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A Return to Albert Pike

by Arkansas Life | July 6, 2020 at 1:48 p.m.

ALBERT PIKE RECREATION AREA—There’s a certain spot on the banks of the Little Missouri River where the sun-dappled water is a shade of green that Janice Lowery McRae struggles to name. “Emerald, maybe? Teal?” she muses, brushing a strand of strawberry-blonde hair from her eyes as she makes her way down the rocky slope.

“Here,” she says, pointing toward a rocky portion of the beach below her cabin. “This is it—my spot. I can sit here for hours, just looking out over the water.”

The river burbles congenially. It’s a chilly but sunny day in January 2020. A fragrant forest canopy still hovers protectively over the summer cabins that dot the shore on either side of the river. The swimming area is deserted today, but it’s easy to picture children frolicking in the water, to hear the slap of flip flops against the river stones, to see the little ones struggling to tug on—or pull off—stubbornly snug water shoes.

A fifth-generation Lowery, Janice grew up on the Little Missouri, reveling in its cool waters during Arkansas summer scorchers and tagging at the heels of her father, James Lowery, when he strolled his 40 acres and called out greetings to vacationers.

Her daddy loved the fact that the Lowerys’ family history has long been intertwined with this land and its river. And he was delighted by his daughter’s appreciation for what he would one day leave her—not just fond childhood memories, but the place where those memories were made.

Photos by Benjamin Krain | Courtesy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

“This river runs through my veins,” Janice says as we continue to stare out at the Little Missouri from her favorite spot. “Always has. Always will.”

We stand together in silence for a moment, remembering—the cabins, yanked from their stilts, a pastor and his wife offering water, blankets and quiet words of comfort, a small body with tousled curls, rounded features and chubby feet.

Back then, I was a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Janice was both a survivor and a victim.

I remember the Janice from that bleak time. She had retreated to her second home in Hot Springs in an effort to escape the guilt and deep sadness she associated with this place. Janice struck me then as a caretaker and counselor, someone set on guiding others through grief. She struggled to help the suffering, even as she battled crippling despair.

Today’s Janice seems lighter in spirit. She tells me about her new cabin overlooking the Little Missouri. Even when storms are forecast, she’s able to stay here.

Still, she keeps a close eye on the river when it rains. “That’s my ‘Get Outta Here Rock,’” she tells me, referring to a large boulder that juts up from the fast-moving waters. When the river rises high enough to submerge the upper part of her rock, Janice knows it’s time to leave her cabin for higher ground. She urges others in the area to follow suit.

Nature doesn’t make allowances for complacency. She knows that now.

Life on the Little Missouri

Janice’s great-great-grandfather James Morrow settled on 40 acres here after obtaining a land-grant title in 1878 for military service. President Rutherford B. Hayes signed it. Years later, James’ daughter Lovisa up and married “one of them Lowery boys down in Langley,” Janice says with a wry laugh. “And once those Lowery boys got here, they weren’t going anywhere.”

After marrying James Lowery, Lovisa went on to become the postmistress for what was then the Albert community. She ran the office out of her house. Neighboring homesteaders were frequent visitors.

In the early 1930s, the U.S. Forest Service began developing the Albert Pike Recreation Area. Janice’s grandfather served as a straw boss for the Civilian Conservation Corps workers hired by the agency. He knew that land just as well as his own.

Albert Pike officially opened for business in 1934.

In a booklet published in 1937, the U.S. Forest Service described the area as “superbly scenic.” It also touted 1,500 miles of “excellent roads” built to attract tourists to Albert Pike.

Like Morrow, future generations of the Lowery family were smitten with the land and its serpentine river and were therefore eager to cast their lot with travelers also drawn to this pristine, secluded area.

Each year, as the days grew longer and the sun warmed the waters, Janice’s grandfather would drive into nearby Langley to pick up residents who wanted to camp along the Little Missouri. Those determined, hardscrabble vacationers brought their children, dogs, months of supplies and even their chickens.

Over the decades, the Forest Service would eventually create four camping areas. Loops A and B offered primitive campsites for those who planned to sleep in tents. Those two loops were on the west side of the river.

Loops C and D, located upstream on the east side of the Little Missouri, were designed for RVs. Sites there had concrete pads and hookups for electricity and water.

The Lowerys’ operation, however, remained much as it always had been—small and simple by comparison.

In 1959, Janice’s parents built and opened the Lowery’s Camp Albert Pike Store. In 1960, they started running a snack bar, around the same time that they began leasing small plots of their land to campers who wanted to build cabins on their favorite sites.

“It started with, Oh, can we park our trailer there, or can we build a little cabin there?” Janice recalls. “So we leased lots based on where people liked to camp.”

At that time, Janice and her parents lived in Langley, a small community 6 miles south of Albert Pike, where they owned a small general store. In 1964, however, the family built a home near the camp store on their land and moved there.

Growing up, Janice looked forward to spring and summer, when hundreds of people flocked to the banks of the Little Missouri. Some stayed on Lowery land. Others swam, hiked and camped at the Albert Pike Recreation Area. During those early years, Janice forged what would become lifelong friendships with the families who built cabins on Lowery land. She also got to know the regulars who came and went each summer at the federal park.

In 1972, after Janice married her first husband, her dad opened up an RV park below the rows of cabins scattered along the hillside overlooking the Little Missouri. He figured the newlyweds could use the extra income created by running the park. The marriage didn’t last, but the RV park became a much-loved camping spot for those unable to build cabins.

The Lowerys ran a rustic and bare-bones operation. They maintained the store, RV park and land. Cabin owners, meanwhile, were responsible for the upkeep of their summer homes. This was a place where change was all but nonexistent, and most folks agree that it was the comforting sameness of it all that most appealed to them.

This faith in a seemingly unaltered landscape lulled summer residents and campers into a sense of false security. They saw the Little Missouri as a benign and scenic feature, a playful, yet calm, presence by day and a lullaby-singer by night.

But the Lowerys witnessed the river’s power over the years and had long ago recognized the potential for danger during storms that were accompanied by flash flooding. According to generations of family lore, a catastrophic flood occurs every 50 years.

In 1968, the Little Missouri, engorged after torrential rainstorms, raged through Lowery land, washing away cabins. No one was injured or killed, but that event reconfirmed a need to watch the river during storms.

In the mid-1990s, flash-flooding trapped 40 Boy Scouts hiking in the Albert Pike Recreation Area. The Scouts were rescued, and a park employee assured the scoutmaster that the Forest Service intended to install a flood-warning alarm system. But that never happened.

The Lowerys knew they could count on Tony Burns, who ran their RV park, to keep a vigilant eye on the weather. Over the years, Tony shared updates and warnings, not only with those staying on Lowery land, but with the camp hosts overseeing the federal campsites. These camp hosts were seasonal visitors—usually retirees—who kept an eye on Albert Pike’s campsites for the U.S. Forest Service. They checked in guests, responded to complaints and put in requests for maintenance.

U.S. Forest Service staff didn’t live or stay at the recreation area. Instead, the agency relied on the camp hosts and local law enforcement agencies to oversee the safety of its visitors and respond to emergencies. Given that cell service has long been scarce at Albert Pike, Tony’s regular updates proved invaluable.

But on June 11, 2010, Tony was in Colorado, and in the early-morning hours, his cellphone erupted. People wanted to know if he had heard about what happened overnight. Disbelieving, Tony turned on the national news.

“I called my sister,” he recalls. “And I asked, Have you seen Albert Pike yet?’”

Texas: June 8-9, 2010

Each spring and summer, tourists from all parts of Texas swarm the Guadalupe River. They rent inner tubes and spend entire days cruising at a leisurely pace down the river. Often, one can spot tethered coolers floating alongside the tubers. Tent-campers congregate on the riverbanks, and those staying in cabins enjoy the festive atmosphere from balconies and porches that overlook the gently flowing water.

On June 8, 2010, however, weather conditions rapidly worsen as a slow-moving system moves in and then stalls during the evening. Torrential rains pummel much of south-central Texas, with six counties receiving 7 to 12 inches over an 18-hour period. Overnight, the lazy Guadalupe breaches its banks and gulps down anything in its new path. Campers will later tell the San Antonio Express-News that the river “changed personalities” in a matter of hours.

People flee flooded tents, cabins and retirement homes. One vacationer, a man from Iowa Park, dies.

Next, the storm dumps 8 inches of rain on the east-Texas city of Tyler before taking a leisurely path toward Arkansas.

Meanwhile, in North Little Rock, the National Weather Service’s meteorologists are keeping a wary eye on the weather events taking place in Texas, understanding that similar episodes will likely unfold in Arkansas. On June 10, they issue flood watches. They issue warnings. Then, in the early-morning hours of June 11, meteorologist John Lewis will take a close look at Albert Pike’s terrain and start calling sheriffs in the area. He tells them this storm is capable of causing deadly flooding.

But those staying at the Albert Pike Recreation Area and on the Lowerys’ land have no idea what is about to happen. The U.S. Forest Service fails to pass along the flash-flood warnings. Tony is out of town and the camp hosts at Albert Pike have no idea that a monster storm is approaching. Cellphones don’t work. Wi-Fi? Forget about it.

So even as the skies darken on the afternoon of June 10, 2010, the mood at Albert Pike remains upbeat. Children squeeze in a last-minute swim while their parents and grandparents fire up the grills earlier than usual.

Yes, clearly, it will rain tonight. But no one knows that an already engorged river is about to swallow those camped along its banks.

The tent campers are the first to realize that something is wrong. The water is rising. Rapidly. Those in RVs, however, have been lulled to sleep by the comforting thrum of a steady rain. Most of them feel safe, snug, secure.

Up the hill, in the family home next to the camp store, Janice and her husband, Denver, slumber deeply and peacefully. Then the landline jangles them awake.

Arkansas: June 11, 2010

What Janice hears:

A panicked cabin-owner’s voice telling her the river has jumped its banks, and RVs are floating by. Denver’s questions as he hurriedly dresses. Another sharp ring of the phone. The cabin owner now saying that his furniture is floating, even though his home sits on stilts 8 feet off the ground. The too-calm voice of a 911 dispatcher, assuring Janice that first responders are en route. No, can’t get a helicopter in the air until morning. Just hang tight. The relentless drumming of the rain against the roof. If only it would just stop. The sloshing and sticking of wet, muddy shoes as she and Denver rush from their home to an area overlooking the cabins. The river’s roar. A woman’s desperate cries for help. The encouraging shouts of onlookers, urging her to hang on—help is coming.

What Janice sees:

A submerged cabin, water up past the eaves, but no sign of the elderly couple who live there. A soaked and bedraggled group of people who fled their cabins just in time. Brady Gore, an Arkansas State Police sergeant, running toward his patrol car. The blaze of the car’s spotlight, illuminating the screaming woman, who clings to a cabin window. The angry waters swirling around her, then carrying her away when she loses her grip. The woman, grabbing a utility pole just in time. The emergency lights of the vehicles belonging to first responders. That young, brave volunteer firefighter, scrambling, urgently, but oh so delicately, to rescue the woman embracing the pole.

And now, after the longest, darkest hour before dawn, the sun begins its slow rise. Blessed daylight … but oh, what it reveals. Little Katelynn Smith—a 2-year-old with a tangled mop of damp curls—dead. Kay Roeder, 69, whose body rests next to that of a young man. Did he try to help her climb that tree? And there is Kay’s son, Bruce, 51, and his wife, Debbie, also 51.

Another body, floating.

So much death. And the river’s victims—clothes torn away, savaged by the flood. Such awkward positions, limbs splayed, so vulnerable.

And then the living—all of those shell-shocked survivors, wrapped in blankets as they wait anxiously for news of their loved ones, looking at Janice with hopeful expressions.

Overturned RVs and dismantled cabins. Pieces of clothing, lawn chairs, shoes, toys and camping gear, all strewn along the bank and tangled in treetops.

What Janice will learn in the coming days: 

Twenty people dead, eight of them children.

June 2010: The Aftermath

When Janice witnessed the rescue of the frightened woman, she felt a surge of hope. She imagined rescuing other survivors, but as she searched both her land and the Albert Pike Recreation Area, she found only bodies.

All of those staying on Janice’s land—whether in cabins or RVs—made it to higher ground in time, thanks to a couple of buddies who’d been up late drinking beer and an alert cabin owner.

Twenty-somethings Matt Whatley and J.D. Quinn waded from cabin to cabin, banging on doors and ordering sleepy and disoriented families to get out.

Meanwhile, the cabin owner raced on foot through the RV park, ushering 30 bewildered and sodden guests to the safety of his cabin, which sat well above the flooded area.

All of those who died had been camped out on federal land, most of them in Loop D.

Janice found no solace in this. The carnage left her reeling. She couldn’t reconcile her grim findings with this cherished place, her childhood home. She cried over the realization that this precious inheritance had become part of a repository for the dead and their belongings.

For days, search teams combed both Lowery and federal land in search of those still unaccounted for. On June 14, 2010, they found the body of 8-year-old Jadyn Basinger, the last and 20th victim.

As the weeks and then months passed, Janice became friends with the woman rescued from the pole—who turned out to be Jadyn’s mother—and another mother who lost a child, little Katelynn, the toddler Janice had found. A woman of deep faith, Janice did her best to minister to them, but she struggled with questions and doubts and guilt.

Janice and the cabin owners cleared away the wreckage and began rebuilding. The Lowery’s Camp Albert Pike Store—the place where children had long clamored for Double Bubble gum, Yoo-hoos and Slim Jims—reopened its doors. Janice also made plans to continue operating several rental cabins near the store.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service closed the entire recreation area while officials debated what to reopen—if anything. But the land remained pockmarked with rubble left behind by the floodwaters. Buildings began to decay. Grass sprouted through ruptured slabs of concrete.

As nature began to reclaim the space, there was one area in particular that Janice wanted to clear of debris: the Rock Springs Cemetery. As a marker at the small fenced cemetery notes—the information for which was compiled by Janice’s parents 1993—it serves as a burial site for the approximately 50 families who homesteaded in this area beginning in the early 1850s through 1918. Generations of Lowerys had known those homesteaders and assumed the responsibility of tending to the cemetery after the government claimed the land. However, when Janice approached the Forest Service, she was refused access to the cemetery. Janice had a key, but the ranger at the time of the flood told her she couldn’t use it.

Agency officials also seemed reluctant to accept her offers to help create a memorial site honoring those lost to the flood. So Janice donated a portion of her land and turned to the community for funding.

One year later, on June 11, 2011, Janice, survivors and their families, dedicated the memorial on the anniversary of the flood. They gathered around a stone angel who weeps over a gravestone listing the names of the dead. More than 250 people attended.

At the service, Janice shared a poem she wrote. She called it “Angel at First Light.” It describes the moment that Janice found 2-year-old Katelynn’s body.

I saw an Angel at first light.

She had met a stranger in the night.

Oh, Lord, Please keep her in your sight.

This tiny Angel of first light.

Hold her gently, Kiss her cheek.

Tell her Mommy not to weep,

That You will watch her in her sleep.

This tiny Angel, Angel so sweet.

This tiny Angel of first light

Lord, is in Your arms now—hold her tight.

Please protect her with all Your might—

This tiny Angel of first light.

O cloud above with the silver lining,

Is that her dress I see there shining?

O butterfly with wings so bright

Sent to remind us of our Angel of First Light.

January 2020: Nature’s Reclamation

It’s been nearly a decade since I've spoken with Janice in person. She strikes me on this day as a woman who has made peace with what happened in 2010.

We meet at the Lowery family home, and my arrival prompts much excitement from Janice’s welcoming committee—two Yorkies named Gus and Claire, and a Chihuahua that answers to Coco.

I flash back to my interview with Janice soon after the flood, when this same trio scampered at our feet. At that time, she confessed that she was struggling, that she had questions for God but no answers for the survivors who turned to her for comfort.

Today, she greets me warmly with a broad smile and makes room for me on the couch. Her husband, Denver McRae, ushers in a young family from Louisiana.

Denver still looks just like his name. Tall and silver-haired, he wears a cowboy hat, vest and boots. He takes a seat on the fireplace. All Sam Elliott comparisons vanish, however, once Coco the Chihuahua curls up on his lap.

Denver introduces us to a young man, Ben Aguillard, who has just arrived with his wife, Brittany, and their 4-year-old son, Sawyer. Only when Ben removes his hat does Janice recognize him. Ben, it turns out, used to be a summer visitor during his childhood. His grandmother, he explains, had been a regular vacationer at Albert Pike for 50 years.

Ben goes on to say that he and his family are participating in a roping competition in Texarkana, and he decided spontaneously to use their downtime to take Brittany and Sawyer to see the Albert Pike area. “Our whole family pretty much grew up here,” he says, recalling how his grandma played dominoes every evening while all the kids romped through the woods or splashed and played in the swimming area.

We chat about how things have changed since the 2010 flood. Tony Burns joins us in the living room. After returning from Colorado, he resumed his role as manager and overseer for the Lowerys. Tony and Janice agree that the wildlife appears more relaxed in the absence of so many campers. Deer roam the open area that once served as the now-defunct RV park.

That’s the natural progression of things,” Janice says. “It’s getting more like it was when I was a child.”

Denver offers to take Ben and his family to the old favorite haunts. Meanwhile, Janice and I climb into her Jeep so she can show me what she means about the changes she’s witnessed.

As we drive, I remember being out here on the day they found Jadyn’s body. I remember gaping at the destruction, listening to a hydrologist explain that this had been a 500-year flood event, watching as searchers gathered up scattered pieces of clothing.

“This is a very peaceful little drive,” Janice says as we head down a rutted road.

For some of the flood’s survivors, vivid and horrific mental snapshots remain superimposed over this idyllic setting. But for Janice, time has kindly blurred the visions that tormented her that first year.

Some longtime cabin owners chose not to rebuild after the 2010 flood. But many new families have assumed the leases and designed their own summer-getaway homes.

As we bump along in Janice’s Jeep, she points to her old cabin. “Brady and Gina live there now,” she says. Brady and Gina Gore, whose families have owned cabins here for generations, made it to safety on the night of the flood after being roused by the two beer-drinking young men.

Janice points to a cabin that was rebuilt after the flood. “This is where Kerri was hanging onto the pole.” She’s referring to Kerri Basinger, who lost her husband and two young daughters to the Little Missouri.

Janice stops the Jeep and gestures at a vacant spot. It’s where the Wiley cabin used to sit. That cabin is the one that was submerged when Janice raced outside into the storm.

“This old slab here belonged to Carl and Loretta,” she reminds me. “I told them, You will always have a place to stay here. You can use our bunkhouse. Loretta’s almost 90. I told her, I’ll never lease your lot as long as you’re living.” The elderly couple still visit. They’re content to sit in lawn chairs on their slab.

The cabin owners formed a community here generations ago, just as the early homesteaders did, Janice says. And it still exists, even after the 2010 and 2019 floods.

As we drive by Granny Hicks’ old house, Janice shows me another spot where she found a spigot that used to provide water to a cabin owned by an elderly man who died. The man’s family called her last summer and explained that he had wanted his ashes spread where he used to have a cabin. The cabin was long gone. But that spigot served as a reference point for loved ones seeking to abide by the deceased man’s last request.

The speed limit here is 5 mph, Janice informs me. Caution signs have been placed along the road. Slow—Children Playing. “This really is a little community,” Janice says. She talks of the annual July Fourth parade that’s made up of decorated golf carts.

We pull up to a Forest Service gate, which Janice unlocks. As we leave behind the scattered and well-maintained cabins, I’m struck by the desolate air of the federal land. We cruise through the abandoned campgrounds, one by one.

Even after deciding to open for day use only, the U.S. Forest Service never removed any of the structures that had been used for overnight stays.

Campground bathrooms, one of which served as a makeshift morgue in the days after the flood, remain boarded up. Peeling wooden signs, weathered by the elements for a decade, serve only as poignant reminders of what visitors are no longer allowed to do. The same is true of the old amphitheater and its empty gray wooden benches.

“You still see a lot of the remaining debris,” Janice says as she leads me through the remnants of Loop D. “It was all just left to rot.”

Foliage crawls between the cracks of concrete camping pads and parking lots, all of which are surrounded by forsaken picnic tables and grills. A heavy blanket of leaves also helps to mask the other decaying man-made facilities.

The Albert Pike Recreation Center now offers only day-use facilities during the spring and summer season. That’s just fine by Janice, who used to count on those tourism dollars. The Lowery’s Camp Albert Pike Store closed for good in 2012. Janice stopped renting cabins in 2014 because of concerns about liability in the event of another flood.

She understands the desire and frustration of the families who long to see the U.S. Forest Service reopen overnight camping. At the same time, she just doesn’t see how that could happen safely after so many years of neglect.

The two mothers Janice befriended after the flood had normally stayed at Janice’s RV park each year. But on June 10, 2010, they moved to a federal campsite because their two teenage sons wanted to tent-camp, and the Lowerys allowed only RVs.

Those two moms, Kerri Basinger—the woman who would end up clinging to that pole—and Candace Smith planned on returning to the Lowerys’ RV park the following day. But then the storms came, and each woman lost a husband and two young children.

Janice closed her RV park for good even as longtime vacationers pleaded with the U.S. Forest Service to reopen its overnight facilities.

In the years that followed, Kerri and Candace protested the efforts of families determined to convince the federal government to allow overnight stays. If the U.S. Forest Service wasn’t willing to make drastic changes, it shouldn’t allow camping, the two women contended.

Meanwhile, survivors and the loved ones of victims fought—and lost—court battles over what the U.S. Forest Service could have done to prevent such a loss of life.

Earlier, when I talked to Ben, I noticed that he seemed resigned to the fact that a generations-long tradition has vanished. He just wanted to show his wife and son around and share his memories, but other vocal supporters are still campaigning to reopen the federal campsites. Janice ended up getting kicked out of a Facebook group because she didn’t share these sentiments.

Janice remains adamant about her stance on overnight stays on the neighboring federal land. She contends that there’s no way the Forest Service can make Albert Pike safe for campers. The river, the very reason people are drawn here, has shown the Lowerys repeatedly that it will always have the upper hand. For that reason, she says, the federal park should be left to nature’s whims and mercies without human intrusion. Janice played the dual roles of rescuer and comforter after the federal park failed to protect its visitors. Doing so took her to dark places.

“I don’t want it open,” she says firmly. “I don’t want that responsibility anymore.”

As we venture once again onto Lowery land, Janice explains that she now requires cabin owners to devise evacuation plans and share them with her.

“I have to know what they would do in the event of fire or a flood. They have to tell me where their high places are, how soon they would leave and where they would go.”

Just last year, on July 16, the area marked yet another historic flood, one that came in just five feet lower than the one in 2010.

“Nearly all of these cabins were full,” Janice says, gesturing at the wooden vacation homes that hover over us. “Everybody knew what to do. It was smooth as pudding.”

The river is deeper now, she says. And without the RV park, she’s better able to indulge in memories of her childhood. Also, Janice says, she concluded after last summer’s flood that when the river overruns its bank, it is simply returning to its ancient bed.

And as for the campgrounds abandoned by the Forest Service? “It’s OK for nature to take that back over—all that man-made stuff,” she says.

Although Denver spends much of his time at the old Lowery home, keeping an eye on things, chatting with the families who return to visit Albert Pike, Janice continues to live at her house in Hot Springs, visiting her childhood home and cabin on infrequent weekends. She enjoys hosting Bible studies and retreats at her cabin. Or, many times, she comes here just to stare out at the river and think. She’s still wary of flooding, but fear no longer seeps into her visits here. Just like this once-ravaged land, she is healing.

I ponder all of this as I drive away. And I think of yet another natural occurrence Janice described: a tornado. She’s pretty sure it struck in 2017. Regardless, that twister cleared out both the debris and fencing at the old cemetery. And in June of this year, the U.S. Forest Service did some additional cleanup there.

Once again, Janice is able to tend to the graves of those who settled this land generations ago. And as she does so, she listens to the murmur of the Little Missouri and understands—more than ever—that its unpredictability is what makes it so beautiful and seductive.

Long before Americans grew to love RVs and modern conveniences, Janice’s ancestors intimately knew and respected the river. The Little Missouri helped raise Janice. Now it is her responsibility to appreciate and nurture it in all of its moods.

This place, special to so many, also needs Janice, just as it needed the Lowerys who came before her. She knows this land and the Little Missouri. She knows its history, witnessed by her ancestors for generations. She knows when to sit at her spot by the river and daydream, and she knows when to leave.

Just like the Lowerys before her, Janice is a historian. A steward. A protector.

Over the decades, this river has shaped her and soothed her

and, yes, even frightened her.

And yet—even as it continues to run through her veins, it also sustains her. 


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