river for life
McKee develops a stretch of paradise on the bank of the North Fork
|Professional river guide Brian Wise casts his line
near The Falls, a landmark at River of Life Farm, a 350-acre resort
along the North Fork of the White River. The blue ribbon fishing
area has been described as one of the 100 best trout streams in America
by Trout Unlimited.
The Bible speaks
of a river of life lined with trees. Myron McKee freely admits his
wooded resort along the North Fork of the White River is named to reflect
his Christian beliefs, but visitors to River of Life Farm may simply
arrived at paradise.
With more than 350
acres of pristine Ozark forest at their disposal, guests can immerse
themselves in peace and solitude. It’s the river,
though, that draws most visitors.
Fly fishermen call
miracle mile.” The stretch of the North
Fork that passes alongside River of Life Farm offers perhaps the best wild
rainbow trout fishing in Missouri. The Department of Conservation
designates it as a blue ribbon wild trout management area. It is
one of only two Missouri locations listed in Trout Unlimited’s “Guide
to America’s 100 Best Trout
rushing waters of The Falls are one of the most recognizable
features of the North Fork. The falls are located just beyond
Myron’s front yard.
The crown jewel of
this angler’s Mecca is “The
Falls,” a cascading
2- to 3-foot drop, located just beyond the McKee home, about 20 miles west
of West Plains, near the town of Dora.
location, location,” Myron
says, explaining the secret of his success. “Whenever you go to
any Web site or look at any brochure that’s marketing the North
Fork, it will probably have a picture of The Falls. That is the class
one water feature on the North Fork, and it’s
in our front yard.”
moved to the area from Kansas in the 1920s. As early as the 1950s,
Myron’s father saw
the potential for a livelihood catering to fishermen, who came for
the rainbow and brown trout stocked in the stream at that time.
had one cabin and he had just laid the foundation for his lodge house.
He had the lumber in the barn, waiting to build it, and then, July
17, 1958, he drowned,” Myron says, recalling his father’s
death, crossing the swollen North Fork on horseback.
canoes before taking a group of guests upsteam. River of Life Farm
caters to floaters, fishermen and other guests who enjoy the beauty
of the North Fork of the White River.
A year later,
a younger brother died. The two deaths crushed Myron’s mother.
The family left the Ozarks and migrated to Arizona. Eventually,
Myron was placed in foster care in California. Upon high school
graduation, he received the gift of a sleeping bag and was told
to go see the world.
Myron became a “fruit
the harvest around America. In 1976, with $3,000 saved from his
labors, he visited an uncle back in Missouri. The uncle gave
Myron 5 acres and convinced him to build a house on it. Myron settled
down with Ann, whom he met in high school, took a job in West
Plains and began raising a family, which would eventually include seven
In 1982, another
uncle died and left Myron land next to The Falls. Myron and Ann graciously
tolerated the parade of fly fishermen who either waded to the mythical
spot or arranged to be escorted across private property to the river.
Visiting fishermen would bring the McKees gifts in return for camping
in the yard or bunking in their house, but the anglers’ devotion
to the stream was something of a mystery to the couple.
|The falls provide
excitement for canoeists and kayakers floating the North Fork.
understand why they would catch and release,” Ann
says. “Here we had seven kids we were trying to feed.
But now we understand.”
Indeed, even before
the Conservation Department deemed this stretch of the North Fork a
wild trout management area, anglers steadfastly refused to harvest
the river’s vulnerable population of rainbow trout. The
department last stocked rainbows in the area in the 1960s.
The fish that live in the stream today are self-sustaining,
a rare occurrence in Missouri, where trout are not a native
treat our wild trout like they were gold. It’s a privilege
to catch them,” says Brian Wise, an avid fly fisherman
who guides River of Life Farm guests on the North Fork. “They
give a harder fight than a stocked trout.”
cabins at River of Life Farm are isolated from one another, and
each offers a unique view.
regulations now limit each angler’s harvest to
one trout, 18-inches or longer, per day in the blue
ribbon section of the stream. Only artificial lures
and flies may be used. While the wily fish and the
challenging conditions attract diehard anglers, fishing
is not a pastime that interests Myron much.
would rather be doing anything rather than fishing,
something productive,” he
says. “You’re going to release what you
catch. What will I have to show for it?”
when his employer cut back staff in 1994, Myron
turned to fishing as a way to provide for his family. Acting
on a tip from one of his regular fishing squatters,
the Howell-Oregon Electric Cooperative member attended
a trout-fishing conclave in Mountain Home, Ark.,
and announced his intention of opening a resort.
fly-fishing author, illustrator and guide Dave Whitlock took Myron
under his wing and taught him how to fish. The reluctant angler soon
found himself guiding guests at River of Life Farm. “I learned
quick. I had to,” Myron says.
As business grew,
Myron realized he needed lodging for guests. Taking advantage of teaser
loan rates, he financed his first cabin with $50,000 worth of checks
from credit card companies. Over the years, he’s bought more land and
built more cabins. River of Life Farm now boasts eight
cabins, including “The
Tree House,” where guests look out through
tree limbs onto the river below.
McKee, Myron and Ann's oldest son, fishes for trout in the North
lodging options range from luxurious couple’s
cabins to large units that can accommodate
eight guests. Each cabin has a view of the
river. A new lodge will offer guest rooms
as well as meeting space for corporate retreats,
family reunions, fishing schools and other
events. A store, restaurant and catering
service also are planned.
McKees are directing their business less
at fishermen and more toward vacationing
families and couples.
want to have the fly fishing. That’s
our trademark,” Myron
says. “But we would like it to
be maybe 25 percent of our business.
season we turned away four couple’s
cabins a weekend — guests
that wanted an anniversary, romantic
honeymoon, birthday, couple’s
says. “That’s our market
niche right now.”
River of Life
Farm is open year-round, though business
slows during winter months. While
fishermen still flock to The Falls, many guests
simply want to read a book on their
cabin deck or float the clear flowing
Lea Humphrey and Terri Humphrey prepare a cook fire outside the “Mountain
Log Lookout” cabin. Eight different cabins offer accommodations
for couples, families and groups.
other rivers, it is less populated, crystal
clear, always a good water flow,
and the scenery is just spectacular,” says
Jim Torchia, who once hosted a
Web site that cataloged all the
floating liveries in the Ozarks.
Torchia came to River
of Life Farm after agreeing to swap Internet services
for lodging and canoe rental. He was
so impressed that he abandoned a goal
of floating every river in the Ozarks.
“I did the
Elk. I did the Current. I did the Jack’s Fork. I did the
Gasconade, and then I came
here. I’ve never been to another river since,” says
Torchia, who now works for
Myron, managing guest services. “I just fell
in love with this place and
Torchia is charged
with developing the new lodge, which the McKees hope
will greatly expand their business.
Aside from a personal desire to succeed,
Myron also has a higher purpose in
mind. Following a visit to Central
America, he created The James Project,
a non-profit foundation named for James
1:27, a Bible verse that admonishes Christians
to care for widows and orphans. A percentage
of the proceeds from The River of Life
Farm now funds orphanages in Guatemala
Myron and Ann McKee, owners of the resort, relax by River of Life
Spring, a popular destination for guests exploring the grounds.
Myron says he is
committed to growing River of Life Farm, both to feed his own family
and to help the less fortunate. The past few years have seen a flurry
of activity as new cabins were built and the lodge took shape. Myron
is now eager for his resort to gain in popularity and reputation.
don’t want to become a tourist trap. We want careful growth
without destroying what has given
us success,” he says.
“We’ve got the best lodging.
We have the best float stream. The best wild rainbow fishery,” he
says. “We want to be real sensitive to
continuing the best family
vacation in the Ozarks.”
For more information,
write River of Life Farm, Route 1, Box 4535, Dora, MO 65637; phone (417)
261-7777 or log onto www.riveroflifefarm.com.