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Up an Ozark River

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Published on: Aug. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 25, 2010

A squirrel nibbles a nut as the sun disappears behind the bluff. The shells it drops from the overhanging branch into the Jacks Fork River drift by my camp. Birds chirp melodiously back and forth while a lone turtle catches the last few rays on a log. In a nearby slough, raccoon tracks in the mud foreshadow a nightly raid from a hungry opportunist.

As night falls, I let the fire die down, so I can better appreciate the thousands of stars that are popping out in the cloudless sky. The warmth of the sleeping bag in the tent beckons on this cool spring night, but the falling stars racing across the sky and hiding behind the bluff are too good a show to miss.

The next thing I know it is 5:30 a.m. The marauding raccoon is tackling the ice chest, but a rock tossed in its general direction lets it know that I don't plan to share breakfast. The crescent moon hangs over the bluff as I start the fire. Ashes drift into the boiling water, adding robust outdoor flavor to the coffee.

Normally I wouldn't get up this early, but watching the fog lift and reveal the beauty of the upper Jacks Fork River makes up for a lack of sleep.

Time spent here is precious. The springs at Rymer and Jam Up only add about 3.3 million gallons of water a day, not enough to make this section of the stream floatable year round. It takes spring rains to keep the canoes from dragging bottom at every riffle. But the rains also bring flash floods that can quickly turn the river into a torrent that rages between the tall bluffs - leaving few escape routes for riverside campers.

But on those perfect days when there's not a cloud in the sky and spring rains have been generous, there is no better place to be. The only reminders of civilization along most of this section of the scenic riverway are an occasional jet passing overhead and the distant bark of a dog.

In the quiet stretches of the river, I lean back in the canoe and contemplate the bluffs that tower above. Between the rocks, brave trees stretch their roots deeper into the cracks searching for moisture and stability. They share their precarious roosts with ferns, lichen and mosses. As the sun gets hotter, the bluffs provide shade, as well as a lesson in botany and tenacity.

Buzzards own the airways along the upper Jacks Fork. At one lazy section of the river, 16 perform circular aerial maneuvers on the air currents coming off the tall bluffs. For a break, they prefer a dead branch overlooking the river. The only thing that could possibly be better than floating would be to soar with these graceful creatures.

Below the bluffs, a snake suns itself on the bank. A turtle about the size of a half dollar swims out from under a rock about an inch from the water's surface. As it swims into the weeds, it samples a few plants along the way. Upstream a small fish leaps out of the water as a larger one pursues it. Dragonflies alight on the side of my canoe while I watch schools of minnows swim by. Blocks of fallen rock create secret hideaways for bass.

Trees line the bluff tops like a well-kept hedge. The spring rains and cool weather have created almost as many shades of green as there are varieties of plants. The water has a greenish tinge, matched by the sycamores along the bank. The distant trees are darker. The lush green of the plants along the shore is mixed in with light green ferns and darker green moss against the gray limestone and dolomite bluffs.

Midday, as the shade from the bluffs disappears, the blue herons race me down the river. I reach the 200-foot tall Chalk Bluff just in time to cool off in the fast running riffle. Beyond this whitish colored bluff, the river gets wider and is lined with rolling hills. Sunning snakes and turtles keep me company until I pull into Alley Spring.

Here the river nearly doubles as 81 million gallons a day of spring water flow into the Jacks Fork. This lower section can be floated year round, so I like to save it for those hot lazy days of summer or a crisp cool fall weekend when the waters of the upper Jacks Fork have receded.

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