Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine
A river for life
Myron McKee develops a stretch of paradise on the bank of the North Fork

by Bob McEowen

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 believe they’ve 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 it “the 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 Streams.”

The 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, 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.”

Myron’s ancestors 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.

“He 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.

Myron loads 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 tramp,” following 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 children.

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.

“We couldn’t 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 species.

“Some people 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.”

The cabins at River of Life Farm are isolated from one another, and each offers a unique view.

Fishing 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.

“I 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?”

Still, 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.

Internationally renowned 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.

Jeremy McKee, Myron and Ann's oldest son, fishes for trout in the North Fork.

The resort’s 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.

Increasingly, the McKees are directing their business less at fishermen and more toward vacationing families and couples.

“We always 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.

“Last season we turned away four couple’s cabins a weekend — guests that wanted an anniversary, romantic honeymoon, birthday, couple’s getaway,” he 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 North Fork.

Jimmy Rhea, 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.

“Compared to 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 the river.”

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 and Kenya.

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.

“We 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.

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