No rush. There’s an understated satisfaction in taking the morning to get gear squared away and double-checked. With a new car, with functioning air conditioning, there’s no need to get an early start, or drive through the night.
That said I still drove with the window down, on the two-lane highways, putzing along behind hay balers. Turkey poults and quail chicks have been out of the nest maybe a month, and already farmers are going at fields and edges with blades and rakes and brushhogs and balers, wondering all the while why they see so few turkeys and quail nowadays. Must be the coyotes.
It’s late afternoon when I get to the first camping option and find it swamped, backed up by the reservoir. It’ll be a banner year for bass and crappie.
I bag that plan and head toward an upstream tributary, a place I sampled almost precisely ten years back. I can still see the faded patch of marking paint on the dolomite bluff. The bluff overhangs the crystal-clear water, wild smoketree cascading over the stone. Big blocks of dolomite boulder rest on bedrock. It’s an objectively better spot than the pool at the low-water bridge, but it’s too far for most folks to haul their coolers and foldy chairs. It’s protected that way.
I slept in the dispersed camping up the road, waking early and taking photos of glade flowers along the road- butterflyweed, coneflowers, purple prairie clover, goat’s rue. The last of these is the strangest, a bean relative with pale pink and yellow flowers. The genus is mostly tropical, its roots contain a toxin indigenous peoples use to stun and kill fish. Fisheries biologists caught on, and in the middle of the 20th century hundreds of miles of western streams were poisoned with the stuff, restocked with brown and rainbow trout.
I found an informal access along the highway, a sandy patch by the road with a rope swing hanging over the pool. I started stringing up and a grandmother and mother and a daughter pulled up next to me and started asking a million questions about the spot, about whether it was a good place to swim.
“Looks like it,” I said, “though I’ve never been here.”
“Is it public?”
I pulled out the map and traced the highway and pointed out the Forest Service boundary. “Should be. Either way, I don’t think anyone would bother you, either way.” Mom and Daughter were already in their bathing suits.
It was a pretty creek- big, angular cobbles and boulders bound by the roots and rhizomes of water willow, Justicia americana. The pale blue flowers attract untold numbers of honeybees. The stems and leaves support tangles of dodder- a pale orange, parasitic vine. The thick vegetation shelters frogs, turtles, fish, crayfish, snails, aquatic insects, and the occasional cottonmouth. The rock and the vegetation makes stable bars hosting habitat for a litany organisms. This is what Ozark streams used to look like- before the hills were slicked off, before all the chert gravel washed into the streams. Shifting chert gravel makes it tough for plants to root, makes it tough for animals to feed and hide.
The more I write, the less I’m interested in giving blow-by-blow accounts of the fishing. The fishing was alright, the water a little dingier than I expected, I don’t know if it was due to recent rains, from cows tromping banks somewhere upstream, from some clandestine gravel removal I didn’t stumble across. I caught a couple fun smallmouth that jumped and bulldogged before coming to hand, I was surprised by a big longnose gar that broke me off. I watched a million minnows work upstream, looking for a spawning site. Probably not a million, definitely tens of thousands, covering a patch of gravel two rod lengths across and longer than it is wide. When it got hot, I cracked a beer and donned a snorkel and explored boulders and rubble, watching banded darters and logperch turn stones for food. Watched bluegill and longear guard their nests. Found a baby turtle.
I was bushed by the time I got back to the car, and decided to truck over to a different campground in an adjacent watershed where I’d stayed before. It was busier now than then, and I found a spot halfway up the hill where the mosquitoes weren’t so thick and the squeal of children wasn’t so audible. I still went and played in the creek- still snorkeled, still picked through stones for a mess of crawfish. They went into the pot, with some potatoes and sausage and corn and Old Bay. Stayed up past dark with a map and a headlamp, figuring out where to go next.
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