Andrew McNeece’s documentary film “Undammed: A Buffalo River Adventure” opens with aerial shots of the Buffalo River obscured beneath clouds and fog. As the camera dips lower, though, the mist clears and the majestic river is seen winding through the lush forests and hills of the Ozark Mountains.

 

The 50-minute film celebrates the Buffalo National River’s 50th anniversary this year and features the myriad of activities along the 135-mile river. It debuted in special showings across Arkansas and Missouri in June and should soon be available on Amazon Prime.

Andrew McNeece

A 10th grade history teacher at Bentonville High School, McNeece, 37, wasn’t really a filmmaker at first. He enjoyed snapping pictures of the outdoors and realized teaching history to teenagers at his school was basically a storytelling technique.

 

He combined his photography and his teaching skills in what he thought was merely a hobby. McNeece would shoot pictures during summer jobs at Glacier National Park in Montana and Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah while attending the University of Mississippi in the mid 2000s. He’d then display them on what he calls the “early days” of Instagram.

Map of the Buffalo River.

“I took pictures of the places,” McNeece said. “I picked up a used camera that took film. I couldn’t afford a digital camera. It began as a hobby.”

 

He gained a following of his photographs on the social platform and then, like the parting clouds in his documentary’s opening, his focus became clearer. McNeece met Jeff Rose, an Arkansas photographer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Southern Living, Garden and Gun and other publications, and the two became friends.

 

Meanwhile, McNeece’s teaching was taking off. After graduating from the University of Mississippi, he began teaching social studies in the Water Valley School District in Water Valley, Mississippi, in 2011.

 

In 2016, he fell in love with Northwest Arkansas after visiting the area and he and his wife, Courtney, moved to Bentonville where they both teach. Courtney McNeece teaches first graders at the Garfield Elementary School in Rogers.

 

“We were looking at places to relocate,” McNeece said. “We wanted a place with good standards of living and an outdoors culture. Mississippi had the outdoor culture of hunting, but not all the other outdoor things.

“We kept coming up with Northwest Arkansas,” he said. “This area is hard to beat.”

 

McNeece bought a fly fishing rod, and he and Rose went to the Buffalo River to fish. The two would take trips to various rivers and created “Fly Fishing in Arkansas,” a 30-minute film about fly fishing in the Buffalo, White, Little Red and Missouri rivers. He also made “Ozarks on the Fly,” a seven-part series about the state’s rivers.

 

“I thought I wanted to keep doing that,” McNeece said of his budding film hobby.

 

He created Bluff Line Media, his filmmaking company, in 2018, and eventually made seven short documentaries that feature the outdoors culture he likes. McNeece and his family took vacations to rivers and parks where he continued to hone his photographic skills.

 

On weekends, he and Rose would float and fish the Buffalo River and talk about making a documentary about the river in the fall of 2019.

 

Then, COVID-19 hit, and the two put the project on the backburner, he said.

 

But, unlike for most, the pandemic was actually beneficial to McNeece.

 

“It gave me more time to think and put it all together,” he said.

 

He talked with his wife about the time he’d need to complete the film.

 

“Can we do this?” he asked. “Are you sure?”

 

The couple just had a son, and McNeece wasn’t too keen on leaving his wife on the weekends to shoot video and spend long weeknights editing his work.

 

“She said I’d regret it if I didn’t go ahead,” he said.

 

So he and Rose made frequent jaunts to the river, photographing people boating and fishing and talking to them about their adventures.

Tim Ernst

Once, McNeece scored an interview with renowned wildlife photographer Tim Ernst who lives in Newton County. Ernst’s work has appeared in National Geographic, Outdoor Photography, Audubon, Natural History, Outside and other publications. He’s also been featured in Sierra Club and Hallmark calendars and in National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service maps and brochures, and he’s published 18 books of his photographs.

 

Ernst knows the techniques of getting a good shot.

 

McNeece completed the interview and returned home to watch it, excited about the addition to his documentary.

 

“I watched it and saw the lighting was terrible,” McNeece said. “It was unusable. I had to call him back and tell him that and ask if we could do it again.

 

“It was a tough call to make,” he said.

 

Ernst granted the second interview, and McNeece ensured the lighting was better.

 

Most of the film shows the opportunities for boating, kayaking, fishing and hiking on the river. There are also scenes of bike riding and rock climbing, but those activities are mostly prohibited on the Buffalo National River Park grounds.

 

The documentary also presents the history of the river.

Buffalo River, (photo courtesy of ADPHT)

The passage of the Flood Control Act of 1938 let the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam rivers in the state to create lakes that reduced flooding and provide means for creating hydroelectric energy. The Corps dammed section of the White River to create the Beaver, Bull Shoals and Table Rock lakes.

 

The Corps also set its sights on the Buffalo River, but locals balked, realizing a dam would completely change the beautiful river and its scenery. They countered, saying the river would draw visitors which meant more revenue for the state.

 

In 1972, federal law designated the Buffalo River as the nation’s first national river. The 98,000-acre park includes 135 miles of the 150 miles of riverway. The river cuts through Newton, Marion and Searcy counties before converging with the White River in Baxter County.

 

“We touched on the fight to save the river,” McNeece said of his film. “But we didn’t get too much into it. This is a celebration and we didn’t want it to be too political.”

 

The documentary has received quite a bit of accolades during its recent showings. More than 250 showed up at its debut in Harrison, another 250 attended a showing in Fayetteville, and McNeece had to schedule two showings of his movie in Springfield because of the crowd.

 

“I was impressed,” said Terrie Martindale, board president of the Buffalo National River Partners. The group, made up of volunteers, provides support and education for the national park and helps raise money for renovation projects within park boundaries.

 

“The perspective he took was just amazing,” she said. “His movie is so engaging.”

 

She was concerned, however, that the film may draw too many to an area that already sees an average of 1.5 million visitors a year. The additional crowd could add stress to the river.

 

“It’s easy for humans to damage in only a few months what took millions of years to establish,” she said.

 

She added that casual visitors may not be aware of just how rough parts of the river are. The national park status protects the river, but does not always manage it.

 

“The river is wild,” Martindale said. “You have to know what’s going on. Educating yourself about it is very important.

 

“This is an incredible river tucked in the northcentral part of the state. Our state has this national gem. There’s not another one in the nation like it.”

 

Cassie Branstetter, chief interpreter of the Buffalo River National Park, said because of her job she’s not allowed to openly speak about the movie. Instead, she said she will help educate the visitors who come to the river after seeing “Undammed.”

“There’s been a lot of response to the film,” she said. “There’s also been attention because this is our 50th anniversary. There’s been a lot of articles in national newspapers and magazines.”

 

McNeece said his 10th grade students at Bentonville are also impressed with his work, jokingly calling him “Ken Burns,” referring to the documentarian who has made epic-length films about baseball, country music and Ernest Hemingway and other historical topics.

 

He said the “established order of chaos” in teaching high school helped him manage time with shooting, editing and then promoting his film.

 

“I’m proud of the way it turned out,” he said. “There are things I could do better. We were out in the elements dealing with wind and cicadas hatching all around. These were all challenges and I learned from it.

 

“We live in the age of the internet,” McNeece said. “With just a few clicks on Google, you can find out anything about the river. With this documentary, I wanted more control about the discussions of the river, not just the places.”