Sunday, September 21, 2008
It never fails: by the time spring fire season is over and I have time to hit the river, water levels at the headwaters of the Jack's Fork River drop so low that the average paddler can't traverse it. Early spring is the only time canoe outfitters travel to the headwaters, but with the recent rain events dumping several inches into the central Ozarks, the two little creeks (hence, "The Prongs") that converge to form Missouri's most pristine river held enough water this past week to allow for a mid-September float trip. To early for burn season, a little late for growing season, but just in time for my birthday.
The Jack’s Fork, one of the rivers protected by the NPS designation of an Ozark Scenic Riverway, is located within the Current River Hills of the southeastern Ozarks. Rich with caves, springs and fens, this river valley is characterized by relief averaging 250-400 feet, most of which is largely undeveloped. Unlike along the lower Current, paddlers can float roughly 30 miles of the river without encountering a pasture on the banks or a cow hanging out in the river. The landscape is curious here: gnarled cedars perch on cliff edges next to ancient pine and oak trees, all inaccessible to loggers of the early 20th century thanks to the rough terrain. Plants indigenous to glades and fens grow adjacent one another, with glade-loving big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) sharing a dolomite boulder with the fen-endemic grass of Parnassus (Parnassia grandifolia). Wet feet-loving stalks of cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) line the sandy banks further downstream, with large fields of herbaceous water willow (Justicia armeria) creating the illusion of land. Small springs feed the length of the river, giving the deep holes a rich turquoise hue. Few exotic species have moved into the Jack’s Fork, though localized populations of garlic mustard have quietly engulfed some of the gravel bars. If the managing agency acts quickly and resolutely, they could stop a massive infestation from edging out the spring blooming bluebells. However, exotic species control -or any other form of resource management, for that matter- simply doesn’t happen quickly in lands managed by government agencies (...as my fiddle cries for TNC's management on my favorite Ozark river).
The weather was lovely those three days on the river, with highs in the lower 80s. One windy thunderstorm blustered through one afternoon, turning the sunset black as we set up camp near Chalk Bluff. Gravel bar French lentil curry was great, coffee even better, and we weren’t rushed to get off the river as our cars were waiting for us on a dirt road at the end of the float. My colleagues crammed 36 candles into three Little Debbie Chocolate Fancy Cakes on Thursday night, making my birthday cake the first Little Debbie snacks I had eaten in years…despite how truly yummy and inexpensive they are. We paddled past plants whose populations in Missouri are restricted to the Jack’s Fork, past cliffs dripping with Venus’ maidenhair fern, known primarily from the southeastern US, the Jack’s Fork and the White River Hills of Missouri. We found some curious asters and goldenrods which two of us had never seen before: Aster furcatus, found pendant from dolomite boulders, Solidago drummondii with its sweet little yellow flowers tucked between the upper leaves, and others whose names are tucked away somewhere else in my brain tonight.
But it had to happen sooner or later. It always does when I’m with my smarter-than-me colleagues. Someone in the boat (or in the woods, on a prairie, in a cave) always points out what’s wrong with our location. Landscapes are far from pristine in Missouri, but in a Pollyanna-dominated world view like my own, we always work with what we have left, trying to reverse years of fire suppression and grazing, for starters. My former boss said it before I did, as we rushed past a bank of gravel three feet higher than the water: “There’s too much gravel in this river.” The spring and summer flood events, indeed, flushed inordinate amounts of gravel and sand into the Jack’s Fork. While it’s characteristic to have some vertical accretion of gravels along existing gravel bars, or even new gravel bars formed from the existing gravel load, we saw a river changed by the flood events. Sure, it's the natural course of a free-flowing river like the Jack's Fork, but the gravel load was not there from natural processes. Somewhere in the uplands surrounding the two creeks that feed the river, erosion events occurred which caused the massive gravel load in September.
Oh, this has happened before on a much larger scale. In the early part of the century, clearcutting removed entire Ozark forests and woodlands. The subsequent rain events sent enormous loads of gravel, sand and soil into the river system. There might be a recent clearcut near the Jack's Fork, or there may be other land use practices that would warrant gravel accretion. I tried to ignore it, to instead find cool pieces of chert gravel for the neighborhood kids who are enamored with limestone chat lining the driveways on the block. The massive gravel load may have seriously impacted native mussel beds in the Jack's Fork, burying entire colonies in the course of a few days. We noted the impacts of gravel loads to the state endangered Ozark hellbender. The largest salamanders in the country are slated for a federal listing on the Endangered Species list.
A feeling of powerlessness hit all of us as we rounded the corner past the first black streaked bluff. It was silently decided that we, simply, wouldn't think about it....at least during the float trip. Nothing we can do about it while clad in swimsuits. Nothing we can change from the front of a rental canoe. My fancy letterhead letters back in April imploring NPS to do something, anything, about garlic mustard never even warranted a form letter of recognition. And, anyway, what on earth could the NPS do about timber harvest or inappropriate land use disturbance in the Jack's Fork watershed? The state agency in charge of our waterways just snubbed its nose to the state's water quality, so they couldn't go that route.
But as I sent my fiberglass paddle into the clear, clean river whose water traveled through our single water purifier for drinking purposes, I realized again that it was my birthday. I was sleeping well on gravel bars. The cicadas and katydids kept us company, despite the late date on the calendar. A few lightning bugs were still out. And at least the Jack's Fork frontage is protected by the lofty Scenic Riverway designation. It's really as pristine as it gets in Missouri.
Pictures are much better than my words, so see: one of many little caves carved out of the dolomite; the view from my tent; cardinal flower and the fen-loving Rudbeckia fulgida (no idea what the common name is...); water willow growing where there's normally much lower water levels; Venus' maidenhair fern growing on a moist cliff; Jam Up Cave Natural Area, the site of our only pawpaw haul.
Posted by Allison Vaughn at 8:35 PM