Last of the River Rats

11 Feb

On the Lower White Last of the River Rats
Sunday, August 2, 1998


IT IS 6:55 A.M. on a day that will, with the rising sun, get hot, very hot, Arkansas road-buckling hot, and N.W. Priest knows this. That is why he is out on the river at 6:55 a.m. Priest climbs into his old, aluminum fishing boat with the 25-horsepower motor and putt-putts out to check the nets on one of his trotlines. He plunges a hand into the water and finds a needle-nose gar, the ugliest fish God put in the White River, and he looks at it with mild resignation and more than a little distaste and throws it back. He plunges his hand in again, and when the net comes out of the river, there is … nothing. “Last year was the worst year until this year, of all the years I’ve seen,” Priest says later, rocking back and forth in a flaking white rocking chair on his fading front porch in DeValls Bluff. “If I didn’t love this fishing, I’d to have quit. I haven’t even made my expenses this year.” Less than a mile from where he rocks, past the chipped white shed where he stores the random acquisitions of his 86 years — antlers from the bucks he’s shot, pictures of the fish he’s caught, Indian grindstones from Peckerwood Lake, salvaged bits of an 1870s steamboat wreck downstream — the White River is rising between its muddy banks, almost 12 feet higher than it usually is in the early summer. It is raining in the Midwest, and all that water is spilling down the Mississippi River, and the Mississippi is forcing its water up the White.

The higher Mississippi corks the White’s waters, forcing its own water up the White, which causes water to overrun the White’s alluvial bottom lands, a phenomenon known as backwater flooding. When the rivers do that too much, as they did in the great flood of 1927, when thousands of square miles near the confluence of the White, the Arkansas and the Mississippi rivers were entirely underwater, the levees burst. In 1927, when the White River broke through in two places at Clarendon, people steered their motorboats through the first floor of the Monroe County courthouse. It took three weeks for the water to recede, years for the damage to be repaired. It will not take quite as long for the waters to fall this time, because though the Mississippi is full, it is far from bursting. But there is a lot of water coursing down the White because the Army Corps of Engineers is releasing water from the Bull Shoals Lake dam to make more power for hot people and their air conditioners.
The water the Corps releases moves past Priest’s home and will make its way 75 miles downstream to where Jesse Bradbury sits in an old lawn chair and looks at his hoop nets. The nets are not in the river. They’re behind his trailer, because the river is rising and the fishing is awful.

All along the lower White River — from Batesville, south — things are changing. Houseboats that once lined the shores are gone, the fish aren’t swimming the way they used to, and civilization is slowly but surely encroaching on the river’s culture.

This is the way life is on the White: The river that has changed its course thousands of times over thousands of years is being changed by man. And the life the river nurtured is changing with it. The White starts innocuously enough in Northwest Arkansas, where three streams come together in Washington County. It flows north and east into Missouri, where it has been dammed to form Beaver Lake and Table Rock Lake and Lake Taneycomo, before wandering back into Arkansas as Bull Shoals Lake. At Batesville, the river changes. The cold, clear, trout-filled mountain waters give way to a muddy, meandering commercial highway. For years, people hunted and fished and dove for mussels on the lower White River — living off it with little regard for the conventions of civilization beyond the levees, and too poor to live in the city. And it was a living — one historian notes that in 20 months of the 1920s, the river’s fishermen shipped almost 4 million pounds of fish to the markets at Rosedale, Miss. There were mussels to harvest and timber to cut and, if the mood struck you, moonshine to make in stills hidden deep in the hardwood forests. People along the White’s banks lived by an old river maxim: “If you’re coming down the river and are hungry or thirsty, stop in someone’s boat and have all you want. Just don’t take a damn thing when you leave.”

Fifty years ago and nearly 300 winding miles from where the river changes at Batesville, a woman named Birdie Jenkins stood on her houseboat in Little Island Chute and berated a visitor from the city for belittling the “river rats” living in their floating tar-paper shacks and eating whatever the river and its bottom land provided. “There are only two kinds of people on this river,” Jenkins said to her visitor. “River rats and sonsabitches. And which one are you?”


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