by Laurie Stout
My husband and I were drifting down the Jacks Fork River, just above its confluence with the Current, and I hoped to see a flying blue jewel, an indigo bunting. Finally, around a bend in the river, I glimpsed one flitting near the bank.
There was plenty of other wildlife to see, too. A great blue heron stared intently into the water; kingfishers dove at the jump of a fish; a blue skink displayed its impossible-to-miss neon blue tail and thousands of turtles, from dime- to dinner-plate-sized, lounged on logs.
I was in Shannon County to discover the secrets of its allure, a magic that draws more than 1.5 million visitors every year.
From Memorial Day to Labor Day every year, many local canoe outfitters are booked solid on weekends. What's so special about these rivers?
According to Julie Hawkins of Jacks Fork Canoe Rental, it's the water. "Our water is spring-fed, so it's clean and clear. Even during droughts we have plenty of water. If you've ever been on a slow-moving, dingy river, you'd know the difference!"
But it's more than that. The National Scenic Rivers designation provides a buffer between the rivers and human development. Floating down these particular Ozark waterways, you see pristine wilderness, not homes and businesses. Every gravel bar is a potential campsite; every jewel-green deep pool, a swimming hole made in heaven. Trout - and anglers - take to the Current River's cold flowing water.
With nearly 150,000 acres of public land, the area is a haven for hikers and horseback riders. Trails and fire roads wind through a forest of mixed hardwoods and pine. The Ozark Trail meanders through eastern Shannon County.
"We're kinda like the outback here," says Conservation District Forester Charles Santhuff. "You can drive anywhere there's a two track road, hike anywhere or primitive camp ... that appeals to people."
The wilderness supports a cornucopia of Missouri wildlife like turkey, deer and even the occasional black bear. "We've had a few reports of bear sightings," confirms Santhuff. Sit quietly at Alley Spring, an oasis of overhanging fern and columbine, and a mink or muskrat may appear.
The town of Eminence offers a relaxed ambience to visitors.
"It's lovely enough that if you don't want to do anything at all but sit on the porch, you can. It's as relaxing or as physical as you want it to be," says Paul Faulkenberry, who returned to Eminence after many