Captain Van was again kind enough to offer his pontoon deck boat and regional knowledge, taking me on a second Ozark cruise along Table Rock Lake’s gorgeous shoreline. He piloted “my first Ozark cruise” a couple of years back which I dutifully chronicled on this site under that title. I love the photo opportunities and the chance to bullshit with a neighbor and friend in an incredibly relaxed atmosphere. It is a bright sunny Tuesday, the morning fog having lifted an hour or so prior. The summer season’s heat and crowds are long gone so we have the lake pretty much to ourselves. We depart the dock just before noon, provisioned with a cold thermos filled with Bloody Mary’s and a few beers to wash them down, a perfect combination. We also take some peanuts and sandwich fixings on the outside chance that we get hungry.
As we leave our cove, the lake opens up wide, the James River offering multiple channel options besides the main channel. With 864 miles of shoreline there is plenty to explore and ample opportunity to get lost amidst the islands and channels of the numerous creeks that also feed the lake. Not a problem today. I’m not driving. The Corp of Engineers places markers in the main channel at 1 mile intervals which helps for bearings, but to me they seem easy to miss. Besides, we’re only going to cover 3-4 miles today.
The lake is pretty much contained by steep, often vertical limestone bluffs. The rocks are highly fractured and wonderfully sculptured in a variety of shapes and sizes. They are bleached white and strike a rugged band that separates the deep green foliage of the woods from the sparkling lake surface as we parallel the shoreline.
We are in search of a monument placed on a rock face as a memorial to a local youth named “Scooter” who jumped off a bluff and hit a little more than the water, “Scooter’s Bluff” as it is now named. LA has a lot of similar memorials. Most of the time they are located at the base of a telephone pole that has resisted the forward momentum of a speeding Honda Civic. There are many bluffs where it is safe and fun to leap into the water, just not Scooter’s. We have no luck finding his placard but we’re not in a leaping mood anyway.
We continue along the bank and encounter a pair of sticks lodged in the bluff each with a string that dips into the water. “Stick fishing,” says Van. The locals bait a line and just leave it returning after a few days to retrieve their catch. It’s perfectly legal if you have a fishing license. He wasn’t sure how many lines you could have out at one time. “Tree Fishing” is another variant, just string a line tied to an overhanging branch.
As we approach a bend in the channel, we unintentionally disturb a bald eagle that flaps out across the lake from its unseen perch. I manage to get a couple of decent pictures, though not very close up. Eagles winter here at the lake and this is the first one of the season that Van has seen. My first ever here. How cool.
We move on to mile marker 12 where a blue heron has agreed to model for my camera. Then just a few meters away we spot another bald eagle. This one is immature, its tail just starting to turn white. It allows us to get a little closer and then flies out across the lake. An eagle twofer. Double cool.
We putter south. I am amazed at the variety of water fowl most of which I don’t recognize. I kick myself for leaving my bird field guide at the house. Birds that look like loons but probably aren’t. Ducks perhaps. Ospreys are common but not today it seems.
All along the shoreline and out in to the channel itself where ridges slope to river bottom, submerged cedar trees are common left over from the original flooding of the lake when the dam was completed in 1958. They don’t deteriorate very quickly and many still exist at or below water line as the lake level fluctuates. They can be hazardous. Their limbs basically become horizontal punji sticks ready to lance water skiers or inner tube riders. It pays to know your river.
One of our neighbors was injured last spring by a semi submerged cedar tree. Her boat was tied up to one when a gust of wind caught her boat’s canopy and knocked her off the boat and onto the cedar. An exposed limb impaled her thigh. The limb missed her artery or she would have bled out on the spot. As it was the pain rendered her unconscious and she ended up back to the tree, head down in the water. In a mad scramble her boat mates extracted her and they raced back to our dock where she was met by a neighbor who happens to be a doctor and was home at the time. He patched her sufficiently for the ride to the emergency room.
It pays to know you neighbor.
Van points out a huge shore line resort built to compete with the high rollers at Bass Pro Shops. Well, almost built. The only way in is by boat or helicopter and it looks like when the economy tanked either its completion or its opening was put on hold.
Home building continues along the shore but access to it is frequently difficult and always expensive. Money always finds a way and Van points out a pricey house being built at the end of what can only be described as a primitive trail. He says they’ve brought in 500 truckloads of concrete. That is a lot of concrete.
Then he snickers a bit as he points out 3 new homes on a bluff sitting about 15 feet apart. “They must be from California” he says,” eight hundred miles of shoreline and these idiots build right on top of each other.” It does seem stupid.
We pass one of Van’s favorite rock formations that juts out from a little cove that has a waterfall on display most of the year. I forget the name of it. Maybe it should be named “Van’s Speakeasy”. The formation has a keyhole in it that acts like a window into the cove. It’s a favorite jump and splash spot for the local kids. Except for Scooter.
We make a turn in the general direction of home and coast up to a rocky bank. Van’s dog “Brewster” is with us. He wouldn’t miss a boat ride for the world. He jumps off in search of a bush while we admire the way the wind and water carved the concave ceiling of the bluff’s overhang, a virtual time machine. Brewster jumps back aboard and Van backs the boat off the shore and to our surprise, floating in a loose coil atop the water where we just were sits a cottonmouth! Otherwise known as a water moccasin, this viper is about 3 feet long just a few feet off the bow. They are aggressive when annoyed and we kind of annoyed this one. “Sometimes they will try to get in your boat,” Van says, clearly engaged with the reptile as we continued to back away. Did I mention they can be deadly? In the end I get some photos as it slithers back to the rocks and we are grateful that Brewster wasn’t bitten.
We make a final stop a short way upstream at a small island with an abundance of flat rocks just above water level. Perfect for sitting and soaking feet. I put out of my mind the snake incident betting on the odds and a fairly careful inspection of my spot. It’s about 4 in the afternoon and we sit and listen to the silence interrupted only occasionally by the lapping of little wavelets on pebbles.
True quiet is rare in LA, even in the relatively smallish town I live in. There’s always truck noise or cars, or helicopters, or airplanes, or barking dogs, or sirens, or gunshots, or car alarms, buses and train whistles, neighbors TVs or kids. Always something. But here…..
Here I always have trouble falling asleep the first night. It’s the silence of the night. In LA I have to use a white noise generator to suppress all of the racket at night and I’ve gotten used to it, maybe addicted. Here the silence is deafening. But I can get used to it. I think it will be addictive.
We leave our quiet retreat and head back to the dock passing the first of the evening bass fishermen casting their lines from their high dollar bass boats. This is bass country with a national bass tournament this weekend. By then we’ll be in Albuquerque, having completed the second leg of our road trip back to LA. No bass on the highway, just miles of big rigs.
We pass by another bend where Van points out a spot where he and a neighbor spent a night in the trees. Apparently several years back, Van and the neighbor, who he says at one time owned my house, were trying to outrun a spring storm in the neighbors high powered speed boat. He cut the turn short, hit the shoreline, and planted the boat in the treetops. As the storm and darkness approached it was clear they were going to spend an uncomfortable night “camping.” They were rescued the following day. The authorities being none too sympathetic issued a variety of citations.
As always Van has been the perfect guide and host. We pull into the slip at the dock and unload our gear. The cooler is empty. The sandwich fixings are unscathed. It’s been a perfect day. I glance up at a loop of rope around a tree about 25 feet above us. It’s the lake high water mark from this past spring. It might be slower in the Ozarks, but it’s never dull.
Copyright 2011 Patrick Granfors