Monday, June 23, 2008

Gasconade River Hills

It's pretty unfair, really. Ever since Doug arrived in Missouri, I've tried to show him the best of the best, the unadulterated natural sites that made me fall in love with Missouri. I'm lucky to have colleagues who know every inch of Missouri and can show me the nice parts. I hang out with people who seldom visit cut-over woods and any site that supports fescue. But it seems that every time I try to show Doug some great place that I've heard about (or witnessed several years previously), it's overrun with exotics, grazed heavily, or in some other, general, sense degraded and lousy. What's unfair is that he's shown me the beauty and splendor of Oregon--the Cascades, the Coast Range, Opal Creek, Silver Falls, etc.--and I have yet to show him somewhere in Missouri that will make him catch his breath.

The Gasconade River Hills, an area of steeply dissected terrain rich with dolomite glades and narrow valley bottoms, rests south of I-70 just west of St. Louis. The Gasconade River is well above flood stage as it fans out through the bottomland woodlands in Osage County; but the smaller rivers like the Big and Little Piney Rivers are each a mere foot above flood stage, which is enough water to negate the possibility of dragging your canoe through chert gravel. The Big Piney flows primarily through lands managed by the National Forest, but also passes acres upon acres of pasture. Unlike any other float on the Big Piney, this one introduced me to cows hanging out in the river and deeply eroded banks that slough off soil with every sprinkle of rain.

"Huh. Looks like the Current River. Or the Grand Canyon..." he announced as we turned the corner in the Big Piney River to meet a big white cow and a streambank stripped of all vegetation. I told him the Big Piney would be different from the Current. He would see dolomite bluffs, pine trees, no powerboats, few canoers flashing their breasts. The Big Piney, as far as I could remember, was pretty nice a few years ago. I floated it once before, in the middle of the night, by the light of the full moon. We portaged around Boiling Spring for a bonfire and continued paddling, laden as we were with wine and food cooked over an open fire, until 2 am. But I don't remember it looking as bad as the Current.

The disappointing land and riverscape of the lower Big Piney, completely devoid of stately pines and bluffs, wouldn't be so upsetting if I hadn't dragged Doug to the northwest region at the Iowa border just the day before to spend several hours around cornfields and crummy prairie on a search for the rare-to-Missouri prairie fringed orchid. We saw lots of cottontail rabbits, lots of exotic sweet clover, lots of blacktop and the charming, interesting members of the Missouri Native Plant Society. Oh, and I was able to point out the native yucca perched on a loess hill. But on the whole, he spent the day (that he would have rather spent doing a million other things)hanging out in crummy woods that should be prairie. Nevertheless, he made the best of it, laughing at my colleagues and their really odd demeanors.

A day later, and back to the Ozarks. I found a good indicator of healthy water quality (something they desperately lack in the Central Dissected Till Plains region of Missouri) in members of the family Plecoptera and Odonata. I saw riverbanks lined with a thick Scirpus and an Eleocharis. I'd never seen riverbanks lined with Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia sp.) before the Big Piney. Nor had I seen an entire understory of inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latiflora)in a riparian area. Thanks to my trusty colleague, I learned that the sea oats were a relic of timber harvest and subsequent sediment load that moved into the Big Piney valley.

Parts of the Big Piney are great. Some small sections of the Current are nice, too, I hear. I was delighted to see life with every bend in the river. I'm posting a small Orconectes, a Plecoptera, a lovely dragonfly, and the astonishing view from my canoe. As I head into the White River Hills for the next week, entrenched in 90 degree weather, I'll think often of canoe trips and the accessible cold water.

While I tried to show Doug a pristine, peaceful river, I instead brought him to a degraded, sedimented, lousy stretch of the river that used to provide me comfort. Now. having seen the best of the best, these areas aren't even worth mapping. Once my friend from Oregon finds the perfect water-landscape-rock combination that gives him emotional satisfaction in the Ozarks, as close as it is to "home" for him, I'll let you know. Of course, you'll have to find it, emotionally, for yourselves.


River Notes said...

The finest stretch of river in the Ozarks, I think, is the Upper Jack's Fork River, from the Prongs to Bay Creek. Downstream of Bay Creek it gets flatter, more horse trails, much less interesting. But from the Prongs to Bay Creek, it is a canyon full of great caves, springs, interesting hollows and some very unique plants. Check out Jam-Up Cave and Bluff for some interesting glacial endemic plants. Of course all of the Ozarks were logged at least once, but this piece is a particular gem. However, it doesn't have large spring inflows, so it's only floatable (usually) in the spring. However, this year I hear it is still floatable.

Anonymous said...

There are many unspoiled Ozark streams. They just tend to be the one that most people haven't heard of. Try the Eleven Point River, I believe you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Allison Vaughn said...

Oh, we've spent many weekdays on the Eleven Point. Greer to the 17 bridge is excellent. I'm a big fan of the Jack's Fork and Big Sugar Creek, Elk River, the Buffalo. On this trip, I felt bad because I'd been to some really great part of the Gasconade, maybe the Osage Fork, but the area we floated on the Big Piney wasn't it at all. I passed Devil's Elbow on the nice part of the Big Piney, but I can't remember the float outfitter's name...