In the middle of the night on June 11, 2010, the Little Missouri River surged over its banks and swallowed the sleeping campers at Camp Albert Pike Recreation Area in Montgomery County. The water rose over 15 feet in less than an hour, the current snatching husbands away from wives, and children away from mothers and fathers. Twenty people died in the tragedy, eight of them under the age of 10.
While nobody likes to talk about dollars and cents in the face of such a horror, residents and business owners near the Recreation Area say they have to speak up about the U.S. Forest Service's decision to barricade a popular swimming area there — closed without explanation on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend this year and closed since then. One business owner says the closure of the swimming area has hurt what remaining business he has left. Almost as frustrating, he says, is that the government isn't answering questions as to why.
The swimming area, situated in a bend of the Little Missouri and described in the writings of Albert Pike, features slate and granite rocks, a beach, and deep, clear water. The beauty of the spot has made it popular with tourists from South Arkansas, North Louisiana and Southeast Texas. It lies about a mile from Loop D, where the majority of the deaths occurred in the 2010 flood. Albert Pike Recreation Area has been closed to overnight use since the flood, with officials debating whether it will ever open again to campers.
Mike Graves is the publisher of the Glenwood Herald, The Nashville News, and the Montgomery County News. Even the reporters at his papers can't get through to the U.S. Forest Service for an explanation. The Arkansas Times' repeated attempts at contacting someone with the Forest Service to discuss the closure of the swimming area went unreturned as well.
"I was going to jump in [the swimming hole] and our editor was going to take a picture of them leading me off in cuffs to demonstrate to the public how silly it is that swimming area is closed," Graves said. "Nobody can tell you why. It's just that the federal government closed it. Nobody can give me a straight answer — not Congressman [Mike] Ross, not anybody."
Graves said the swimming area is often full during summer weekends, and contributes a lot to the local economy. He said it makes no sense for the government to close it. "There's no reason for this place to be closed down," Graves said. "I'm sorry those people drowned, I really am. But there's no reason for this. If they're going to shut this down, let's shut down Lake Greeson and Lake DeGray."
Jesse Lowery is the owner of Lowery's Camp Albert Pike Store and Cabins, a 60-year-old business near the swimming area. Lowery's once had an RV park, but that was destroyed by the flood. Since then, Lowery has been relying on the rental of the camp's string of cabins. He said the swimming area being within walking distance to the cabins was a big part of the reason they were built there in the first place, beginning in 1960.
"Back in the old days, before the flood, it was just a sea of people and kids on bicycles and people carrying floaties down there to that swimming hole," Lowery said. "It was packed. It was unbelievable on Memorial Day weekend last year."
Lowery said that between the economy and the flood, business wasn't good even before the government showed up with the barricades and "No Swimming" signs. Since then, he said, he's had four cancellations, and has been "chewed out" by guests a number of times when they learned the swimming area was closed — though he insists he informs everyone of that fact when they make a reservation.
Lowery has tried to get in touch with someone at the U.S. Forest Service, and has scheduled a meeting with Norman Wagoner, supervisor of the Ouachita National Forest, on July 6. But with the Fourth of July weekend between now and then and still no answers to give prospective guests as to when or if the swimming area might be open again, Lowery is understandably nervous about the future. He said he's got some of his cabins booked for a family reunion soon after the Fourth, but really nothing after that.
"I feel like I'm bashing the govern-ment," he said. "My great-great-grandpa, my great-grandpa, my grandpa and my daddy were all born up here at Albert Pike. It's not like I don't know a lot about the government. It's just that nobody has given me a proper explanation of that swimming hole being closed. It's like: When is that going to stop?"