A White River biography: A look forward and back

Susan Varno Originally Published March 31, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated March 29, 2013 at 10:10 a.m.
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Chris Engholm is shown with the Ballad Hunter, his handmade canoe, below Bull Shoals Dam. The paddle was broken by the strong current.

For the past year, Chris Engholm has been canoeing the 700 miles of the White River, shooting photographs and videos and taking notes on his adventure.

“I wanted to write a biography of the river,” he said.

A professional photographer, documentary filmmaker and the author of seven books, Engholm has lived and traveled in Eastern Europe, Central America, Japan and China.

When he met Allyn Lord, director of the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale, she convinced Engholm to write an oral history of the river. Through the museum, he received an Arkansas Humanities Council grant. For the next three months, Engholm drove to various river sites and towns, taking photos and talking to local people.

“In each town, I met someone who introduced me to others who have lived on the river,” Engholm said. “These were folks who had experienced the river when the timber was still there and the dams hadn’t been built. In Batesville, Twyla Wright, curator of the Old Independence Regional Museum, connected me with Jim Barnett, a former mayor of Batesville. He told me about fishing the White River starting in the late 1940s. He’s kept notes of every fish he caught and what he used for bait.”

Engholm also interviewed activists trying to restore the river habitat. Wright introduced him to Sam Cook, who is working with others to rescue Poke Bayou near Batesville. Cook introduced Engholm to Steve Wilson, a retired director of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission who lives in Mountain View.

For his 700-mile odyssey, Engholm built a cedar-strip canoe and took it for test runs on Beaver Lake near his home in Bentonville. Beginning March 4, 2012, he floated the headwaters of the White River near Fayetteville and crossed Table Rock and Bull Shoals lakes.

Then he met Jim Fortune.

“Jim is a ‘river rat’ from Searcy,” Engholm said. “He wanted to come with me, partly because the river rapids and the wind are a lot more dangerous than I realized. He followed me in his bass boat, which is equipped with vintage camping gear, food and supplies.”

The two men floated the river in two- to four-day segments. They camped overnight on sandbars, islands and sometimes private land.

“It surprised me how few people we saw on the river or along the edge,” Engholm said. “Sometimes we’d hear hunters shooting. Below Norfork, the scenery is stunning, the sandstone bluffs, the forest lining the river. The fall colors were out. The canoe is absolutely silent, and the clarity of the water is amazing. You can see the fish. I could throw out my lure and have my limit of trout in an hour.”

As they neared Guion, Engholm said, the water became turbid and silted because of the sand mining there. The scenery changes from Ozark forest to flatter Mississippi alluvial. Five miles above Batesville, intensive farming takes over.

“It’s shocking,” he said. “There are no trees on the riverbank for miles. You look up at the 20-foot-high riverbank and see red earth crumbling into the river. From the soil eroding, the water stays turbid all the way to [the river’s] mouth.”

The weather changed, too.

“Upriver with forests along the shore, the wind isn’t much of a problem,” he said. “When we reached the barren banks below Batesville, the wind would whip around at least 30 knots. It was very difficult to keep the canoe headed where I wanted to go. I had to tack back and forth against the wind for miles.”

They met a few people on the White River. Coming into Georgetown, Engholm and Fortune pulled up beside commercial fishermen Tony Kidd and his father, James, who were pulling nets of fish into their johnboat. Tony described how they sell their catch to local markets. James talked about how he developed fishing techniques with nets and jugs, where they fished and why.

“Jim Fortune is an observer of nature,” Engholm said. “We would land on a sandbar. He’d start poking around and find turtle eggs or raccoon tracks. He’d show me little willows that had been chewed off by beavers; then we would find their lodge. Great blue herons were constantly with us. We saw a deer swim across the river south of Augusta.”

Things got a little scary at night.

“We saw hunters spotting deer with their headlights,” Engholm said. “At 3 in the morning, we heard this big shotgun blast about a hundred yards from us.”

Another night, he heard a peculiar splashing sound and thought someone was throwing rocks into the river. The next morning, Jim told him it was the odd sound a paddlefish makes when it comes up to feed.

Arriving at Georgetown on Nov. 4, the two men ended their trip because the weather was getting too cold. Engholm plans to finish the last 150 miles this spring.

Over the winter, he has been using his adventure for specific projects.

“I published a collection of 35 oral histories, White River Memoirs: The Spoken History of a Liquid Legend,” he said. “I’m working on a coffee-table book, a visual history with my photos and my narrative of floating the river.”

Engholm organized White River Memoirs: 700 Miles of Listening to a Liquid Legend, an exhibit of artwork, photography and river artifacts by local artists who have been inspired by the White River. His own work is included in the exhibit.

In January, the exhibit opened at the Arts Center of the Ozarks in Springdale. The exhibit then moved to Bentonville in February and later will be in Branson and Forsyth, Mo. Engholm has plans for more showings of the exhibit, ending it in Little Rock.

Engholm summed up his experience, which is not yet finished.

“I’ve met a lot of people who remember the river that we have never seen, the forests they talk about, a funnel of ducks coming in to land on a pond, catching 40 catfish in a day,” he said. “These people are thrilled to relive their memories and express their angst about what they’ve seen happen to some of the river environments.”

Visit Engholm’s website at www.chrisengholm.com and the exhibit website at www.whiterivermemoirs.blogspot.com.

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