July 15, 2011 by wcobserver
By Joseph C. Neal
Here in these old eroded Ozark Mountains, rains have for millions of years percolated down through the layers of sandstone, shale and limestone, carving hollers and valleys where run our creeks and rivers. And, along the way, the same forces have carved out these magnificent swimmin’ holes. No two are alike. Every one is unique and fascinating in its own right. The erosion has left big gravel bars and carved bluffs above deep holes of clear water, temptation for every human generation since the Native Americans. Compared to many parts of the US, we may be money poor, but by golly we are swimmin’ hole rich. Filthy rich, in this clean way.
Maybe if you live in a big house with a private backyard pool in northeast Fayetteville – or maybe if you belong to the country club with its private Olympic pool — or maybe if you just prefer Fayetteville’s Wilson Park chlorinated pool, snackbar, and concrete beach — maybe this doesn’t resonate. But the topic is dear to the heart of full-blooded, dyed-in-the-wool Ozarkers, especially now as the dogdays of summer settle upon us.
Swimmin’ holes is what this is about, and that’s not to be confused with swimming holes. Swimmin’ holes of our youth, swimmin’ holes of 2011. Come the dogdays, there’s nothing that compares.
I took in swimmin’ holes with mother’s milk, learning them when I was knee-high to a grasshopper. My mother Hazel was a country girl, and come dogdays she loaded me and the cousins and headed for Natural Dam. Here a tributary to Lee Creek, the Mountain Fork, was dammed by a natural rock formation, resulting in a clear pool of Ozark creek water on the state line north of Van Buren. A big sandstone shelf was perfect for sitting or relaxing and the water got gradually deeper the further you walked in. Country people came here, all with serious farmer’s tans, most with cut-offs rather than bathing suits, babies naked, women in one-piece suits that would not be considered flattering today, and sometimes we took a watermelon and allowed it to cool floating in the creek. These were dark-skinned melons, and I remember a long green snake that investigated this strange floating object.
Swimmin’ holes are not something you ever get over. Infected early, and thoroughly, I have remained loyal to the start I received at Natural Dam. When I came to college in the 1960s I naturally gravitated toward the local establishments available in the Fayetteville area.
Down south towards Baptist Ford, there is a nice stretch of the West Fork with a broad gravelbar and a sharp turn where the generally shallow water deepens enough for the water to stay cool and to encourage swimming. The shallows were great for wading by younger kids, some who couldn’t swim. The place was attractive because it was easily reached along a short lane off highway 71. Unfortunately, TOO easy, because it got to be a place where some folks just looking for a place to sit on the tailgate and drink beer gathered, partied, left their trash. This had been an open, everyone welcome, swimmin’ hole for generations, but predictably the lane was eventually gated. The river still runs through it, of course, and I’ll bet there is still a nice hole of water there, but for most of us, that was the end of that swimmin’ hole. But that’s certainly not the end of swimmin’ holes along the West Fork.
Here I would like to briefly touch on a subject not for all readers. If you are a little on the queasy side about nudity – well, I guess we are all OK if we are talking about babies without their clothes on – but if it involves young adults, right here on the buckle of the Bible Belt – well then you might want to just skip over the paragraph that follows. But this paragraph needs to be here, because no story about Ozark swimmin’ holes is truthful or complete without reference to the time-honored tradition of skinny dippin’. Maybe you’ll feel better about it if you just visualize swimmin’ in the ole birthday suit.
As many of you probably well know, the mighty West Fork has been the scene, not just of casual dogdays of summer swimmin’, but also of old fashioned baptisms. Many a deep hole along our streams has witnessed our ancestors coming out of their country churches to witness those for the first time “washed in the blood.” But our streams have also been seen of some other kinds of “baptisms,” the kind that involves timeless rituals of boys meeting girls, the earthly baptisms of skinny dipping.
There is one deep hole near the city of West Fork where the river turns, with an isolated shallow bluff line and some big rocks out in the water. You park on a graded road where there aren’t any nearby homes and walk a path down through trees and bushes and come out on a bluff just perfect for jumping. It is a well-known place for sparking on certain moonlit summer nights.
When I was a lad my mother warned me about all of the snakes you could get into, and as best I can remember she was NOT using the terms snakes as a metaphor or a reference to the Original Fall in the Garden of Eden. She meant cottonmouths and she told the story of some kids who, out at night and probably up to…well, you know what… jumped into a hole of water like the one on West Fork and were immediately swarmed by hundreds of cottonmouths. Depending upon which story, a boy jumped first, and as he was being swarmed by snakes yelled to his friends, male and female, “Don’t jump in.” But, when we were young adults, unmarried and without children, there was nothing that could keep us from going skinny dipping, snakes or no. It was enough that it was the dogdays, the girls were beautiful, the water cool, the moon full. We were young, full of piss and vinegar, with a world to discover.
When my daughter Ariel came along, one of the first things her mom Nancy and I did was to take her to a swimming hole out on the White River southeast of Fayetteville. It was a spot with big flat turtle-shell-looking rocks where the river poured through eroded places in shale. It had a reputation for skinny dipping, but we were past that stage in life and we went in broad summer light. It was a great place to take our baby girl and introduce her to this amazing world she would inherit.
Sure, Ariel spent plenty of time in the convenient pool at Wilson Park in Fayetteville, but the hottest hours on summer dogdays were spent on a good creek. We didn’t have much money, but we had plenty of creeks to choose from and visits were always free. Time and space limits a thorough listing, but we always enjoyed the Buffalo River, or I should say, the Buffalo NATIONAL River, because it, and all those swimmin’ holes, belongs to us all as a birthright, rich and poor alike. The whole thing is ours.
We start at the Ponca low water bridge, near where there have been many baptizings, and wade upstream and downstream through shady, cool, dogdays wonderland of great swimmin’ holes. Still do, too.