@story TODD WHETSTINE
@images WILD WOODS PHOTOGRAPHY
The magnificent North Fork of the White River is concealed in the Missouri Ozarks. It flows through the Mark Twain National Forest on its way to the Norfork Lake, just south of the Arkansas border and about twenty miles west of West Plains, Missouri. Douglas and Ozark Counties are blessed with tourists itching to get a line wet in this world-class trout stream. Several springs along the river provide millions of gallons of cold water every day, making it a perfect destination for anyone wanting to escape this year’s record-breaking heat.
Speaking of records, this place has plenty. On August 7, 1988, Huey Manley and two of his Little Rock friends, all of whom regularly fished the North Fork, showed up on the water a little later than usual. They fished from the bank – usually they rented a boat – and on the very first cast, Huey snagged a monster brown trout. It took over thirty minutes (and two cigarettes) to land the fish, and set a new world record. The catch was verified at 3:30 in the morning at a grocery store in Mountain Home. The trout was forty-one inches long, and weighed thirty-eight pounds, nine ounces.
This place is my family’s favorite spot. We’ve found good camping with at least four commercial campgrounds, spread along the middle and lower ends of the river. There are shady spots where those on overnight float trips spot and pitch tents. Local outfitters have limited space available for RVs, just call well ahead of time to reserve a spot. During the hot summer months, RESERVATIONS ARE A MUST!
The Devil’s Backbone is a stretch along the upper part of the river that has places for horse camps, trail riding, hiking, mountain biking, and backpacking. Located inside the Mark Twain National Forest, the Devil’s Backbone is a wilderness area with several hikes to choose from. Trailheads are marked to help guide you down the right path. Remember to always use caution; the dense forest makes it easy for inexperienced hikers to get disoriented. Topographical maps and good orienteering skills are a plus along this section of the river.
My family and I have enjoyed it all. But I was introduced to this great waterway long before they were, and years before I even knew its proper name.
It happened like this: I was a ten-year-old. My grandfather loved to take my sister and me in his 1972 Cadillac for a journey through the rolling hills and twisting roads. We’d always end up at a little swimming hole with water that felt cold as ice. I can remember playing on the dam and swimming in the old chutes along the old wooden mill and water wheel. I remember how amazingly beautiful the crystal-clear water looked. Growing up in southeast Kansas, we were accustomed to rivers flowing with water resembling chocolate milk. I remember the hills we crossed on the way to the North Fork. I was car sick, but it was worth it every minute of it.
My grandfather passed away in 1979. I never learned the name of that special place where the water ran cold and my grandfather and I shared our love of nature. I often told my wife, ‘I wish I could remember where that was.’
Then one day during the summer of 1998 my wife and I took the kids floating down the North Fork River. We were about to paddle up to the take-out - it was located a few feet upstream from an old rock dam. As we approached, a strange feeling came across me. I noticed an old mill, took another look at the dam, and then spotted the bridge Grandpa would cross to park the old Cadillac. I couldn’t believe it! There it was! Right in front of me! That ice cold swimming hole. Grandpa would be proud to know he started a great family tradition that continues today.
Walking around the old mill a couple weeks ago, I noticed many things that are still like the old days. Young families still picnic. Little kids still play along the dam. Only the chutes from the mill are blocked off, out of concern for visitors’ safety.
While tubing the North Fork recently with my family, I took photographs a young mother and her baby kayaking with a proud grandma. We’re not the only family making memories here.
You should check out the North Fork of the White River in the Ava Ranger District, near Dora, Missouri. You’re going to love it. I recommend it, and I say with some authority, my grandpa would have as well.
For a map and river description http://www.missouricanoe.org/river-maps/northfork-bryant.html