A very strong
beginning is one reason for the enduring popularity of The Wind in the Willows.
Mole, who is suffering from ennui, wanders off one morning from his diggings
and comes to a running river. There he meets Water Rat, who invites him to go
for a paddle in a punt. Mole is enchanted and admits that he has never before
been on a river or in a boat. Shocked at such cultural poverty, Water Rat
remarks, "Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely
nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply
Even if a rat did
say it first, I have always thought this was a profundity of, so to speak, the
first water, and have acted accordingly whenever and wherever possible. One
consequence is that, along with a good many thousands of other citizens, I have
gone frequently to the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, a ribbonlike national
park in southern Missouri, and have come to think very well of the place. The
Park Service being the serious-minded outfit that it is, the Water Rat
principle has never been openly acknowledged there, but this is probably the
best public property we have for messing about in a boat on a river.
The Current River
(from La Rivière Courante, or Running River, so named by French fur traders,
who were the first whites to see it) and its principal tributary, the Jacks
Fork, are the raison d'être for the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, hereafter
the ONSR. They rise 25 miles apart in the central Ozarks, south of Fort Leonard
Wood, and flow separately through narrow valleys for 35 miles or so, meeting a
few miles from the village of Eminence. Thereafter the Current, absorbing the
waters of the Jacks Fork, continues into Arkansas and joins the Black, which
empties into the White, a tributary of the Mississippi. The ONSR, which was
established in 1964 as the first park of this sort, extends from points
upstream on the Current and the Jacks Fork, where there is just enough water to
float a canoe, to a southern boundary on the main stem of the Current about 30
miles below Van Buren, a community of some 850, where the park headquarters is
located. There are 81,216 acres in the Riverways, which is seldom more than
half a mile wide, stretched out for 140 miles along the banks of the two
rivers. A few small enclaves of private land remain, and the rivers are
occasionally crossed by public roads, but, in general, the waters and adjacent
lands are undeveloped and free to be used by whoever chooses to do so.
The Ozarks are of
great geological age and have been so worn down that the hills along the
valleys are less than 1,000 feet high. However, they press in tightly on the
rivers, which in many places have had to cut their way through and around the
limestone ridges, creating sheer cliffs and gorges that give the illusion of
being much deeper than they are. There is an Ozark saying that describes this
situation: "The knobs here ain't high but the hollows are awful
Because they rise
from no great elevation, the drop in the rivers is a modest seven or eight feet
to the mile. Generally, the Jacks Fork and the upper Current move along at a
steady mile or so an hour over gravel beds, which make for almost continuous
riffles. There are no big rapids, explosive haystacks or tortuous chutes of the
sort that make classic white-water rivers like the Youghiogheny or Cheat.
According to the scale on which canoeists rate rivers—O is essentially flat
water and VI is suicidal to impassable—most of the ONSR is classified as I with
a few II stretches. This means the ONSR is safe and enjoyable for almost anyone
who can tell one end of a paddle from the other. Since the park was opened it
has provided for some 20 million hours of canoe use, during which there have
been only four canoe-related fatalities.
They may not be
risky or rampaging, but the two rivers aren't dull. For one, they are
step-like, moving with fair speed down long gravelly inclines that end in pools
50 feet deep or deeper, called holes. This arrangement is repeated for many
continuous miles. The drops provide a degree of excitement, and the holes, many
of which are at the base of cliffs, are good places just to sit and look about.
The Jacks Fork and the Current, at least in their upper parts, are also very
narrow with enough twists, turns and sharp corners to give a sense of what it
is like to play and be played with by currents.
Some years ago,
with the two like-minded friends, I went to the Grijalva, a big, wild river
that runs across the Mexican state of Chiapas, just north of the Guatemalan
border. Our ambition was to be the very first to take canoes down El Sumidero,
a Grand Canyon-scale gorge that the Grijalva has cut through the Sierra Madre.
So far as pioneering went, we were disappointed. A day or two into the canyon
we began finding empty film boxes—discarded, as we later found out, by a party
from Utah which had preceded us.
We were at the
bottom of the gorge for about two weeks, locked between the narrow cliff walls
that rose several thousand feet. We ran some of the rapids, but drove eyebolts
into the walls and roped around more of them. It was horse work. We were
exhausted most of the time, worried about the problems the river presented and
worried whether we could cope with them. When we finally got out, we were full
of ourselves, proud that we had made the effort. However, we didn't have a
sense of knowing or caring much about El Sumidero except as an opponent. It was
an adversary experience all the way.
In contrast, the
Jacks Fork and Current promote intimate acquaintance. They make so few demands,
create so little distraction that there is a soothing sensation of losing
oneself in them, of flowing with rather than contending against. To float them
is somewhat like meeting a stranger with whom one hits it off immediately and
seems really to matter, that's the charm of it," Water Rat said of his
river, which must have been quite like these Ozark streams. "Whether you
get away or whether you don't; whether you arrive at your destination or
whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all,
you're always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you've
done it there's always something else to do...."