Jill M. Rohrbach
July 28, 2009
Jill M. Rohrbach, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
JORDAN, Ark. – “Breathing. You were planning on doing that anyway, right?” Denise said with a smile. Indeed I was. And apparently now I was going to do it like a fish, bug-eyed and in the water. I had been avoiding this travel story about scuba diving in Norfork Lake located in the north-central Arkansas Ozarks for about four years now. I’m not terribly comfortable in water, much less immersed to a depth that doesn’t allow me to kick to the surface in two seconds to the open air where I can hear the laughter of friends and giggles of children gathered at the ritual summertime swimming pool.
But I knew it was time. Time to step out of my comfort zone. Time to embrace adventure. Time to suck air through a hose like each breath would be my last.
That’s just what I did at first – took short, fast breaths through the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus strapped to my back. I wondered if a fish out of water feels the same labored sucking of air, and whether this is what Darth Vader would sound like breathing underwater with bubbles floating up from his black mask at each exhalation.
I was immediately in awe of the scuba contraption and deemed it the coolest of all inventions. I may as well have been moon walking. Instead I was playing underwater tic tac toe with a pencil on a white slate board with one of my dive instructors. Denise and Dan Weber of Jordan Marina (http://jordanmarina.com/; 870-499-7348) near Mountain Home were at my side. I knew the quick game was Denise’s way of determining how comfortable I was being submerged like a submarine. The slate board and pencil attached to her by rope were also a means of communication in addition to the hand signals they had already taught me. I practiced clearing my mask of water – press palms to top of mask, tilt head back, blow through nose so air can fill mask and force water out, quickly repress mask to suction on face. Overly impressed with myself, I began to look around. Norfork Lake was created in the early 1940s by the damming of the North Fork River. One of four dams constructed in the upper White River Basin, it is unlike all of the others because the land was clear-cut before it was flooded. Hooray, no snarling trees. Large boulders covered with brown, waving algae greeted me.
Flanked by Dan and Denise, I suddenly realized we were moving deeper and that I felt like a sinking ship, listing to one side. I used my right hand to try and right myself. My left hand death-gripped the buttons that could inflate and deflate my vest.
Dan motioned to me to do something. I stared blankly having no idea what he was trying to tell me and wondering how important it might be. He tried again. One of us really stinks at charades, I thought. Denise had to write on her white slate board to explain that he just wanted me to stop exerting futile energy with my wimpy hand fin and place it on my dive vest instead. I felt like a minister standing with one hand hooked on his or her vest and the other clutching the Bible. I started to use my fins and body to maneuver and for some reason felt a little calmer.
We were on our way to the Fish Market, one of 31 marked dive sites on Norfork Lake. Containing a good concentration of fish, it is located on a flat, shale rock point at about a 15-foot depth with a nearby slope to deeper water.
Good recreational diving can be found at 20 to 40 feet on Lake Norfork. Some of the marked sites are as deep as 70 feet with a couple wall dives down to 150 feet below the surface. Diving on this lake is best from April to October with greatest visibility between 40 and 60 feet in the spring. The closer you get to the dam the clearer the water. The water temperature was about 75 degrees, and the visibility was about 35 feet on my first dive.
Though I could see well underwater, my diving style seemed to follow my hiking style. I have a tendency when hiking to find that I’ve been looking at the path directly in front me, but not at the forest around me. Scuba diving was the same until some fish swam into view, shaking me from my preoccupation with drowning. Minnow, perch and bass appeared. I had no concept of time or distance as this wet world began to reveal itself to me like a flower opening its petals. I found myself surrounded by a school of perch. There were easily 100.
I felt as though I were in a snow globe that had just been shaken up, except the snowflakes were fish suspended all around me. I looked up to find bolts of light reaching softly through the liquid to show me the yellow fish with small neon streaks of color. It was pure delight, like the first time I tasted chocolate or saw a rainbow. I slowly extended my hand, index finger in a poking fashion, to touch one. We exchanged a mutual curiosity.
My first dive was 48 minutes long, and I descended to a maximum depth of 22 feet. I came out of the water walking tall, wondering if I really just did that, and kicking myself for having waited so long.
My second day of diving was even better because I was more relaxed, less timid and eager. When Dan and Denise began to swim a little more than arm’s length away, I knew my mobility skills had improved. Then I began to see the detail of all the underwater life.
Dan spotted a crawdad and picked it up to show it to me. When he let go of it, several small fish raced toward it, nipping at it. The crawdad landed on a boulder and backed its way to the safety of a crevice with its pinchers out, snapping hard, challenging all of us.
A big, ugly, dark brown catfish wedged between two rocks made my heart jump, like the first moment you see that shadow of a monster in your closet. Taking a deep, slow breath, and a closer look, I then felt in awe of the art of fishing. Suddenly there was new meaning as to where my hook goes and the idea of a lure.
Dan and Denise took me to the school bus, the most dived site in the lake. Fish frame themselves in the windows of the old bus resting on the lake floor at about 25 feet. A shell of a bus attached to a steel barge, it once served as a unique houseboat. I could see from one end of the 40-foot-long bus to the other. Visibility was good. I wished for a camera.
My second dive lasted 40 minutes and I dove to 32 feet. I didn’t need a gauge to tell me I had gone deeper. The cold water pressing against my wet suit and the need to clear the pressure in my ears several times said as much. I traveled from 75-degree water down to 64 degrees.
Unfortunately, I only had time for two underwater excursions. Looking over the dive site list, I was intrigued by the descriptions of the other locales. Blankenship Point is strewn with giant square stones that create alley-ways that draw every species of fish in the lake. Don’s Dynamite Shack once stored explosives during dam construction and was an underground building made of railroad ties covered with gravel. The Gypsy Boat Wreck is a 24-foot, wood cabin cruiser sitting on a flat gravel bottom near an abrupt drop off with tall pinnacle rocks and lots of large fish. The one I’m most intrigued by is the Snap-On Tool Truck because of the story of how it came to be in the lake back in 1955 and the fact that it recently went missing. That’s right; it’s missing. While some of the sites are wrecks or old home site foundations, others are of geological interest like Devil’s Backbone, a long, shallow reef-like rock formation that looks like the giant, skeletal vertebrae of some prehistoric creature.
If you dive every site (excluding the cave dive for which you must be certified) you receive a free T-shirt and have your name engraved on a plaque at Jordan Marina. The marina has GPS coordinates for most of the dive sites and a map of dive locations.
Jordan Marina is a full-service marina and dive shop. You can rent jet skis, ski boats, pontoon boats and nightly or weekly boat stalls. Dan and Denise offer dive lessons in small classes or individually. It’s also a great place to get pizza.
Dan said a lot of dive clubs and dive shop groups from Illinois, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Oklahoma are drawn to Norfork Lake. “The diving aspect of the lake is a unique draw because it’s really hard to find good diving without going to the ocean,” he explained. “It’s refreshing to dive in a clean, clear lake.” Dan added that it also costs more to get to the ocean. Therefore, a plus to this southern part of Norfork Lake, the Jordan area, is its natural, white, sandy beaches.
Denise said getting certified in scuba diving will make all my vacations better. She’s right in that certification would provide adventure on those occasional tropical trips. But with 31 dive sites to explore at Norfork Lake, I think I’ll be more like a salmon headed home to the place I first found life under water.
Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, 501-682-7606
May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
“Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism”