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Time Warps

Apr 11, 2013

I was born and raised in Missouri and have worked for the Conservation Department of more than 20 years. Yet, I had never visited two of the state’s most unusual natural areas until earlier this week. This spring, I decided I had waited long enough to see Cupola Pond and Allred Lake natural areas. My wife, Diane, and I drove to Douglas County, where the USDA Forest Service has enrolled a postage stamp-sized bit of the Ozarks in the Missouri Natural Area System.

It doesn’t look much like the Ozarks. That’s because a sinkhole formed here 23,000 years ago and began holding water. When the climate got warmer and drier, the surrounding land shed its ice-age coat of spruce and fir trees and put on a cooler covering of oak-hickory forest. Because of its moist microclimate, the pond held onto its population of tupelo gum trees. These look a little like cypress trees, but without the knees.

The pond is only a few hundred yards from the parking lot off Highway J. You can walk around the pond in half an hour. When we were there on Monday, there were no mosquitoes, which was great.

The next day, I joined Resource Forester Mark Pelton for a canoe ride around Allred Lake. It is off Highway H in extreme southern Butler County. We arrived in time to watch the sun rise through a mostly cloudy sky. It was amazing.

Just as amazing was paddling among enormous bald cypress trees, some of them more than 500 years old. The oldest trees were cut by loggers in the 1920s, but you can still see their massive stumps. Cypress wood is full of resin, like cedar, and is very rot resistant.

Allred Lake is one of a few remnants of vast cypress swamp that once covered thousands of square miles of southeastern Missouri. Most of that area now grows rice, soybeans and cotton to feed and clothe people all over the world. Which makes Allred Lake even more special.

It harbors several species seldom seen in Missouri, including rare darters and western chicken turtles, as well as sirens and amphiumas, which are large, eel-like salamanders. Yes, there are snakes, too, but a brand-new boardwalk lets you walk out for a view of the lake without ever setting foot or paddle in it.

I would highly recommend a visit to these or other areas in Missouri’s natural area system, which turns 35 this year. You can learn more about these and other natural areas at www.mdc.mo.gov/node/2453

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The trail above Cupola Pond offers a good view of the pond.
Arriving at Cupola Pond
The trail above Cupola Pond offers a good view of the entire pond before the trees leaf out.

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An interpretive sign explains how the pond got there.
A break to learn
Take time to read the interpretive sign and learn how the pond got there.

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The flared trunks of tupelo gum trees crowd the pond's tanin-stained water.
Botanical Oddity
The presence of tupelo gum trees in the Ozark hills of Ripley County is highly unusual. The other nearest tupelos are 40 miles to the east.

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Tupelo gum trees crowd rank on rank in the sinkhole pond.
Rank on Rank
Tupelo gum trees crowd rank on rank in the sinkhole pond.

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Broad stumps give tupelo gum trees a sturdy foundation in soft soil.
Broad-based Support
Broad stumps give tupelo gum trees a sturdy foundation in soft soil.

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The smaller tupelo gum trees look like elephant legs.
Elephantine Trunks
The smaller tupelo gum trees look like elephant legs.

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Allred Lake looks more like the Everglades than Missouri.
Okeefenokee?
Okeefenokee? Nope, this is Allred Lake Natural Area in Butler County, Mo.

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Sunrise at Allred Lake is a breathtaking experience.
Sunrise at Allred Lake
Sunrise at Allred Lake is a breathtaking experience.

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Some dead or dying cypress trees at Allred Lake are 500 years old.
Ancient Snag
Annual growth rings prove the oldest trees at Allred Lake date back more than 500 years.

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Resource Forester Mark Pelton prepares to launch a canoe.
Unforgettable Float
The parking lot is just a short distance from the water's edge at Allred Lake Natural Area. Canoeing and kayaking are permitted.

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An uprooted cypress's roots look like a monster's gaping maw.
Uprooted Giant
An uprooted cypress's roots look like a monster's gaping maw.

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A boardwalk extends out into Allred Lake from shore.
Boardwalk
A boardwalk provides easy access to the sights and sounds of Allred Lake.

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