Notes From Hunter Creek 3.17.2016

Hunter Creek and Vera Cruz Geography

Well, I have had a lot of feedback on my series of articles, “When We Were Young”. Some were amazed at the numerous and varied locales the “Amigos” floated. Others were touched by the passing of some of our group. And I might add that different boats were utilized depending on the type of water,  and as we got older, we could afford more varied craft.

These included kayaks, C-ones, inflatable canoes, whitewater solo canoes, catarafts, and big oval rafts. Basically, everything but a dory boat, and that’s on the bucket list if I live long enough.

So okay Roger, where the heck is Hunter Creek; or does it just exist in your vivid imagination? Well folks, Hunter Creek does really exist.

Douglas County has been especially blessed as there is not an ugly spot in the whole county.  Of course everyone thinks their valley, their holler or their hilltop is the most scenic in the county. And, I guess that I am no different.

Ranked from third to first, I put Topaz Valley, located on the upper North Fork River in third-place.  I would nominate the tall ridges surrounding Highlonesome in Western Douglas County in second-place.  To the East you can almost see the outlying areas of Ava, and to the West is the beautiful valley of upper Swan Creek.    And I am going to rank the Vera Cruz area in first place.

I feel very fortunate to live at Vera Cruz, at the juncture of Hunter and upper Bryant Creeks.

Vera Cruz originally, and more appropriately, was named Redbud, but was renamed sometime after General Winfield Scott’s first major victory at Veracruz, Mexico, during the Mexican War. Just think, it could have been named Buena Vista, (beautiful or good view) after the first major American victory of the war fought outside of the city of Monterrey, at Buena Vista, Mexico, and fought by Gen. Zachary Taylor against the famous Mexican General Santa Anna of Alamo fame.

And in retrospect, “Beautiful View” or “Redbud” makes a lot more sense than the name Vera Cruz.  Well maybe not.  Come to think of it; we are only located four miles north of “Sweden.” But, anyway it is a beautiful valley as mountaintops divide for the joining of clear water, spring-fed Hunter Creek into the scenic spring-fed Bryant Creek.

Of course, I have hesitated to brag on these areas as both streams are fairly well-kept secrets.

Both streams are vibrant and alive with fish and wildlife.  Upper Bryant is known for exceptional smallmouth bass fishing. Lower Bryant is known for catfish, striped bass, largemouth bass, and an occasional walleye, which travel upriver from North Fork Lake.

Both streams support an excellent selection of suckers, especially after a river rise and subsequent clarity of view.

The gradient for upper Bryant Creek (it is actually more of a river than creek) averages an 8 1/2-foot drop per mile. Bryant joins the North Fork of the White about 1/3 mile above Tecumseh. By far Hunter Creek is the largest tributary of Bryant.

Hunter Creek is formed at the juncture of Turkey Creek and Clever Creek and basically drains off of the high plateau on the northeast side of Ava, which measures 1125 feet above sea level.

Other large tributaries of Bryant include Rippee Creek, Fox Creek, Spring Creek, Brush Creek, and Caney Creek.

Hunter Creek is loaded with a couple of large springs around the Crystal Lakes Trout Fishery, and has many other smaller high quality springs down river. It stays so cold,  on most summers I can only swim in it on hot summer days from around the Fourth of July to Labor Day.

The gradient of Hunter Creek is approximately 14.5 feet per mile. In the dog days of August, in all but the wettest of years, Hunter adds over half the volume of water to Bryant Creek at Vera Cruz.

It can be floated from the Star Chapel Bridge at the end of “VV” Highway when the creek is about bank full. It is almost four miles to its junction with Bryant Creek. This float is definitely not for beginners.

This is technically a non-navigable stream, so be very respectful of people’s riverside property. And, beware of neighboring barbed wire, three dangerous low-water bridges, and a small waterfall located at Mill Pond Vera Cruz Missouri Conservation Access and Campground.  In simple language, property owners generally own to the center of the creek, but the water flowing down belongs to the public.

Hunter Creek has been known in the past for excellent goggle-eye fishing, small-mouth, and trout fishing, thanks to high water escapees from the good folks at Crystal Lakes.  Please do not fish or trespass above the bridge at the end of Star Chapel Road (VV Highway).

In recent times, during the latter decade, Rock  Bass, another name for wonderful tasting goggle-eye perch, has been on a serious decline. One note, however, when the creek warms up in the summer,  goggle-eye, like most perch, must be checked for worms after attaching them to your stringer.

As usual, loss of habitat is a prime reason for the decline in fishing, I imagine. I am hopeful the new 7-inch minimum size and limits placed on goggle-eye by the Conservation Commission, will be helpful.  Three recent things have helped –– there are no longer dairies of any consequence on Hunter Creek, and there has not been any recent extensive gravel removal/mining for years, as on Bryant Creek. Also, a lot of the river otters have been trapped out.

I reside on Hunter Creek about a half-mile above its junction with Bryant Creek. Hunter Creek can come up in a hurry as it and its tributaries drain a large area with a steep terrain. I travel across Hunter Creek on a low-water concrete bridge that was built in 1952 with pretty good cement, and while it has no rebar, it does contain a lot of old auto axles and truck springs.

In normal conditions, the creek flows about 16-inches below the bridge.  However, in December of 1982, after a two-day rain totaling just under 12 inches of precipitation, the creek rose to a record 17 feet above the bridge.

On Bryant Creek the water rose to the second floor of the mill at Hodgson Mill, and the North Fork went over the old U.S. Hwy. 160 Bridge at Tecumseh.

In September 1993, a hurricane from the Gulf Coast petered out just as it crossed from Arkansas into Missouri, and in one day we received almost nine-inches of rain. That resulted in a rise of 16-feet above “my” bridge.  And then there are the Easter weekend spring storms that brought three-day rains to the valley in 2011, and that produced a rise of around 14-feet of water over the bridge.

The trick to living in a flood-prone area is to get flooded in and not flooded out. In the spring of 2011, it was six-days before we could get out.  Of course by then the water was down to a reasonable 12 inches of swift water going over the bridge. The problem was not the high water but rather all of the debris of trees and brush lodged in, on, and under the bridge, as well as bridge approaches being destroyed.  I owe the County boys big time for helping me clear the debris from the old Hunter Creek-Vera Cruz Bridge on more than one occasion. Many thanks!

I have lived in this valley for over a quarter of century, on a quarter section. The first couple of years I used a wheelbarrow, my pick-up and my kids for picking up uncountable pick-up loads of rocks, and dumping them on the north approach.

Finally, I saved up and bought a Ford 8-N tractor.  This helped, but just a bit. In recent times, the bank and I have owned a 44-HP 4WD tractor –– a great improvement and savior for me now that my children no longer live on the creek.

Of course I have a set of different levels for crossing Hunter Creek in order to get home.

Yes, I know, “Turn Around; Don’t Drown” is a great idea if you are fond of sleeping on your office couch in Ava for a few days.  I will venture slowly into the water in low gear 4WD, up to the headlights, if alone, with the windows down, in the daytime.  However, if people are riding with me, that means a less adventurous crossing.  And at night, it’s a whole different story –– necessitating a much lower crossing, as you cannot usually see the bottom integrity of the bridge.

Don’t do as I say and don’t do as I do. Remember I have crossed this small 8-½ foot wide span close to 20,000 times. I can tell from the contour of the waves as to what is happening on or above the bridge floor.

As teenagers each of my boys have driven a wheel of their rig off the bridge one time. And I have had a couple of friends run off the bridge when trying to escape to the outside world during a quick river rise.  Over the years I have had several young people miscue at the bridge and somehow make it up to my house on the side of the valley hill. I used to whip out the tractor and log chains with a hope and a promise and a flashlight. But no longer. I almost lost my footing and got partially dragged under around midnight one night trying to dislodge some young people in a pick-up.

My current response is this: Here is the number of the local tow company.  Or we can wait ‘til dawn. Everything usually looks a lot better with the sun out.

I used to believe my day of reckoning would probably happen not on a whitewater stream I was attempting to run, but in an auto either on the way there or on the return trip.  But in recent years I believe that Hunter Creek or an errant tree on the bridge will eventually doom me and my trusty Kubota tractor with an 8” log boom attached at the rear.

Note:  The older you get the more funerals you attend, the less high school graduations, and weddings, which I usually try be ignorant of the date.  During my terms as Judge, I married over 100 couples a year. Most were hitched at the courthouse but some were performed at country homes, lawns, and well-kept barns. I have even performed a couple of weddings in a cave.

But I would be remiss if I did not mention in this column the recent loss of several good people.

I noticed that the well-mannered and true, soft-spoken Ozark gentleman, Carl Coats had passed. Carl loved his music, and he sat on Ava City Council in 1983, when I was appointed as Municipal Judge of Ava to fill in for ailing lay-judge, Lawrence Haynes.

And then there were the sad losses of two “young people” in separate incidents, Leslie Smith and Jerome Massey. Leslie leaves behind a grieving husband Shane and two boys. Jerome’s mother Eula May survives him… I am quite certain that it is very difficult to bury one of your children; but she has had to bury two of her children in one year. How sad!                    

Recently, Gaytha Watterson passed after many months of ill health. She was a colorful Ozark woman who was not afraid of hard work. Her step-father, now deceased for many years, was always one of my biggest supporters.

Another good friend of mine and fellow lawyer from Springfield, Jim Condry, passed from the scene. He and his boys, and myself and my boys, experienced many wonderful overnight floats on the Buffalo Nat’l River, in Arkansas.

Jim was semi-retired, and only performed mediation cases. Born in North Carolina, he had a southern accent that differed from the usual Ozark twang.  I got the same look and question from local Ozarkians because of my dialect. Although raised in the Ozarks from age 14, I was born in Baltimore, Maryland.  And, although I have adapted well, occasionally a local will question me and say, “Hey you’re not from here, are you?”

Two other passings of note, and two more good friends, are gone ––  Dean Esterline age 80, a transplanted Ozarkian  could weld, machine, or fix anything in his day. And finally my buddy and longtime St. Louis Cardinal fan, Chuck Spurlock, 89, passed on.  A widower for many years, and a forester and long-time firefighter for the Conservation Department, Chuck had an opinion on everything and everybody.  In later years, I fried many a fish fillet, or grilled steaks, while we watched a ballgame at his beautiful farm in White’s Creek Valley.

It didn’t take me long to figure out Chuck never met a game warden he truly liked.  And, I never knew of a St. Louis Cardinal Manager that he ever really respected.

Chuck, a true Ozark character, will be sorely missed by his family, his neighbors, and me.

And finally, I lost my good friend, step-son and fellow canoeist and kayaker on many river runs, in a tragic auto accident.  Erec Hambleton was only 40, and is survived by his three loving children.  Erec and I had some unfinished business –– we still had a few more rivers to experience before I passed on.

Now, get up and go enjoy the great Ozark Outdoors!