TABLE ROCK LAKE, Mo. -- Not every trip goes as planned.
Days of torrential spring storms had lifted the waters of Table Rock Lake to unprecedented levels, more than 20 feet above normal. All around its 600 miles of shoreline, the lake was engulfing the tree-draped hillsides, greatly expanding its normal 43,000 acres and even threatening to overflow the 250-foot high dam after which it is named. All 10 of the dam's huge sluice gates were wide open, spilling water as quickly as possible, even if it meant flooding communities downstream along the White River.
I was among a group of writers invited to this lake in the Ozarks of south-central Missouri 10 miles from the entertainment city of Branson primarily to fish the largemouth and smallmouth bass that Table Rock is known for. But the rainy conditions changed all that.
Even after the leaden skies brightened the day after we arrived, the normally clear lake was turbid with mud and floating debris. Boating had been declared dangerous, and the fleets of bass boats and their guides were sticking close to marinas. Even canoeing and kayaking were discouraged. The Bassmaster Open 2 fishing tournament scheduled for the following week had already been postponed -- until the fall.
Fair evaluations of a destination are difficult when the conditions are so extreme. So instead of enjoying the bounties of Table Rock Lake, we took the opportunity to get to know Big Cedar Resort where we were staying as well as the iconic hunting and fishing company behind it, Bass Pro Shops.
Both proved to be interesting stories.
In 1972, then 22-year-old Johnny Morris started stocking shelves in his father's liquor store in Springfield, Mo., on the road to Table Rock Lake, with homemade lures and baits and bass fishing gear he'd gathered from suppliers on a trip around the West. From that humble beginning, Bass Pro Shops has grown into one of the country's premiere merchandisers of equipment for fishing, hunting, camping and other outdoor recreation.
Mr. Morris expanded the reach of Bass Pro Shops with a mail-order catalog in 1974. Three years later, he pioneered selling of complete bass boat packages combining boat, motor and trailer. In the early 1980s, the first Outdoor World was built in Springfield, a big box store that, in addition to all the merchandise, featured large aquariums with live fish and water life. Mr. Morris added elaborate taxidermy displays and classes and outdoor skills workshops that transformed the store from a shopping experience into a destination venue.
The approach proved so attractive the Springfield store became Missouri's single most visited destination, a distinction it has held continuously since. The first Outdoor World has grown into a 330,000-square-foot mercantile mecca for all things outdoors. A new Wonders of Wildlife Museum set to open in the fall will nearly double the space.
Building on that success, Bass Pro Shops has formed strategic affiliations with NASCAR, the Bassmaster Fishing Tour along with a host of sporting, nature and conservation organizations and was quick to harness the power of the Internet.
New outlets were aggressively built across the U.S. and Canada. Today there are 56 Bass Pro Shops, each outfitted with dioramas featuring flora and fauna indigenous to that area. (The Bass Pro Shops nearest to Pittsburgh are in Harrisburg and Toledo, Ohio.)
With more than 110 million people visiting Bass Pro Shops each year, the privately owned company claims to outdraw all NFL and Major League Baseball teams combined.
The expansive Big Cedar Lodge is another reflection of Bass Pro Shop's commitment to the outdoors and to conservation.
The resort got its start in 1987, when Morris' wife Jeanie spotted a tiny newspaper listing advertising a defunct 42-acre resort facility on Big Cedar Hollow along the Long Creek Arm of Table Rock Lake.
Before the White River was dammed in 1958, these Ozark highlands had been minimally developed. Once the province of Osage Indians, the wooded hillside had been acquired in 1927 by Julian Simmons and Harry Worman, two Springfield businessmen who built plush, backcountry retreats for themselves and their wives on the 300-acre property. The Worman house was patterned after a Tudor country estate, while Simmons built a log mansion in the style of Adirondack retreats just above a deep spring known as the Devil's Pool.
But both estates suffered during the Depression, and the land ended up in the hands of a logging company that stripped off its cedar, oak and walnut, devastating the once magnificent forests.
In 1948, the property was acquired by Dan Norris, a California developer who moved with his wife into the Worman house. They converted the Simmons house into a small lodge, constructed a dozen pine cabins, and opened Devil's Pool Guest Ranch as a summer retreat.
The damming of the White River a decade later filled the deep hollows with Table Rock Lake and brought new recreation opportunities. For a time, the guest ranch operated with modest success, but by the late 1970s it had fallen into decrepitude and been vacant for a decade when Morris first arrived.
Blessed by Mr. Morris' vision to see the possibilities, the original property has been transformed.
Both the Worman and Simmons houses have been carefully restored to their original magnificence, along with several other buildings of historic merit. Hundreds of additional acres around the narrow arm of Table Rock Lake have been added to the resort's grounds, and myriad new buildings erected.
The decrepit Valley View Lodge was rebuilt and a new Falls View Lodge constructed, each with about 90 guest rooms. Old knotty pine cabins were updated, and a string of 60 one-, two- and three-bedroom luxury log cabins with all the modern conveniences, including full kitchens, flat-screen TVs and lake view decks with gas grills, were spaced along the opposite bank of the narrow inlet.
Creative landscaping has preserved and enhanced the natural contours of the Ozark terrain but with broad brushstrokes of floral elegance. The Grandview Conference Center, which opened in 2008, can hold 1,000 people.
All told, Big Cedar Resort now has two full-service spas, a nine-hole golf course, and four excellent, on-property dining options.
The resort's outdoor themes are not limited to the game sports. Its marina offers water activities and boat rentals. Stables and bike rentals offer other ways for guests to explore the grounds. During the spring and fall, Big Cedar's artist-in-residence program provides guests with access to and instruction from plein air painters.
Although the resort is spread out over 800 acres, everything is linked by a shuttle service.
All in all, I found Big Cedar Resort a most pleasant place that combines the ambience and amenities of a high-class hostelry with the ethos of an upscale summer camp, with lots of activities to fill one's days, followed by family s'mores around the campfire at sundown. The formula has earned Big Cedar membership in the Preferred Hotels & Resorts system and selection as "Best of the Best" in the Midwest by the Wall Street Journal.
I would certainly welcome the chance to check it out again sometime when Table Rock Lake isn't flooding.
David Bear, Post-Gazette travel editor emeritus, can be contacted through his website www.travelersjournal.com .