An Ozarks Paddling Mission with a Photography Problem

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The view was startling. By standing on an old stone wall, in a clearing just off the gravel shuttle road, Big Piney Creek was visible far below. It was making one of those photogenic meanders, a nearly circular 180, like the famous Horseshoe Bend in Arizona. But instead of slicing sharply into bare sandstone, this sweeping curve was etched over 500 feet deep into the densely vegetated Ozark Mountains, which rolled endlessly toward the horizon.

Ignoring the shattered beer bottles, crumpled wet wipes, and a tattered condom at my feet—my adventure detective skills suggested the previous visitors possessed a fascinating combination of traits, including drunk but hygienic, okay with littering and sexually responsible—this type of viewpoint was exactly what I’d been searching for. A wide overview of a typical Ozarks watershed to include in my upcoming paddling guide.

Big Piney Creek circles the lush Ozark Mountains.

Being late spring, the forest foliage was a vibrant green, the rainfed river was running clear, and the channel twisted through occasional rapids and gravel bars. It was the type of image that might make a casually browsing reader, whether in a store or online, stop and take a closer look. And, hopefully, they’d have the same pleasantly surprising realization I’d had ten years earlier when I first started paddling in the Ozarks. Basically, what some call flyover country is better described as paddle-through.

Of course, there were a few problems. Morning fog hung dramatically like gauze across the valley. While this lent a mysteriousness to the scene, it also drooped over the river bluffs, disrupting the circuitous visual. Fog, always such a drama queen. Meanwhile, as I paced along the stone wall, I realized the foreground treetops blocked most angles. I took a few shots, hoping something might work. Luckily, I’d get another chance that evening during the take-out shuttle. Of course, by then I’d be shooting into the sun, which might create other problems.

None of these visual challenges surprised me, given that already three seasons of Ozark photography had not gone as hoped. Nine months before, a publisher approached me to write a guidebook about paddling in the Ozarks. The requirements were pretty simple. Cover 40 paddling runs from across the 47,000 square-mile region and provide about 120 photos.

For those not familiar with the Ozarks, they’re part of the U.S. Interior Highlands, the main mountainous region between the Rockies and Appalachians. About two-thirds are found in southern Missouri, with the remaining third mostly in northern Arkansas and a small continuation in Oklahoma. Fun fact: a tiny corner of southeastern Kansas overlaps part of the Ozarks, which most disregard, but might come in handy at brewpub trivia someday. With elevations topping out in the mid-2000s of feet, it’s easier to think of the region as sets of rugged and rolling hills.

For the most part, the Ozarks are a deeply eroded plateau of porous limestone. When combined with average precipitation around 50 inches, the result is a robust groundwater table, countless freshwater springs, and thousands of miles of rivers and creeks that run cool and clear year-round, even during the sweltering summer months. In total, the Ozarks have seven streams in the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System and three rivers protected by national parks. I quickly realized one of the biggest challenges for the book would be narrowing down the options to just 40 runs. Another challenge would be the photography.

By the time I started the project, I’d been living in St. Louis, working as a teacher, and exploring the Ozarks for about nine years. Over the past few years, I’d been writing about the region for Canoe & Kayak and American Whitewater Journal, so I’d learned firsthand how difficult it was to photograph the Ozarks. Basically, during half the year there’s not a ton of contrast.

After the trees leaf out in mid-spring, the hills are draped in dense oak woodland. It’s lush and green and great for paddling, but colors are pretty uniform. Scenic bluffs rise from the river banks in many spots, but they’re often subtle features topped by forest, unlike other parts of the country where mountains rise above the tree-line.

The spring-fed rivers run crystal clear at base flow, but after frequent thunderstorms they turn cloudy and brown for a time. Other rain-dependent rivers in the Ozarks—including upstream whitewater in the class II-III and occasionally IV range—flow mostly during late-fall, winter, and early spring, when the leafless trees look like picket fences in a black and white film. And while there are plenty of sunny blue-sky days, about 200 per year, the rest are overcast or stormy, which flattens the contrast, even when all other factors are popping.

I decided that if I really wanted to draw attention to the amazing paddling in the Ozarks and to compete for paddlers’ attention against better-known macro-scenery spots, I needed to show them at their best through photos. I signed the book contract in August, meaning I had exactly one year, all four seasons, to make it happen. And go.

Eleven Point River.

With a month of summer remaining and school starting back up, I spent weekends revisiting a few rivers I knew well, like the nearby Meramec and Jacks Fork in Ozark National Scenic Riverways. At one gravel bar put-in, an outfitter had dropped six colorful sit-on-top kayaks. So I circled these boats, camera in hand, like a paparazzo. Until the shuttle driver began looking at me funny, like I was a fetish photographer who got particularly excited by polyethylene.

After the first month, these early shots reminded me of a few lessons. In a quest for representative subjects and compelling moments, not all things are created equal. Paddling under a stand of really tall trees just because they’re really tall? Not automatically interesting. Paddling past a massive pile of driftwood deposited by a previous flood? Kind of boring. Paddling between a series of concrete slabs once used as a low-water ford? Sort of setting the wrong mood.

Oh! And gray cloudy skies above limestone bluffs that also look gray under cloudy skies? Um, that’s a lot of gray, boss. Even when we paddled past Meramec Spring branch, the fifth largest in the Ozarks, averaging a constant 150 cfs, the shot just looked like a side channel running through a pile of rocks.

But other shots turned out much better, like the giant red mill at Alley Spring rising from mists hovering over a milky blue pool? Bingo. Or my wife, in orange raincoat, paddling our yellow Pyranha Fusion past a forest and downed Sycamore with silvery trunk toward slivers of blue sky? Ok, there’s the Ozarks I love.

As a hot dry summer gave way to cool breezes of fall, I hoped the turning leaves in October would yield plenty of colorful options. Many fall color junkies aim for the Ozarks’ true peak in late October, when deepening reds and oranges are most intense. But, personally, I’m a fan of the false peak when lingering greens comingle with yellows, oranges, and reddening pinks. Instead, everything went straight to brown.

I rode my mountain bike around the northeastern Ozarks, near home, begging the leaves for color. Dear trees, I’ll pour buckets of water if you want! Please don’t think me above bribery. Will you take a check? I’m postdating it until after the book comes out. One day we paddled miles around Council Bluff Lake. A few years before, I’d witnessed the most colorful display I’d ever seen. This time, all we found were a few patches of reddish orange-ness.

Alley Spring gritsmill circa 1894.

The drought persisted into winter. Fortunately, when the leaves fell and trees stopped taking so much water, the spring-fed runs saw the typical resurgent flow from groundwater. The forests were bare sticks again, except for the occasional stands of shortleaf pine, much of which was deforested during westward expansion and replaced by deciduous hardwoods. The chert and limestone gravel bars, plus the bluffs, become even more pronounced—especially against blue skies.

These occasions reminded me of a few things. Pictures of stark gravel bars? Not the sexiest subject matter. And pictures of springs where clear water burbles into pools with even more clear water? Those just looked like pictures of an excessive amount of water. And pictures of paddling under shortleaf pine trees in winter just because they’re evergreen trees? Maybe I could switch the subject of the book from paddling to looking at trees.

Of course, searching for keeper shots forced some creative epiphanies. For starters, what’s the ideal percentage of images of paddler-in-boat close-ups while floating atop several feet of glassy water like they’re hovering in air? Gonna call it around a few percent. And regarding a colorful collection of paddlers floating in a pool, chatting during an annual winter float trip? Let’s just say, check. And the ideal number of photos which frame a bright red canoe or blue kayak under a jutting rock outcrop? Jeopardy answer: What is one photo, two tops, Alex.

As a dry winter passed into a dry early spring, out of about 800 shots taken during the first six months, I’d gotten maybe 20 keepers. (It was even worse than I thought, only eight would make the final book.) As I looked through the hundreds of disappointing photos, I realized the problems went beyond the imperfect seasonal conditions. Many of my compositions and subjects seemed, well, lazy. Most were paddling shots from river level or standing up next to my kayak. This wasn’t the Ozarks fault—this was mine.

I realized the previous shot objectives I’d established, maximum contrast and representative scenes, were far too vague. I needed to figure out what went wrong with the failed attempts and devise concrete plans for filling the gaps. This resulted in a laundry list of ‘need more…’ I needed more creative vantage points for landscape shots. More detail shots, more high ground shots, more wildlife shots. More of everything. Luckily, I’d saved many of the best runs in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas for springtime, which would yield the best conditions. Now I just had to hope for rain.

The rain came in March. A series of massive storms sliced northeast from Texas. While I waited for the bloom, I spent every weekend with friends at our local whitewater river, the class II-III Saint Francis. I rationalized this by taking plenty of photos. But since the Saint was where I’d started photographing Ozark paddling and would represent a single chapter in the book, I really only needed a few more photos, not another thousand.

In late April, I reminded myself of the new plan and broke away from an epic whitewater season to start fresh. Two-day weekends of creeks and streams became longer and longer weekends, once teaching ended. Eventually, I was doing full weeks with different rivers every day. Sometimes my wife came, other times friends. I joined a few organized trips with a local veteran’s group. But as I got into a groove, I increasingly realized that long days of tedious river photography were easier done solo. I rode bike shuttles on safer roadways, made friends with passing paddlers turned kayak models, and used a gorilla pod when I was the only available subject.

Whitewater on the Saint Francis.

Not only was the sunny vista at Big Piney Creek a keeper, but the whole trip was a dream. We’re talking scenic rapids between massive boulders, fern and moss banks, tributary waterfalls, clear green water and blue skies. Peak contrast had finally arrived. Everywhere I went, if there were cliffs, I scrambled up top. If there were lookouts, I hit them all. If there were trees—and the area is 90% trees—I usually didn’t climb these trees, but a few times I was too weak to resist.

I explored old mill sites. Play-boated the Ozarks lone whitewater park at Siloam Springs, AR. Lurked in the mists of the Eleven Point National Scenic River like I was Quasimodo with a camera and a sunburn instead of a hunchback. Followed a fly fisherman like an Ozark spy. Since dry low-water bridges were boring, I caught one while still flashing—but on the falling limb, with clear water running over. I took a shot at serious wildlife photography. A few of the slower more oblivious animals—a snapping turtle, a yellow night heron, a pod of red-finned Bleeding Shiners—even fell for it.

By the time peak heat of mid-July arrived, I was winding down ahead of my September 1 deadline. I was back to weekend trips, mostly. Even took a break from paddling for a few mountain bike rides. Out of 2700 new shots, I’d gotten about 200 keepers, far more than I could use in one book. The main objective remaining was a few dozen pics on half a dozen rivers that I could knock out during one late-summer week in the southeastern Ozarks. What could possibly go wrong?

A day before departure, I felt something. Not sure how to describe this. Like an itch, as if I sat on a marble rolling around my kayak seat. I ran to my boat and checked. Nothing. As the bump on my rear expanded, I had a sinking feeling. Two days before, I changed into board shorts in my truck and hopped in my kayak. But the trip before that, I’d been mountain biking and got slapped by some beefy branches of poison ivy. When I returned to my truck, I forgot to change. Had I gotten poison ivy on my truck seat and then onto my butt?

Well, if so, how bad could it possibly get? I washed the kayak seat and all my clothes. Picked up some anti-itch spray and took off for the southeast Ozarks. This final week-long trip reminded me of a few things. First, I am ridiculously allergic to poison ivy. Second, having a swelling rash protruding into my kayak seat is incredibly distracting and not conducive to photographic expression.

Council Bluff in the Ozarks.

Regularly sitting in a few feet of water, like I’m icing my rear end? Not a great vantage point for composition. Periodically dropping my paddle and shoving my hand down my back? Sort of hard to keep the kayak going straight. Constantly hopping out of my boat to spray a pump bottle of anti-itch analgesic inside my board shorts? In addition to being a major distraction, this freaks out passing paddlers who are definitely not interested in you taking photos of them.

In fact, at one spot on the lower Buffalo National River, I was so disoriented—after a 90-degree 10,000% humidity bike shuttle, long put-in photo shoot, and warm water float—that while setting up a shot in a pool, I hopped out to attach my gorilla-pod to a downed tree and simply forgot about my boat. After setting the timer, I turned around and the kayak was gone. A series of ten shots record what happened next. Me running through a few feet of water like a Baywatch lifeguard, sprinting along a beach, tugging at my itchy shorts, diving into the river, and swimming after my escaping kayak.

Among these final 900 shots, there were maybe 20 keepers. Regardless, I was done. I had 250 photos that showcased the Ozarks like I’d originally hoped. At peak contrast, in their best light and color. Clear spring waters, tumbling rapids, unexpected waterfalls, emerald forests, sheer bluffs, surprising canyons, startling blue skies, and puffy white clouds.

When I got the hot mess that was me home from the trip, I was skimming through my collection of colorful images when I saw an email from an editor. The publisher had decided to print the book in black and white.

The decision was completely unrelated to my photos, he explained. Just had to do with budgeting. I understood the situation, but still felt like I was running a fever.

I’d like to say I sunk into my chair and moped—but, please remember, one side of my butt was the size of a disco ball. I shrugged it off, rolled onto my side and grabbed an ice pack. After a year of photographing the Ozarks, it was time to cool down.