Norfork River Review: a reflection on life & energy in the Ozarks


The River

Southeast of Fayetteville, somewhere in the Boston Mountains, the awe-inspring White River emerges out of the Ozarks and into the world.  The river immediately starts moving north - flowing free from its origins in Ozark-St. Francis National Forest - tapping into southeast Missouri before descending deep into Arkansas, eventually confluencing with the Mississippi River. The water that flows out of the Boston Mountains is a certain force full of life and beauty, and its effects are of substantial status on both the society and ecology of the Ozark Mountains. 

Because of a variety of business and social motivations, the river has been dammed in four locations throughout Arkansas and Missouri. The damming of rivers is a dynamic topic where strong sets of pro's and con's pile high on each side.  Rather than choosing sides, I will remain neutral, simply exploring how damming has shifted the overall ecosystem around the White River. We’ll focus on the positives of the present moments that surround one of these dams, the Norfork Dam, the river it manages, and the communities that surround it.

The Dam, The River, & Their Community

It is interesting to follow the flow of energy out of the White River and into the Ozarks. At each dam, the potential energy of the river is halted, harvested, and transformed into a variety of life. A case study for this kind of event happens every moment of every day of the Norfork Dam as it operates to manage the headwaters of the Norfork River (aka the North Fork of the White River). The dam and river have a matrix-like effect on the community around it. They do not simply contribute to the culture of the surrounding towns, they are an essential element to its life and character.  Power, fishing, outdoor recreation, tourist, and environmental, education, & sustainability organizations react together to create a energetic and active society. It cannot be certain what towns like Norfolk and Mountain Home would be without the professional industries that surrounds the Norfork River, but it can be said with confidence that the bright light of life in the region would certainly be dimmed down a watt or two without it.

The city of Norfork is primarily populated by Arkansas natives, retired transplants from cities large and small throughout the US, and professionals from the fishing community. It is a quiet town filled with happy people. The area’s beauty and peace attract the minds of those looking for the same, or for a secluded spot to enjoy their days after their work life is behind them. The river’s open opportunities for world class fly fishing attract passionate outdoor enthusiast from around the world. As a response to this influx, an active guiding industry has emerged in the area, teaching travelers and natives alike the proper ways to fish the complexities of the Norfolk River. It is a community that is both dependent and contributive on the life force of the river, specifically through the management of the dam and trout hatcheries.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for the management and maintenance of the Norfork Dam and spillway gates. They work with a simple set of priorities: (1) flood control (2) hydroelectric power, and (3) fishing. The Norfork is nestled in the Natural State, meaning it will inevitably experience a variety of precipitation throughout the year that requires constant management of the Dam to control flooding. 

The Corp of Engineers is highly aware of this danger and works 24/7 to insure the public's safety. In addition to flood control, hydroelectric power and trout hatcheries stand center in the conversations around the Dam. The business behind the Dam’s powerhouse primarily managed by Southwest Energy. The needs of this business are often kept in balance with flood concerns and the fish ecology below. Typically, the different camps’ agendas work in relative harmony, but it should be noted that a general sense of cooperation is required to ensure all remain happy.

The crown jewel of the region is the Norfork National Fish Hatchery (NNFH), a cold-water facility located in the moutnainous terrain near Mountain Home. The NNFH opened in 1957 with the purpose of meeting the fishery mitigation needs arising from the Corps of Engineers projects throughout the White River. Today it stands as the Nation's largest coldwater fisher, producing 1,700,000 fish each year and stocking rivers throughout Arkansas and Oklahoma. 

The economic effect of the NNFH cannot be understated. It cost an average of $900,000 each year to operate but churns out $150,000,000 of economic benefit to Baxter County’s towns and people. The hatchery is historically responsible for raising four kinds of trout: brown, rainbow, brooke, and cutthroat. Catching one of each of these fish in the same area during the same outing is passionately referred to as a Grand Slam in the fly fishing community. The rule of cool on the Norfork is variety, both in the species you fish and the often fluctuating water levels generated through water releases of the Dam.

The People 

The well-being and proper management of these trout populations are looked after by the Friends of the Norfork & White River, North Arkansas Fly Fishers, and Arkansas chapter of Trout Unlimited. Passion sports like fly fishing are only made possible by passionate, local communities. The locals that make up these communities make sure that the certain kind of Renaissance period that the Norfork is currently experiencing is balanced between intentional economic growth and proper, and natural maintenance of the present ecology. No small task, for sure, and a general mantra of “don’t be greedy” ensures sustainable development.

Because of the efforts of citizens of Baxter Country, the Norfork River is known throughout the world as a fly-fishing destination. It is a subtle national treasure and one the most inviting settings for trout fishing in the Southeast. It attracts interesting individuals from around the country to test its waters. When those travelers visit Norfork they are met with even more captivating characters ready to help host their experiences. Fayettechill Team fly fisher and guide Dominic Zametto is one of many modern spirits awaiting to guide visitors onto the river. He is a balance of a cool sense of confidence brought about by experience, country grit, and modern steeze (style with ease) with more than an anecdote or two to make you chuckle. His shop, Two River Fly Shop, is an extension of his quality and character and is a must stop for anyone looking for local knowledge or equipment with which to fish the river.  


The people out here will surprise you. The hillbilly reputation of Arkansas’ past is quickly fading from reality as an apparent use and appreciation for modern technology and worldly knowledge is demonstrated on a daily basis.  Many I’ve met throughout the region have a strong sense of the present moment because of the river and the appreciative culture that comes with it. This quality leaves the individuals here with an apparent and healthy relationship the natural world that surrounds them. It’s hard to tell if it is an appreciation for nature that make you present, or if it is being present that makes you appreciate nature. I imagine either orientation works as just well as the other.


The Energy of It All

To pause and reflect on the character of the Norfork is to immediately becomes aware of its expansive and novel nature. The flux-filled temperament of the River’s water levels create a constant canvas for new experiences that attract new people who share new knowledge to form inescapably new communities. Don’t be fooled by the rural character of the surroundings here. We are standing at a progressive intersection of life, technology, and community.

At this intersection we are given a rarely revealed perspective of the unfolding character of Nature: wide in scope, filled with time, and understood with an inevitable sense of progression.  The electrical power and its managing industry, the flux-filled Norfork River, the Grand Slam of cold water-fish, the local and national community were all made possible simply by tapping into the energy of the Ozarks. The potential energy of this event directly generates life for both the fish and the communities around them. Somehow we managed to become both directors and active links in an emergent channel of Ozark energy, one that creates new life, in both biological and existential sense, on a daily basis. These people, these fish, and the communities that they create aren’t just part of the Ozark Mountains, they are the Ozark Mountains, in a most recent, intentional, and fantastical form.  

This is no different than any life made possible by mountains. We don’t love the Ozarks because we live on top of them, or simply because we enjoy the thrills and chills of exploring them from time to time. We love the Ozarks because we are a part of them. We can feel, deep in our bones, that we are an extension of their energy. Like all mountains, they give way to a relaxed life, one that is filled with happiness and fulfillment through rich experiences with nature. It is a lifestyle that these mountains generate that we are so dedicated to exploring and growing.

Why are the people that engage with mountain culture so happy, so relaxed, so open to new or deepening relationships with their community? Part of the answer to this question is because of the constant and honest relationship with Nature demonstrated in towns like Norfork and Mountain Home. Because of an intentional effort, this relationship will only deepen in understanding as both time and technology progress. The existence of the Norfork River community has shown that the Ozark’s energy is willing to find new forms as it interacts with the modern age.

It is beyond the state of top priority that the technological developments along the White River are maintained with ecological and substantially practices.  The existence of the passionate outdoor communities throughout the region can give you confidence to believe that they will continue to be. They know something special has happened in Norfork, and in similarly orientated outdoor towns throughout the Ozark Mountains. There is a deep and active conversation happening with Nature on a daily basis. It is important to understand it so we can appreciate it, contribute to it so we can help properly evolve it, and share it with others so that their lives can be enriched simply by having interacting with it. 


Photography provided by Ben Matthews, Sam Matthews, and Blk Elk Media

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