Bright and beautiful

Posted on Thursday, May 25, 2006

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MARBLE — An artist, a sculptor, a fisherman and a fisheries biologist floated down a stretch of the Kings River, where each saw different visions of an inspiring nature. However, it should be noted that the stretch of river paddled between Marble and Marshall Ford last week was a special event itself because the 11-mile run is not often experienced at its best. For most of the year, its level is too low, turning floats into a drag. During brief periods of heavy rain and runoff, on the other hand, its flow is high, fast and muddy, obscuring the beauty and making it impossible to fish, as paddlers must focus on the obstacles of trees and low-water bridges along the narrow, winding channel.

Last week was the rare exception. The flow was just right for floating and fishing, and the bright sun and light breeze were ideal for showing off the river’s shining currents, its dark-green foliage and its many bordering bluffs and rock formations.

“The river is just perfect up here,” Ernie Kilman gushed when our group of six paddlers in three canoes shoved off from the public access near Marble and U. S. 412.

The logs, limbs and leaves piled here and there along the channel offered evidence of a 9-foot rise that had swept down the river during the rainy week of early May. Representing the most significant rise in nearly two years, the runoff had given the river a good scrubbing, leaving the gravel bars and stream bed mostly free of accumulated silt.

In the aftermath of the muddy rise, the water had cleared to the point where the currents appeared gin-clear in the riffles and jade-green in the narrow runs. Although Kilman is known to many area paddlers as operator of Kings River Outfitters at Trigger Gap, he also is known among his friends as a talented painter of landscapes featuring the streams, valleys and hills of the Ozarks. Taking a day off last week to float the river was a chance for him to foster his artistic vision, and being in a canoe with him provided the opportunity to see a special stretch of river through an artist’s eye.

LIGHT SHOW Compared to the more familiar middle and lower stretches of the river, the upper stretch between Marble and Marshall Ford was notably narrow for the most part. “Creeky is the word I would use to describe it,” Kilman said. In places, the river was so creeky that the trees on each bank would form a solid canopy to create a green tunnel over the river.

For Kilman, much of the enjoyment of the float involved seeing the interaction between the river and shifting sunlight.

“Portals of sunlight shining through a tunnel of green,” he remarked as we floated beneath the sun-dappled canopy at the start of the float.

Thereafter, he made frequent and emotional references to how the sun lit the water in the crystalline riffles and the deep, emerald-green holes as they appeared ahead of our canoe and how the calm pools became a mirror for the tree lines, bluffs and blue sky.

He drew special attention to displays of what he called “electric light.” This showed up where the sun shining on rippling and swirling current beside a bluff was reflected in shimmering sun spots on the bluff face.

As Kilman further noted, casting a lure or a small rock on the water beside the bluff would create ripples that were magnified in expanding rings of light on the rock face above.

“Sometimes you can see your canoe outlined in a halo overhead as you pass under the bluff,” he added.

With an artist’s eye, Kilman also was attuned to details of flora and fauna seen along the banks and in the water.

He didn’t miss pointing out the blooms of various wildflowers and remarked regularly on the presence, size and shape of different trees.

Birds, animals, snakes, turtles and fish drew Kilman’s admiring scrutiny, and wildlife sightings were especially rich along the stretch of river that seldom sees canoe traffic.

We saw wild turkeys fly over the river, watched two deer splash across a riffle and caught glimpses of many native and migratory birds.

On two occasions, wood duck hens erupted from the cover on the bank and flopped along the surface of the river ahead of us, acting as if she had a broken wing in an attempt to lead us away from ducklings. When the second hen did her wounded routine, we saw five ducklings she had tried to leave in hiding.

Proceeding downstream in our canoe, we mostly trailed behind the canoe carrying Scott Carroll and Matt Bruton of Fayetteville, often following close enough to share their reactions to the river.

FANTASTIC FORMATIONS An experienced paddler of kayaks and canoes on Ozark streams, Carroll is best known professionally as a sculptor. While living in Dallas, he developed a national reputation for fashioning large, outdoor pieces representing his modernistic impressions of forms seen in nature. Stone, wood and water have been featured in pieces now standing outside corporate headquarters, public buildings and college campuses around the country.

The inspiration to be found in the rich natural beauty of the Ozarks led Carroll to make a permanent move to Fayetteville several years ago.

“I definitely draw inspiration from the forms I see in nature, and there’s just such a fantastic variety of beauty to be seen in the Ozarks,” Carroll remarked at one point during the float.

And there were numerous rock formations to behold in the form of bluffs large and small standing beside the river channel between Marble and Marshall Ford.

Toward the beginning of the float, the bluffs were small — 10-30 feet high — and consisting of a pancake of thin layers of rock. Toward the end of the float, the bluffs became solid walls towering as high as 200 feet.

As distinguishing characteristics, many of the bluffs were either undercut or overhanging. Sometimes the undercut was low enough to offer enticing places to cast a lure; at other times, the ceilings were high enough to paddle beneath. Vines occasionally hung to the water from the lips of the overhangs to create the impression of paddling behind a curtain.

Three of the largest bluffs deserve special mention.

The first is Allred Bluff, consisting of a 100-foot-tall overhanging bluff with a smooth face that simultaneously curves around a tight bend of the river while arching high overhead. The narrow channel of swift current took us right against the edge of the bluff.

The second is nicknamed Castle Bluff. As the name suggests, the bluff rears more than 100 feet high with a face that had been eroded over time to create the resemblance of towers and cul-de-sacs of a castle fortress. Carroll seemed mesmerized by it.

The third is Razor Bluff, which got its name from a thin, knife-edge ledge projecting just above the water’s edge. Like Allred Bluff, however, the bulk of the bluff is a curving wall arching up to create an overhang 100 feet above the river. A narrow channel swept us right under it, where “electric light” was shimmering.

While Carroll was absorbed with the views, Bruton was focused on fishing because he is first and foremost a fisherman of Ozark rivers, streams and tailwaters, where he is equally skilled with fly tackle and spinning tackle.

Prior to the recent float, Bruton had wade-fished bits of the stretch from public and private access points but had never floated the entire run.

Given the 11-mile length of the stretch, our game plan last week was to go fast through the first half and fish meticulous stop-and-go style through the second half. The game plan was soon discarded.

The scenery slowed us down, creating the irresistible opportunity to cast to enticing spots, which delayed us even more. As a result, we pretty much slowfloated the entire run, stopping only for a short lunch break and to pull our canoes around a few log jams and across two lowwater bridges.

The variety of fishing terrain was unexpectedly profuse and varied. There were lots of short, shallow riffles with gravel and grass beds feeding into narrow runs with medium current flowing beside boulders and over chunk rocks. Many short pools of slow current flowed over deep holes around submerged boulders and logs. And there were a few long, narrow pools lined with rock or trees and with water too deep to see the bottom.

Whatever a fish could want was there in abundance.

“There are more good fishing spots per mile along this stretch of river than I’ve seen anywhere else around here,” Bruton concluded. “You really need two days to fish it, and I’m not sure that would be enough to do it justice.” As it was, the pattern of fishing action was slow in early morning, good at midmorning, slow around noon and good again in midafternoon as we neared the end of the float. Primarily casting tubes, we caught fair numbers of smallmouth and spotted bass, with about 10 of them running a respectable 14-15 inches. Rock bass and large sunfish also appeared regularly.

Although the stretch is quietly known for producing quality bass of 18 inches or more, the big fish were obviously not active during our run. Bruton blamed it on water temperatures that were lower than ideal due to recent cool mornings and the upper river being more shaded and rife with flow from springs along the way. Even so, he offered no complaints.

Bringing up the rear of our small flotilla was the canoe bearing Stephen Brown and Alan Latourette of Rogers.

Brown’s initial take on the upper river was from his perspective as assistant district fisheries biologist with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

The young biologist’s previous experience on the Kings River had been work-related, such as working on access improvements or conducting electro-fishing samples.

Since he had never floated the entire stretch from Marble to Marshall Ford, the recent outing was regarded as a “research” effort.

Early on, Brown said he was impressed with the quality and variety of fish habitat seen on the stretch, but something happened to his scientific perspective along the way. Maybe he became captivated by the scenery, as well as the chance to do some fish “sampling” with rod and reel.

For whatever reason, Brown and Latourette began lagging behind, sometimes completely out of sight. At lunch break, Brown was seen trying to fish with a sandwich in one hand and a rod and reel in the other.

If he gets around to writing a report on his research, it should be titled “A Biologist’s Excellent Day Off.” The same would apply to the artist, the sculptor and the fisherman.

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