Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Fall Float on the Courtois

Aluminum canoes are unforgiving on floats in shallow, gravel-choked streams. With the recent dry weather, the Courtois was barely floatable, which meant that every low water situation either resulted in bailing out of the canoe to drag it to deeper water or forcing through the shallows by digging paddles into gravel and scooting along. With six canoes in our group, the deep gravel and shallow water oftentimes did not allow for a peaceful fall float experience. But the water was clear, temperatures topped out at 69 degrees, and it was a beautiful day to be on the stream.

With recent changes to my schedule, I've found myself recently exploring the Dissected Till Plains region of North Missouri in between my regular forays into the Ozarks. Admittedly, I haven't spent too much time in the Meramec River Hills region around the Huzzah and Courtois, so taking a float and a short hike along the Ozark Trail in that area was certainly rewarding. Steep dry cliffs reminiscent of the Jack's Fork River line sections of the stream, and the area is rich with other karst features located (I think) in the Gasconade Formation. The woodlands surrounding the stream have not been managed with fire in many decades and therefore possess few traces of woodland flora--a spreading aster here and a stiff-leaved aster there, mostly restricted to the trail corridor where light can reach the woodland floor.

Due to the lack of fire, closed canopy, and the deep loessal soils prevalent in the area, the woodlands have taken on a forested condition: a massive Schumard oak perched high on a ridgetop stands sentry, a tree normally restricted to low lying, deep, true forest where fire doesn't travel. Historically, there was very little true forest, mostly restricted to steep ravines, sinkholes, areas existing in a fire shadow, but likely not on a high and dry ridgetop. The mesification of thousands of acres of our historic woodlands is largely due to the interruption of a fire regime following the era of significant logging operations and open range grazing. This is the condition that represents much of the Ozarks today. Historic records indicate a much more open landscape with prairie grasses and forbs, a fire-mediated system that may have been lost altogether. Similar landscapes in the Meramec River Hills that have witnessed a 30 year prescribed fire program are testament of what this landscape once looked like. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and other early explorers wouldn't recognize the area if they visited today.

Regardless, a hike and a float on a nice fall day are always welcome activities as the days march towards darkness.

Friday, October 13, 2017

As Fall as Texarkana

I grew up in the Deep South, a region that never saw real seasonal changes. Sure, the stores would roll out all of their Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas decorations which were posted all over town, but the decorations were rather anomalous to the weather conditions. A new coat on Christmas morning? We'd wear them even when it was 80 degrees outside because Christmas is "supposed to be cold." Unlike my friends who grew up in colder climates, we never had to wear jackets over our Halloween costumes for trick-or-treating. In fact, I'm wondering if the whole awful trend of skimpy "sexy pirate," "sexy barmaid" and other icky Halloween costumes developed precisely because Halloween in the Deep South never witnessed cold weather in October .

I distinctly recall wearing a velour jogging suit to school in October, a nice teal suit that I received as a birthday present in mid-September. The morning temperatures, clammy and wet but cool, were long gone by noon when the ambient temperatures hit the lower 90s. The new velour suit's teal threads covered my bare skin thanks to all the sweating that occurred throughout the school day. I think about the desire to see fall color, the kind of fall color that we watched on the Charlie Brown's The Great Pumpkin, where leaves of yellow and red would gently fall to the ground and one could wear a turtleneck without sweating. It never happened in fall where I grew up. We routinely traveled day trips to Bard Springs, around Shady Lake in Arkansas in mid-October hoping to see fall color, which never happened. Fall color where I lived only occurred in early December, and only because of the proliferation of the exotic and horribly invasive tallow trees that painted the landscape in red and yellow leaves long after Thanksgiving. Each fall when I make that horrible drive home to Louisiana for Thanksgiving, I'm always shocked at the green leaves on the trees starting around Texarkana.

As early as five years ago, peak fall color in Missouri occurred the second week of October. Cabins were open for business, fall color tours were in full swing, rides along the KATY Trail were ridiculously popular--all to catch a glimpse of fall colors in Missouri. It was reliable: leaf drop happened the third week of October, so we could start putting in firelines by late October, units ready to burn by the end of trout season. This year in particular, the timeline is way off.

I've visited North Missouri and the Central Ozarks in recent weeks and the trees are still full of green leaves, maybe some browning from drought, but certainly not a 'fall color' brown. I admit that I haven't taken the scenic drive along Hwy. 100 or Hwy. 94 in the past few weeks, both drives full of maples that usually put on an explosive fall color show, so I can't report on those areas. However, on my daily walks around the block with my schnauzer, the maples in my neighborhood are still rocking green leaves. Lately, I am reminded of my childhood when we drove through Arkansas in October looking for fall color and turning around at Maumelle because we just weren't seeing it. Missouri is like that these days.

Community gardeners in my neighborhood planted spinach seeds a couple of weeks ago and expect a full harvest. My kale continues to produce big healthy leaves and the peppers are ripening on the bushes. The seed ticks are still out, though not as prolific as they were in August. Our USDA growing zone has shifted in recent years; the Missouri Botanical Gardens can now plant camellias outside in the ground, unheard of thirty years ago.

Tomorrow we set out on the KATY Trail for the Hartsburg Pumpkin Festival. Temperatures are scheduled to skyrocket to the low 90s and we must return before dark to avoid a tornado outbreak. I don't think this part of Missouri will have a great fall color display the way our weather patterns are behaving. My windows are still open and my daily attire consists of running shorts and a t-shirt. Last year's mild winter resulted in an explosion of Japanese beetles; entire trees and grapevines were completely denuded of leaves. If the growing zones are really moving northwards, I wonder how many years it will take before we can have year-round pepper plants like we had in New Orleans?