Ozark Treasure Hunting
Years ago, when I lived in West Plains, I loved to explore little Ozark streams in search of smallmouth bass, morels, wild orchids and other treasures. On one of those jaunts, I laid down my fishing rod to hike up a spring branch. After negotiating a waist-deep bog rife with stinging nettles and mosquitoes, I discovered a pair of narrow canyons with waterfalls and rock walls that dripped water copiously in the middle of a hot, dry summer. Ferns, wildflowers and wild hydrangea bushes fringed waterfall plunge pools.
This postage-stamp paradise remains one of my favorite spots on Earth, not least because the forbidding terrain around it discourages visitors. I have never seen a hint of human presence there, aside from my own footprints.
During an especially vicious cold snap in the 1980s, I lugged my camera gear into the valley, hoping the combination of seeping water and frigid temperatures had prepared spectacular ice sculptures for my exclusive viewing. I was not disappointed. However, the day was overcast and my photos utterly failed to capture the breath-taking beauty. That failure has always bothered me. I am no Ansel Adams, but the scenes were so magical, they fairly begged to be shared with others.
Weather of the sort that produced that icy phantasmagoria doesn’t occur every year. On those few occasions when it has, work and other obstacles have always prevented my repeating that trip … until this week. With an extended cold spell coming to an end and sunny skies predicted, I loaded my camera gear and a couple of nutrition bars into a daypack and headed for “my” valley.
The landscape hasn’t changed appreciably in the past quarter century. Sadly, the same cannot be said of my joints or my stamina. Three miles and several hogback ridges separate the canyons from the nearest road. The hike was complicated by snow that got slick as the temperature climbed into the high 30s. The easy approach--wading 6 miles gradually upstream--is not an option in January.
By the time I reached the first canyon and photographed a frozen waterfall, I knew it was time to turn back toward the truck. I left the north valley, with its waterfalls and hanging gardens, for another day, another year, perhaps another explorer.
My canyon is out there, waiting for anyone to discover it. It’s special but not unique. A glance at a topographic map of the territory bounded by Taney, Texas and Ripley counties confirms that dozens, if not hundreds of other remote, spectacular spots invite discovery. Adventures await wherever the contour lines on a map crowd too close for easy counting.
This is a great time of year for hunting such hidden treasures. Low temperatures make hiking pleasant, and navigating the Ozarks’ rugged terrain is easier with leaves off the trees. A hand-held GPS unit is an enormous help, but be sure to take along extra batteries, plus a map and magnetic compass for backup.
And don’t forget your camera. No telling what you might find.