Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sad Days in Van Buren

Kim, the head concessionaire at Big Spring Lodge and Cabins, has her quilting operation up and running. While tending to the masses coming to the remarkable cabins at the Ozark National Scenic Riverways Big Spring outpost, she quilts, making beautifully colorful blocks of Log Cabin designs and others. I do adore Kim, who will take my last minute calls for cabin reservations, sending the bill to the right address and letting me know whether there will be firewood waiting or if I need to bring my own. But after this season, Kim's operation will shut down as the Scenic Riverways will close the Big Spring Lodge and Cabins for repairs for three years.

Three years, that's a long time to live without a cabin at Big Spring. The cabins and Lodge are fully operational since the days of the Conservation Civilian Corps. In recent years, the concessionaire has added window unit air conditioning to make the cabins more bearable during the late summer nights. But in spring and fall, one can count on timber mill seconds for firewood to keep the cabins warm. Other lodging in Van Buren? There's Rosecliff, the hotel attached to The Landing, the premier canoe outfitter and nice restaurant with a full bar, great porch and vegetarian options.

But it's not a cabin at Big Spring. Our waitress at the lodge, wearing her watermelon apron and barrettes in her hair, said that the National Park Service wasn't going to change the rustic character of the lodge and cabins with their planned upgrades (I hope she's right). The closure of the cabins and the lodge will allow for foundation and electrical repairs, and upgrades to the cabin kitchens which are now spaces with electric hotplates and coffeepots. I'm worried they're going to bring wifi to the cabins, that they're going to upgrade the cabins and lodge so much so that fancy city people will come and change the character of the landscape. I hope my worries are unfounded. The jet boats in the Big Spring area have already decimated the river, I hope development doesn't destroy the cabins and lodge.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Fleeting

It's been a summer of scheduled appointments, of conferences, of not spending time in the natural world beyond the random trips to rivers and streams and the rogue woods hiking. Temperatures are high in late August in Missouri, so rivers and streams are more welcoming than ever. Daddy flies in from Louisiana on Tuesday, and Wednesday morning we're setting out for Big Spring country via St. James and Concord grape stands and earnest wineries like Heinrichhaus over on CR 1000. I told him to bring swim trunks, that splashing around in the Current River would be the best thing for him while we're staying at those fantastic Conservation Civilian Corps-built cabins at Big Spring that were not built for hot August nights. My grandpa Bacil worked with the CCC building Army barracks in the Gulf south, but they've since been torn down. I just can't wait to show Daddy how the Ozark National Scenic Riverways has done such a nice job (better than Louisiana) preserving the cultural heritage of that period.

Cicadas drone all day and night. Katydids don't start talking until nightfall, but when they start up, they are wonderfully vocal until the very early morning hours. Bats are still active at dusk as they flit around the street lamps hawking moths. While most folks recreate during June and July, I try to avoid people, so my recreation period begins when school starts and people disappear. I'm looking forward to a five day float on the Eleven Point River, to a trip to Arizona to see some of those ridiculously beautiful birds on their way south, and to shorter trips during aster and goldenrod season when the crickets start talking at night as they presage fall.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Seed Tick Country

Generally, as a rule, the only time I really use trail systems in Missouri's natural places is during seed tick season. As an asocial melancholic, I don't like seeing other people when I visit nature, so I avoid weekends and trails. But during seed tick season, I am somewhat and vaguely grateful for trails. Still, only between Mondays and Thursdays when few others recreate outdoors.

In the past few years, there has developed in Missouri a growing hysteria about the dangers of visiting nature: bears! mountain lions! snakes! rocky trails and twisted ankles! dehydration! I've always maintained that driving to nature is more dangerous than anything in nature, and I am certainly more wary of tick borne illness than I am of venomous snakes. But it doesn't keep me out of the woods. Seed tick season, however, is brutal. With the Ozarks' ever-burgeoning deer herd, ticks seem to be increasing in abundance. Regardless of my habit of wearing light colored trousers with duct taped ankles, seed ticks still manage to find their way to my torso and ankles. So I try not to bust through too much brush in August. Two steps off a trail at the toeslope of a glade and five big slugs of thousands of seed ticks scatter all over my trousers and ankles. Swatting them off with a big cedar branch helps, and if I liked my boots and wore them more often than I wear my running shoes, the tiny ticks wouldn't find their way through my simple cotton socks, but I don't wear my boots much. So I deal with seed ticks.

Nevertheless, seed tick infestation is preventable, and I have little empathy for hikers who wear shorts and flip flops to the woods in August. And regardless of the threat of ticks (and snakes and spiders and mountain lions and bobcats and bears and trees falling and stepping on natural tread that might twist an ankle...), there is nothing that will keep me from witnessing the explosive display of the yellow composites in August.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Stone Hill Winery does it again

HERMANN, Mo - The 2014 Missouri Governor's Cup top honors were awarded to Stone Hill Winery for their 2012 Cross J Vineyard Norton. This prestigious wine also took home the top honors of C.V. Riley Award for Best Norton and the designation of Best of Class Dry Red wine. This marks the second straight year Stone Hill Winery won both the Governor’s Cup and C.V. Riley Award after winning both awards last year for their 2011 Estate Bottled Norton. The Missouri Wine Competition is a premier competition designed to recognize and promote quality wines made in the state. The Governor's Cup recognizes the best wine in Missouri and was determined by a panel of nine judges from across the U.S and one industry judge. During the course of the two-day competition, which wrapped up July 16, the judges tasted 300 wines before awarding the Governor's Cup and C.V. Riley honors to Stone Hill Winery. "This competition truly showcases the top wines in Missouri," said Jim Anderson, Executive Director of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board. "This year, more wines were awarded gold medals than ever before, which is a direct reflection of the quality of wines Missouri is producing." Stone Hill Winery, established in 1847, is the oldest winery in Missouri. Stone Hill boxed its two millionth case of wine last year. The winery, with locations in Hermann, New Florence and Branson, boasts many awards over the years, including multiple past Governor's Cup awards, including last year's sweep of the same three top awards with their 2011 Estate Bottled Norton. "To win the trifecta at the Missouri Wine Competition two years in a row is an incredible honor," said Jon Held, Vice President and General Manager of Stone Hill Winery. "It's a great compliment to our super vineyard and winemaking team and to the value of investing in state of the art technology." The C.V. Riley Award is for Best Norton, the official state grape of Missouri. The award is named in honor of C.V. Riley, Missouri's first state appointed entomologist who is credited with salvaging the French wine industry with his discovery of the state's pest resistant rootstock. Norton is a Native American grape and Missouri's premier red varietal, accounting for 20 percent of all grapes grown in the state. Norton grapes produce a rich, spicy, full-bodied red wine. The Governor's Cup winner was selected from the 12 Best of Class honorees: Sparkling: LBV Brut, Les Bourgeois Vineyards - Rocheport
Rosé: Estate Bottled La Fleur Sauvage, Augusta Winery - Augusta
Dry White: 2013 Seyval Blanc, Montelle Winery - Augusta
Semi-Dry White: 2013 Vignoles, Les Bourgeois Vineyards and Winery - Rocheport
Sweet White: 2012 Vignoles, Hermannhof Winery - Hermann
Dry Red: 2012 Cross J Norton Vineyard, Stone Hill Winery - Hermann
Semi-Dry Red: Hunters Red, Adam Puchta - Hermann
Sweet Red: Stone House Red, Montelle Winery - Augusta
Fruit Wine: Good News Red, Windy Wine Company - Osborn
Dessert/Fortified:Signature Port, Adam Puchta Winery - Hermann
Late Harvest/Icewine: 2013 Late Harvest Vignoles, Stone Hill Winery - Hermann
Distilled Product: Cherry Brandy, Montelle Winery - Augusta
Judges determined the awards through the process of blind tastings. Throughout the course of the competition, they granted 51 gold medals, 109 silver medals and 88 bronze medals. Thirty Missouri wineries participated in this year's competition. The winning wines will be on display throughout the 2014 Missouri State Fair, held in Sedalia Aug. 7-17. Many will be available to taste and purchase in the Missouri Wines tent on the fairgrounds near the grandstand.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

In mesic streambank forests

The morning cicadas starting their droning around 10 o'clock this morning when the temperatures had already climbed into the lower 80s. I would rather have been on a river this morning but drinking hotel coffee along a streambank rich with the big strapping blades of Carex albursina and drooping white flowerheads of Polymnia, loyal to talus slopes and forested settings, was also nice.

Walking the spring branch and seeing the forces of nature working alone as they do in these mesic woods, shaped not by fire but by windthrow and rain events, I was reminded of comments from a forester who visited the site with me years ago. He tried to tell me that these moist north-facing slopes should possess a carpet of warm season grasses and widely spaced post oaks rather than the old maples, white oaks and wild hydrangeas that exist today. He tried to tell me that we need to burn these areas, these mesic forest settings, to "promote savanna." It's just silly, frankly, when folks unfamiliar with ecologically complex systems try to offer one prescription across all landscapes for "restoration." So today I was reminded of the anti-maple craze going on in the Ozarks in reaction to papers and studies from the Appalachians. The Ozark Highlands do not have a "maple problem" along the lines of the deer-infested Eastern Deciduous Forest range northeast of the Ozarks. Our widely spaced large girth maples and white oaks, pine and Kentucky coffee trees are not necessarily out of context with the historic character of so many acres across the area, and these wanton maple eradication projects that I'm discovering throughout the region are not based on any ecological standards but as a draw for timber? Or just meddling with forested settings because practitioners have chainsaws and Tordon? I really do not know.

Streambanks and mesic forests in the Ozarks are rich, rich sites with a suite of flora that includes Solidago flexicaulis and delicate little plants that depend on cooler temperatures and deep soil. Streambank wildlife in the Ozarks usually include Louisiana waterthrush and those sneaky green herons. Today we encountered a den of four mink frolicking in a fallen tree along the sreambank, the young pups chasing one another and the adults swimming through the Sparganium and duckweed in the cool 56 degree water. The hike in shady conditions represented such a vast departure from working on glades in the summer months. But, like so many other fabulous natural history sites in the Ozarks, the moist forested conditions along streams here are associated in a heterogeneous matrix with hot, dry uplands and glades where fire-mediated flora and fauna exist just a stone's throw away from the maple-white oak woods on the north slopes.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Long July Afternoons

I have something even greater than the deepest depths of empathy and compassion for people like my Daddy who worked hard all his life and has been absolutely lost since he retired from teaching many years ago. Now age is taking its brutal toll on him (and probably thousands of other Americans) who worked for years socking money away into a retirement system only to find himself without a creative outlet and passion for healthful living so he spends entirely too many hours in doctors offices and spending hours in front of the television. Ach.

So the glade mapping project that lasted almost four years is over; the final shapefile will be made available in the next couple of weeks for anyone interested in seeing all 88,000+ mapped glades in Missouri (complete with substrate and a fully stocked attribute table!). Much fieldwork for the past four years has included field truthing mapped glades across the state--thousands of glades of questionable quality, but glades nonetheless. Even though the glade project is over, I'm not heading off to die in a pasture like an old bull bison but my days-hours-minutes are still absolutely packed. Summer is chugging along and I only learned last night that my yard harbors two species of katydids (which explains the heretofore unidentifiable nightly chorus that joins the "regular" katydids and cicadas). I have encountered monster-sized beautiful timber rattlesnakes in the St. Francois Mountains (moved this one off the road with a stick which his girth broke) and really nice pine woods full of Rudbeckia. I've devoured all of the compilations of David Foster Wallace's essays and really enjoyed all of his tennis-related articles. Regular fieldwork, visiting nice woods, chanterelles! my garden so full of kale, cucumbers and basil, daily tennis, and the early lights of the fireflies as they come alive in the yard at sunset I just don't have time to do anything indoors.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Moving Gravel

Over 100 years ago during the Big Cut in the Ozarks when every square inch of the Ozark Highland dome was ravaged by logging, hillsides throughout the region were stripped bare of vegetation. Without vegetation, major erosion occurred with every subsequent year--streams once characterized by limestone or dolomite slabs and narrow streambanks were filled with gravel accreting from the eroding hillsides. All that chert rubble in our Ozark streams are generally artifact of overlogging and the subsequent grazing by domestic livestock. It remains unfathomable that anyone would consider any of these practices coincident with conservation of our natural places.

And so, with all that gravel in the streams grew yet another industrial pillaging of our state's natural places: Gravel Mining. I won't explain how detrimental this practice is to benthic creatures and to the structure of these streams that have now adapted to life socked in with gravel, nor will I complain about how destructive it is to bring heavy equipment associated with mining and logging into our now highly erodable and fragile Ozark soils which clings to every fragment of vegetation to hold it together. One of the state's largest gravel mining companies existed along the lower Current River around Doniphan, now a truly trashed out part of the river that is subsequently littered with gravel mining equipment that was abandoned there when the industry lost its allure. However, gravel on all of our new roads and driveways and continued "improvements" must come from somewhere.

Now we have gravel quarries in the Ozarks. Sure, there's still a lot of gravel mining of the streams going on despite the significant ecological toll this practice has on native environments and biota, and the evidence can be seen on certain ridgetops that now have thriving populations of Ozark witch hazel or sycamores, plants normally associated with low, wet, bottomland woodlands and forests but have been transplanted through gravel traveling to our dry rocky uplands. Leave it to unassuming folks to file Element of Occurrence records for such out of place and unnatural occurrences of these species.

Last November, I went backpacking into the timber rattlesnake country of the St. Francois Mountains, home to enormous igneous domes and glades and flatwoods of significant integrity. When we returned to the parking lot after a three day trip into the backcountry, my colleague noted a strange population of a Rudbeckia unseen on the top of the igneous dome before. Thinking not much of it, I filed the conversation away until yesterday when I returned to the same site to see said Rudbeckia almost in flower. Not only was there a strange Rudbeckia uncommon in Missouri taking over the area, but the ever burgeoning perennial rhizomatous population was sandwiched between multiple limestone-dolomite glade and fen plants that had absolutely no reason to be on top of an igneous dome. The area had been "enhanced" by the addition of a limestone chat parking area, with the gravel carrying with it an entire natural community type that is now encroaching on the dry igneous flatwoods at the top of this dome.

Homogenization is occurring at a breakneck speed in the Ozarks, and most of it is caused by our own carelessness. It is not an accident if the results could be prevented.