the wilderness and the glorious Penobscot River and lake scenery and to climb Mt. Ktaadn (also spelled “Katahdin”), the second highest mountain in New England. Thoreau wrote the account of his adventure in “The Maine Woods,” which is now available as an ebook on the internet for free. I encourage everyone to find it and give it a read.

I know of what I speak, since earlier this year I was reading “The Maine Woods” for the first time. And, in what some might call a synchronistic moment, my friend David Thrasher called and said that he was headed to New England this summer to climb Mt. Katahdin in Maine and Marcy in upstate New York. As luck would have it, he asked if I wanted to go along. Of course I said yes, then immediately set about the task of convincing my wife, Sharon, that she wanted to go to upstate New York and Maine for vacation this summer. I was successful, and when July came around, we loaded up the red truck with two kayaks, a tandem bicycle, backpacks, hiking sticks, and boots and headed off for the great north woods.

Millinocket Lake. Millinocket was a natural lake that was enlarged by building of a dam on the outlet in the early 1800s. The water is still clear and near pristine, proof that reservoirs don't automatically go eutrophic with age.

Millinocket Lake. Millinocket was a natural lake that was enlarged by building of a dam on the outlet in the early 1800s. The water is still clear and near pristine, proof that reservoirs don’t automatically go eutrophic with age.

In Thoreau’s time, just getting to the Katahdin region was an adventure. To get from Boston to Bangor, Thoreau traveled via a steamer and then rail. From Bangor he traveled by coach to Lincoln in Maine. The 45-mile trip took two days. Once in Lincoln, another 45 miles trek to Katahdin was in store. This leg of the trip was made by batteau (a flat-bottomed boat) and on foot. Sharon and I had it much easier. We just drove our air conditioned truck right into Millinocket, Maine, on modern highways. Then it was 16 miles on a secondary road to Baxter State Park and 7 more miles on well maintained dirt roads to the base of Katahdin. The whole trip could be made in 7 hours from Boston if necessary.

As mentioned earlier, a batteau, as far as I can tell, is a long, flat-bottomed boat, possibly similar to the jon boats that we use today for trout fishing on the White River except bigger. Thoreau described the batteau as a “light and shapely vessel calculated for rapid and rocky streams.” They were 20 to 30 feet long and 4 to 4 ½ feet wide and made of white pine. Later he gave his estimate of the weight of a batteau at 3 to 5 or 6 hundred pounds. They paddled and poled these boats up the Penobscot River, into its tributaries and across the many lakes of the region.

The thing that impressed me most about Thoreau’s trip was the condition that people must have been in during the era. Sharon and I tried paddling our kayaks up the river starting from Medway near East Millinocket, Maine. The guidebook said that from this put-in we could either paddle 2 miles upstream or 5 downstream. Since we had only one truck and no shuttle, upstream seemed the logical choice. The Penobscot is a wide and fast river. I nosed out into the current; it wasn’t white water, just fast flowing water. By paddling hard I could make some headway. Quickly I figured out that I had to eddy hop if I was going to get anyplace. In an hour, we managed to make about a half mile up river. Thoreau’s crew traveled miles up this river and its tributaries, even pushing up through rapids and waterfalls. When the river became impassable, Thoreau and his crew carried the boats upstream on primitive portage trails. We turned around and drifted back to the truck in 15 minutes.

As Thoreau and company worked their way upstream, the river gave way to a series of lakes and streams. Lakes in Maine are very different from Arkansas’ reservoirs. In the first place, they are natural lakes created by glacial action. Secondly, because they are natural lakes, the water surface elevation only fluctuates a few inches through the year. That allows the shoreline vegetation to become very well developed. In addition, being natural lakes, they are much rounder than our reservoirs, making them very wide in places. However even in Thoreau’s time, damming had enlarged some of these lakes. Thoreau’s crew paddled their batteau all the way across these large lakes taking turns paddling to maintain progress. We pushed our kayaks out into Millinocket Lake. Katahdin dominated the skyline just as it had for Thoreau. We hugged the leeward shoreline to avoid heavy waves.

Abol Pond. Thoreau and his crew camped near Abol Pond in 1846 before they climbed Katahdin.

Abol Pond. Thoreau and his crew camped near Abol Pond in 1846 before they climbed Katahdin.

It is hard to tell exactly what route Thoreau followed from Lincoln to Katahdin. Most of the lakes and streams that he mentioned cannot be found on today’s topographic maps. The names, or at least the spelling of the names, have changed over the years. I could find just enough similarity to know that his route was close to the road going from Millinocket to Baxter State Park today. Further upstream toward Katahdin, the lakes became smaller. Mainers refer to these lakes as ponds, even though some cover over a hundred acres. We drove into Baxter and launched our kayaks in Abol Pond. I believe Abol is very close to where Thoreau’s crew made their last camp before heading up the mountain.

Indian Pipe in the forest duff along the Appalachian Trail in Maine.

Indian Pipe in the forest duff along the Appalachian Trail in Maine.

Even though there was a road leading to the launch, Abol was basically a wilderness lake. All of its watershed is contained within the forested area of Baxter State Park. Other than two loons and several ducks, we were the only ones on the lake. Abol is a shallow pond. In places we paddled through wide swaths of Pickerelweed with its blue flowers sticking a foot and a half above the water. There were also yellow and white lilies. The shore was lined with Spruce, White Pine, Arbor vitae, Birch and Maple. Most of the shoreline had understory vegetation of bushes and ferns, except one hillside that was almost clear under the trees. The water was very clear. We paddled for a couple of hours. All was silent.

From Abol Thoreau went overland roughly 12 miles to Katahdin. Today those 12 miles are the northern end of the Appalachian Trail. Several times Thoreau described the inner forest as being “dark.” It was dark. The dense vegetation overhead kept sunshine out. The forest duff was a thick, three-dimensional matrix of moss, lichens, bunchberry and ferns. The dark green color seemed to absorb light. It was here that we fully encountered the nemesis of the north woods, the black fly. After a few hours of hiking, and swatting, Sharon and I headed back into Millinocket to rough it in our bed and breakfast.

The intrepid explorers at the summit of Mt. Katahdin the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

The intrepid explorers at the summit of Mt. Katahdin the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

The next morning, my friend David met me at the B & B and he and I headed out to climb Katahdin. We drove the 16 miles out to Baxter State Park. Then we waited in line for 30 minutes while the ranger checked everyone’s entry permit. I wonder what Mr. Thoreau would think of having to purchase a permit in advance to visit a wilderness?
I won’t say much about the climb except that it was the hardest 10-mile hike that I have ever made and it was all on the Appalachian Trail. From the summit we could see hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and dozens of lakes. Much of it in as good or better health than it was during Thoreau’s visits. It was comforting to see so much wild land remaining in one place.

I came away from the trip to Katahdin with the deepest respect for how rugged our ancestors were. They worked and traveled this wild land with equipment that we would laugh at. Our little expedition with our high tech equipment and lightweight boats was nothing compared to their adventures. Nevertheless, there we were, two old geezers walking where Thoreau walked.

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