I was 8 years old the first time I camped in the Ozark Mountains. My dad and I pitched our tent on a gravel bar at the Jacks Fork River. For dinner that evening we ate fried squirrel and corn on the cob from Mom’s garden. I sat by the firelight and dreamed about the big fish I would catch the next day as I watched red and yellow flames cast shadows that danced like ghost at the edge of darkness.
There were a full moon and so many stars that the sky looked like a river of silver. The call of a whippoor-will echoed off the towering limestone bluff across the river and I was lulled to sleep by the jug-a-rum croaking of a bullfrog in the slough. Dad brought our camp box inside the tent so the raccoons would not eat our food.
For breakfast the next morning I helped dad skin an eel as long as his arm that we caught on a limb line during the night using a redfin minnow for bait. Dad rolled the eel meat in cornmeal and fired it crispy brown along with scrambled eggs. He dipped up some water from a spring near by and boiled a pot of coffee that was so strong I spit it out when I took a sip. When Dad said it was powerful enough to put hair on my chest, I decided I would have a bare chest forever.
After breakfast we swam across a deep blue pool of water, caught crawdads with our hands to use for bait and dad showed me how to skip rocks. We waded up a spring branch where the water was so cold I shivered. We floated a stretch of the river in a raft dad made out of inner tubes, and hung out on the bluff side in the shade when the sun got too hot. Droplets of cool water dripped from a mat of green ferns hanging over the edge of rock ledges and splattered on our heads.
Red, yellow, and blue wild flowers grew along the riverbank and willow trees waved in the wind at the river’s edge. A snake slithered across the river in front of us and a turtle plopped into the water off of a floating log. Red Tail hawks and turkey buzzards soared high above on thermals and dragonflies with iridescent blue wings lit on our toes. We explored a cave, where bats screeched loudly and fluttered in the darkness. A blue-gray King Fisher scolded us with a harsh-rattling kack, kack, kack call for invading his stretch of the river. We used the crawdads to catch smallmouth bass and goggle-eye, and dad fried them for lunch when we reached our campsite.
After we broke camp and started up the steep river hill toward home, a black and white Pileated Woodpecker with a red crest on the back of its head flew across the road in front of us.
Many camping trips have come and gone since that summer long ago, but none so memorable as the first one—just me and my dad, swimming, fishing and exploring the river for two whole days, seeing nary another soul.