A River's Heritage

by Keith Bridgman

...There is a richness of history here often overlooked, a history as grand and striking as the 500 foot bluffs which tower over the river, as clear and distinct as the waters that cut through these hills...

Paddling AwayWhen too many gray winter days blend into one deep void and I find myself unable to break free from the chains of making a living, I often take a moment and reflect on those warmer days of season's past. Of all the enjoyment from outdoor experiences, there are but a few unique icons in time, none more prominent, none more lasting, than floating down the crystalline waters of an Ozark stream.  It is a comforting thought to know oneself can escape here and have the chill of those long winter days warmed by the vista of magnificent arenas carved into the heart of the Ozark Mountains.

If there is a crown jewel of the Ozarks, it is the Buffalo River of Northwest Arkansas. From its source in the Boston Mountains in the northwest to where it finally blends with the White River, a distance of some 150 river miles, it remains free and natural. Fortunately, unlike so many other rivers and streams, the Buffalo survived the plague of dams which destroyed much of what nature took so long to create. In the early 1970's, some far sighted individuals recognized the natural qualities inherent in this river and the surrounding lands. Because of their efforts, the Buffalo became this country's first National Scenic River, and will remain protected for as long as there are people who value the wonders of the natural world.

Generations have walked, struggled, and fought across this land, but have never truly tamed it. It remains as humbling today as it did for those first settlers who found their way into these hills. Remnants of their lives are scattered in dozens of old homesteads, fence rows, and cemeteries. In the old Shaddox cemetery, just north of the river near Pruit, are found the headstones of generations dating back to the late 1700's. A family history is preserved there, most of whom were born in this area, and most of whom died there as well. Some lived to a golden age, being born just after the Revolutionary War ended, and passing from this world a few years shy of witnessing man fly. Some lived only a few days. What a remarkable legacy each of them could reveal if only they could. There is a richness of history here often overlooked, a history as grand and striking as the 500 foot bluffs which tower over the river, as clear and distinct as the waters that cut through these hills. The Buffalo is more than just a beautiful stream, it is a connection to the heritage of this land.

There are virtually dozens of locations on the river which demand their own unique story, but there is one place which certainly stands apart from the rest. Up river from Woolum, near a central stretch of the river, stands a unique geological formation called The Nar's (short for The Narrows). Many centuries ago, two separate river systems, the Buffalo and Richland Creek, ate away on opposite sides of a ridge. Eventually, enough was worn away to where only a thin wall separated the two systems. Long before the wall was completely eaten away, Richland Creek changed its course and no longer contributed to the erosion of this ridge. Today, this wall rises well over a 150 feet or more, chiseled between opposing ridges. One can stand on this precipace with extended arms, with one arm hanging over the waters of the Buffalo, and the other over the valley known as Richland.  At the base of the wall, the Buffalo still attempts to undercut the ridge and a large blue hole has formed, which also serves as a good fishing hole. A quarter mile down river is Skull Bluff, another unique formation which has been carved into converging caves at the river's edge giving it the appearance of a human skull buried in the water.

River BankDuring the Spring, the Redbuds, Dogwoods, and Forsythias add their maroons, whites, and yellows to the emerging green leaves, while in the Fall, the hills explode with rusty reds, and brilliant yellows as the leaves turn before the cold days of winter invade this land. On clear days, the deep blue sky shares its color with the clear waters, and the nights can virtually come alive with stars which are no longer subdued by the lights of the city.

The river is teaming with smallmouth bass, among other species, and has the reputation of being an excellent fishery. The preferred method of fishing is by canoe using spinning rigs with small lures or inline spinners, but there are as many methods as there are people fishing. I have walked into The Nar's area two or three times, a feat better attempted during the Summer or early Fall, and I have floated into and camped in this area several times as well. The largest smallmouth bass I have ever taken, a scrappy 3-plus pounder, was caught in the swirling waters at the base of The Nar's.

To camp on the river bank is an enviable experience. There are few things more enjoyable than kicking back into a gravel bank on a starlit evening with a canteen, a good cigar, and a plate full of golden brown fish fillets cooked over an open fire. Even though I am not a smoker, the cigar can be an excellent accent to an already wonderful meal.

Smallmouth BassI have gained much over the years by experiencing the rugged wonders so elegantly displayed along this river. There are contrasts of dimension here with huge amphitheaters created by collapsed walls, to the delicate beauty of a spring flower growing from the side of a bluff. For each float, there is a vision, around each bend, a memory. In the countless hollows and draws echo the heritage of this River. On the Buffalo can be experienced a near wilderness adventure amidst a backdrop of epic proportions. There is no other way to say it. It is simply magnificent.

Children should come and experience this place for it may impress upon them how society can do something right when the desire is there.

Adults can learn from the experience as well, for the importance of oneself diminishes upon witnessing the grandeur displayed here. You never truly leave it behind, for the images discovered beneath the golden bluffs will become embedded into your heart and soul, and something good will surely return with you, and a part of you will always remain.


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