Friday, June 20, 2014

A Sea of Lights - Fireworks Over Beaver Lake.

Throughout Arkansas, dozens of fireworks show dot the Independence Day schedule. Most are held in city parks or over ball fields – but one, out at Marker 8 on Beaver Lake in northwest Arkansas, captivates not only for the light show in the air but the one on the water’s surface. Kat Robinson shares the experience of this pageant put on annually by Ventris Trail’s End Resort.

The boats wet on as far as the eye could see -- hundreds of them -- as the sun set. When the sun escaped the sky, a thousand tiny bulbs illuminated on the surface of the water, front and back markers for every watercraft. They multiplied as more came into the bay, as individuals turned on strings of tiny lights or big blue LED bars, even a black light or two. Green on the back, incandescent white on the front, out and on and on, six hundred boats or more becoming a sea of sequins in the night on Beaver Lake.

It was a Friday night, July 5th of 2013, the day after Independence Day. The drive took hours. We rode up from Fort Smith through northwest Arkansas and then down from Garfield on the long peninsula into Beaver Lake. The road dwindled from a two-lane to a two-lane without shoulders to one without a stripe to a dirt road curling back and forth between trees, narrowing further.

The lodge sat into the side of the hill, two stories of log-clad majesty at the top of a story-tall concrete staircase. Inside the office, large fish on the wall and a big dining room off to the right that smelled of 1985 and cedar and such.

But on the other end, there was a splendid, surprising diner that served up burgers and steaks and daily late lunch specials with wine or when it was open. It was not when we arrived, but big eyes and big cameras brought out a couple of slices from the case, a blood-red strawberry and rhubarb filled slice and one of pink-tinted peach slices under a hand-rolled, hand poked lattice top crust, perfection. This place should have been in my pie book.

But we hadn't come for pie; fireworks were what we sought, great blossoms and flashes of fire in the nighttime sky. And though we wouldn't know it for a short while, we had arrived in the right place.

The Simrell family has owned the property since the 1970s, but Ventris Trail’s End Resort was just built in 1997 – a lodge and a collection of cabins nestled into the woods on one of the lake’s many peninsulas. The show we had come to see had first been presented in 2002. It wasn't just folks on the shoreline shooting off what they’d found at a roadside stand.. no, it was quite different. Jody Simrell met us at the lodge and started telling us about the inspiration -- seeing a grand fireworks show at Epcot Center one year and thinking about how grand it would be to have that sort of display over the big lake at home. The original idea was to bring a little attention to the resort and let people know it was there; it had turned into something much bigger.

The lodge is at the top of the ridge that runs the length of the peninsula, while the action to create the show are on the lake's banks. Jody took us in a golf cart down to the shore and marina to show us the speakers. I was surprised they weren't larger -- but he assured me they'd be able to be heard across the water. "They can also tune to 100.9fm," he reassured me.

We got back into the cart and headed further out along the peninsula. When the road got too rough and steep, we walked, careful not to let the flint chips roll under our feet.

The row of fireworks didn't seem all that spectacular on approach, but the control board did -- a mass of hundreds of tiny buttons attached to wires like the craziest DJ system imaginable -- but past that were boxes, and wires, and tubes and more wires. These were the works.

Those wires were connected to mortars and other pyrotechnic missiles on the beach a short distance away. Close to 10,000 shells are involved in the show, each holding up to 120 shots. Each shot becomes one of those pinpoints or flares of light in the sky. That's a lot of light, right?

Jody was careful not to step on the wires near the mortars. Grav talked him into picking up one from its tube, and he did, carefully, like an ancient tribesman picking up a severed head by its hair. The resemblance was uncanny thanks to the size of the mortar, bigger than my head and about as oblong and round. Grav asked him to smile, and the effect was similar.

We went back to the lodge one more time to make sure we had all we needed (and for me to take an important break) and headed back to the marina, where we met up with Larry, Jody's brother. He had us sit up front on the pontoon boat and the family that had boarded moved to the back, a young couple with a redheaded girl that looked to be about six and a pudgy toddler of maybe three. There was also a guy in a red Hawaiian shirt by the name of Jeff who was gray and balding on the top but generally good natured -- and a couple of younger guys.

We headed out on the water, where boats were already gathering, maybe 50 between the marina and the island. I was surprised we were heading as far out as we were before I realized the island was our destination. The young man wanted to see the fireworks from that island with his family, and they'd packed a backpack and cooler to go with. The toddler did not like being on the water at all. She fussed and hollered and squirmed in her mother's arms.

We had to search out a spot in the brush to pull in. Water was high for the season - had been since May, when wave after wave of thunderstorms had more than made up for the previous year's deficit and filled the lake.

The young man jumped out and pulled the pontoon in to shore. His wife brought forward the toddler, who was really wrestling to get out of her arms by this point. She handed the little girl over, then climbed over herself. The redheaded girl did not want to go, and was given the option to go back to shore. She climbed out, and I heard her ask her dad where they were going, and I knew tales of adventures were being spun.

Back across the water, Larry took a phone call, and off we went to ferry one more group out to the island. This set was a trio, two young men and a young tanned woman with chairs.

Cruising back into the island, we saw the family again, sitting together tightly on a blue quilt, the man perched on the cooler. The talk of adventured had ceased and you could sense a dreary exhaustion, perhaps from the fight. The toddler was quiet now, rocked back on her diapered bottom with her back to the cooler, finally at peace with the decision to go there.

Grav took the opposite side on the front and Jeff sat beside me, balancing the pontoon as flat as possible. Larry went to set anchor and couldn't find it. Since the boat was one of the resort’s rentals, it was back one more time to the marina to grab another. The anchor fetched, we eased out into the bay one more time.

We nestled through the boats and swimmers to an optimal site about the time the sun crept down the other side of the peninsula, leaving the twilight blues to claim water and sky. Anchor pitched, one of the two young men on the back of the boat jumped into the water and shored us up so the front end faced the site of the fireworks.

But the wind kept sliding us around, and finally Larry untied the anchor and maneuvered it to the back of the boat. We were finally set even for the show.

Motor off, idling done, we sat and watched the night claim the lake. Boat after boat came into view, and as the glow faded from the sky each would turn on its lights. There was a sparkle about it, an undulating wave.

I've heard of an oriental experience where keel boats slowly float through a conglomeration of phosphorescent luminaries on lily pads -- and this was similar, the sensation of floating and quiet and fellowship. Though most boats were packed with people waiting for fireworks, with anything from two to ten on each, there was a silence, a bare murmur as folks waited.

A boom ad a flash of light came from the shore, a single mortar fired into the air. Over the loudspeaker there was a sudden crackle, and then an announcement for people to come out to the bay in their boats, that the fireworks were about to begin. I heard the echo from the radio on a nearby craft.

Darkness had taken the guy, with the barest sparkle of stars overhead, the play was now in the water, as gleams and splinters and rays from each floating craft reflected onto the surface of the lake.

Impatient, some took to lighting their own fireworks on far beaches, exploding quickly and brightly far away ,briefly disturbing the hush – but near silence would fall again just as rapidly. Chinese lanterns were released here and there -- a blue one, a red one, a white one. One of the blue ones came down directly by the boat closest to us, almost unnoticed by the people within resting before the show, lulled into a watery lullaby by the rocking and the sloshing.

One more single mortar exploded above our heard, and then, suddenly, a call was made for the pledge of allegiance, and after the first two words a thousand voices joined in, echoing over the water. The cadence of human voice was more powerful than a sea of tympanis, stronger than a military drum core. This was an impromptu community more than a thousand individuals strong, maybe two thousand, bigger than many of the burgs that lined the lake, and they were united in this rite of ceremony.

At the end of the pledge, God Bless America blasted out from the speakers, accompanied by the first choreographed round of pyrotechnics. The noise around us became palpable as all those voices hushed by the majesty of the incoming night suddenly came alive again, enthralled by the pageantry above. Grav took up his camera, and I did too, and we aimed our lenses skyward.

Without a break, the music segued into Wayland Holyfield’s “Arkansas You Run Deep In Me.” This classic from the 80s might have seemed out of date elsewhere, but here it gave me goosebumps. Here I was on an Arkansas lake, surrounded by others who had come out for the show… the beauty of it all was remarkable.

One song after another drove the display, which continued through each piece. You could hear the music echoing from the shore and from radios on many of the bobbing points, Santana’s “Monster” and Celine Dion and even a piece Jody Simrell had written and performed. Though we had started seated in the boat we’d all risen to our feet, even Larry and Jeff, as the concert had progressed. It grew in intensity and never slacked.

The momentum came to a head as the opening to a Mumford and Sons song began. As the boys started to harmonize about how they would wait for you, I stood by Grav shooting and them put my hand on his back. The darkness hid most of our features, but I could see him smiling, too.

One last amazing, considerable volley of fireworks, a loud blast, and then silence. The show had ended just as quickly as it had begun. Hoots and hollers started to come from the crowd, followed by thunderous applause. And then some bugger turned on his headlights and blinded half of us.

As Larry aimed us at the shore, we saw those bobbing lanterns on the water start to recede. Everyone we passed and talked with agreed it was a far bigger and better show than the year before. We made it in, and while guys held the boat tight I was aided off the craft by an elderly gentleman with the pomp of a footman to the queen. I prayed my water legs wouldn't send me and the camera equipment into the drink.

We foraged on ahead in the semi dark up the hill, me following Grav -- who lead us not up the driveway but over the children’s playground instead. We both forced ourselves onward, knowing we had a two hour drive ahead of us. We saw Jody and overheard he need to go down to get us. He asked us how we liked the show and we just grinned at each other, speechless for just a moment. There were dozens of adjectives in my head, but none seemed adequate for what we had seen.

Last year’s celebration fell on July 5th, which allowed us to see other shows the nights before and after. The coordination and effort the Simrells put into their show place it in a category all its own. You should go. It’s… beyond words.

Click here to head to the Ventris Trail’s End Resort website. And if you’re out on the water, head to Marker 8 on Independence night. You won’t be disappointed.

To get there by land from Garfield, take Hwy 127 toward Lost Bridge. Just past Across the Creek Restaurant, turn right on Ventris Road, which you'll follow 6.3 miles to Trail's End Road. Turn left and look for Simrell Drive. Follow Simrell Drive through the gate. Signs will get you the rest of the way there.

To get there by water, head southwest of Ford's Creek or northwest from Cedar Bluff -- it's across the river from Martin Cemetery. Or, just use your handy GPS to find the Point 8 Marker.

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