This one’s tough because it’s home. I fished this river first, it maintained my sanity during the Recession, just out of college and underemployed. A friend in similar circumstances would tag along, two or three times a week, sometimes, paying five bucks to stay in a nearly abandoned campground across the gravel road from the access. Folks with full-time gigs weren’t going to risk losing them and the ones retired or underwater had bigger things on their plate; most days we had the place to ourselves.
A hundred years ago the watershed was a moonscape. Between 1888 and 1903 timber companies cut 375,000 acres of white oak and shortleaf pine, rafting logs downstream where industrial sawmills turned 800 trees a day into the beams and boards building midwestern metropolises. By 1920 the roughest hollows and bottoms were the only timber left. After failed attempts to grow corn and wheat, locals who didn’t or couldn’t sell turned out hogs and cattle to forage what they could. Thousands of acres burned annually, or nearly so, to rejuvenate meager pasture.
With the Depression came federal buyouts, state parks, and national forest. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) projects replanted native pine, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) built roads, bridges, fire towers, park offices, picnic shelters, and campgrounds. When the war was over, everyone from Aldo Leopold to the artist Thomas Hart Benton clamored to protect the natural beauty of this landscape, and in the 1960s those protections were codified in federal law.
A third of the watershed is now publicly owned. Mixed hardwood forests are again the dominant landcover, although fire suppression makes the forest more closed than historical conditions. Imperiled bats and birds call the rivers home, rare flowers and ferns carpet dolomite bluffs, and hundreds of species of fish and aquatic invertebrates- some found nowhere else on the planet- call the river home.
In a century threats to the river shifted one-hundred eighty degrees. The river is no longer threatened by logging and livestock, but by ATVs, illegal roads, and poorly maintained horse trails. Canoers, kayakers, and jet boats rove the river throughout the warm season, dotting gravel bars with black pocks from bonfires and leaving litter in their wake. It’s a diverse crowd- there’s not many places you’re as liable to run across a baptismal as you are a yoga retreat. But there’s just too many for the river and the infrastructure to support, and it’s the number of visitors and their diversity which confounds management. Open houses and public forums are met with protests and counter-protests, one recreation group pitted against another, resentment welling up along the urban-rural divide.
It’s still pretty. And there’s still good fishing- stocked browns and a few wild rainbows up at the top end, smallmouth bass and rock bass plus panfish, pickerel, and the occasional walleye downstream. There’s a reason people still visit.