Arkansas tragedy strikes home

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Long ago, on a mid-June weekend, some friends and I broke loose from our Arkansas hometown for a few days to celebrate our high school graduation.

OK, OK, it was June 1970.

The scene around Albert Pike normally looks like this, with no apparent threat of danger.
  • arkansasbackcountry.com
  • The scene around Albert Pike normally looks like this, with no apparent threat of danger.

We drove to a lake for one day of water skiing, swimming and, yes, beer-drinking, then onward into the Ouachita Mountains to a well-known (back there) but remote Forest Service campground known as Albert Pike (no, not Zebulon). The area was fairly primitive, but even then, people had flocked there for years to get away from the rat race.

It was quiet and scenic, surrounded by pine trees, plus you could wade in the Little Missouri River that ran through it. We listened to music (on an 8-track player, everything from Led Zeppelin to Cream and Chicago), played cards and drank beer, trying not to bother any of the families staying there. To be honest, the river water was also cold enough that you could store six-packs in it and not have to worry about ice. It was a perfect place to escape the rest of the world.

Our group stayed there until we ran out of food and beer, but we left with memories that would never fade away (although, sadly, I'm the only one still alive to tell about it).

I haven't made it back to Albert Pike, and to be honest I've rarely thought about it since first moving to Colorado in the 1970s. But then it suddenly made the national news last Friday when a sudden, crazy flash flood from an after-midnight rainstorm struck the campsite. They've confirmed 20 dead as of Monday morning, ranging in age from 2 to 68, with no more known missing.

In a small, tight-knit state like Arkansas, this touches almost everybody in some way or another. That includes my family, many of whom still live there. Debra McMasters, a 42-year-old high school teacher from Spring Hill, taught my nephew and niece. Her husband and her two children survived, and her husband saved another 3-year-old's life. But somehow Debra didn't make it.

Don't blame the campers. That river is normally tranquil, and Albert Pike isn't far from where the stream actually begins. It took a huge, unmoving storm, dumping something like 11 inches of rain within a few hours, to make it happen. Because the area hadn't been flood-prone and had been popular for many decades, cabins were near the water and nobody worried about camping close to the stream.

I think about how calm, soothing and innocent Albert Pike was, and I can't imagine it becoming the scene of such an unthinkable tragedy. But I also wonder why now, and not any other time in the past 60 years or so of its existence.

I'm guessing they might even close the campground after this. But I might have to pay it another visit someday, just to breathe that mountain air and wade in the Little Missouri River while sipping a cool beer, one last time.

Albert Pike hasn't changed for decades.
  • Albert Pike hasn't changed for decades.

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