Sunday, April 27, 2008

Along the Jack's Fork


Somewhere between abandoning my graduate career, loafing in New Orleans, and venturing into a vocation for which I was academically unprepared, I made a great series of decisions. So great, in fact, that they allowed me to spend the past two days on my favorite river with Missouri's leading natural historian, an expert paddler, fire builder, and botanist. Somewhere along the circuitous path I took to get here, I took the high road and ended up parking on that proverbial Cloud #9 this week.

In February, I wrote about the populations of glacial relicts found on the north facing cliffs of the Jack's Fork River, plants found nowhere else in Missouri. I guess I've been obsessing over them for the past few months, waiting for the rivers to recede a little and for spring green up to make these special plants visible. I've floated past them before, not realizing where they grew. Every canoe trip in the Ozark Highlands is special to me, so each one is designated a theme. This one was undoubtedly the "Glacial Relict Tour." My trusty fellow paddler knew exactly where these plants were located: moist seepy limestone/dolomite cliffs about 8 miles into the 23 mile float. False bugbane (Trautvettaria caroliniensis, pictured) wasn't in flower yet, but its wet leaves provided testament to the cool, moist climate that has allowed it to thrive in this one place for millions of years since the Pleistocene. Others, like a campanula that (according to my colleague) "grows like a weed in Minnesota," was perched so high on the cliff that we couldn't see it. We found no trace of others, perhaps due to the same raging flood waters that seriously knocked back the delicate Southern maiden hair fern population, hanging dessicated on the moist cliff face.

Since the 12 inch rain in March (followed by another 5 inches in April), the Jack's Fork River has changed its character since the last time I saw it. The high water mark, as evidenced by the debris in trees and shrubs, was at least 15 feet higher than the current level. We encountered huge piles of debris, trees literally peeled back from the banks, rootwads waiting for an inexperienced paddler to go crashing into their deep dark hollows, eroded shorelines, gravel deposits where before was exposed bedrock. We saw only one snake the whole time, whereas in the past, one can see at least 30 Northern watersnakes and water moccasins on this river. We assumed the flood likely impacted the populations, but hopefully, we're wrong...

Over our three day adventure, there was little discussion about work. Pressing questions involved favorite Star Trek episodes, which gravel bar to stop on for a wine and cheese break, and how to stop the spread of the exotic garlic mustard from completely ruining the woodland fabric of the adjacent woods. It was truly remarkable to share my time on the river with those who could name every plant that I couldn't, who could identify the different dolomites, limestones and sandstones, who also appreciated the riparian corridors carpeted in bluebells and who (hopefully) didn't judge me as I childishly threw big handfuls of oak leaves into the fledgling fire just to watch as they positively impacted flame lengths.

As the float trip came to a close around the final bluff near Alley Spring, the late afternoon sun sent long shadows through the stately white oak-dominated dry mesic chert woodlands.
All awash in dogwoods, redbuds and bluebells, I found the Jack's Fork riparian zones so captivating that I didn't want to leave them. So emotionally spent from days immersed in the exquisite Ozark waterway learning natural history and swimming in pristine waters, I quietly wept for a few moments upon seeing the vast stretches of woodlands and bluffs from the high road that we could see from the river. Yes, Ozark woodlands are in spring bloom now and they couldn't be more lovely.

1 comment:

Ted C. MacRae said...

I first floated the Jack's Fork in 1982 - it remains my favorite Ozark river. The narrow canyons with their towering walls of blackened dolomite are simply spectacular.