I was eight years old the first time I camped in the Ozark Mountains. Dad and I pitched our tent on a gravel bar on 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 red and yellow flames cast shadows that danced like ghosts at the edge of darkness.
The full moon and so many stars made the sky look like a silver river. The call of a whippoorwill 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 raccoons would not eat our food.
For breakfast the next morning, I helped dad skin an eel as long as his arm. We caught it on a limb line during the night using a redfin minnow for bait. Dad rolled the eel meat in cornmeal and fried it crispy brown along with scrambled eggs. He dipped up some water from a nearby spring and boiled a pot of coffee. I sipped the coffee and spit it out.
“That coffee’s powerful enough to put hair on your chest,” Dad said.
“I’ll have a bare chest forever.”
After breakfast we swam across a deep blue pool of water and caught crawdads with our hands to use for bait. 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. Cool water dripped from a mat of green ferns hanging from rock ledges and spattered on our heads.
Red, yellow, and blue wildflowers grew along the riverbank, and willow trees growing at the river’s edge waved in the breeze. A snake slithered across the river in front of us, and a turtle plopped into the water from a floating log. Red-tailed hawks and turkey buzzards soared high above on thermals, and dragonflies lit on our toes. We explored a cave, where bats screeched and fluttered in the darkness. A kingfisher scolded us for invading his stretch of the river with a harsh-rattling Kack, Kack, Kack. 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 pileated woodpecker 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 Dad, swimming, fishing, and exploring the river for two whole days, seeing nary another soul.