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To Heaven and Back on the Upper Jacks Fork

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Published on: Mar. 19, 2013

The forecast calls for thunderstorms and heavy rains, but we go anyway. Our trip really starts to come together once we agree to have no plan. We are prepared for anything, except for what Mother Nature serves up—sunshine, gently overcast skies, and a light breeze. We are blessed with two perfect days on the river, and we leave with a lifelong desire to return.

Once described as the Mozart of rivers, the upper Jacks Fork is one of Missouri's wildest and most scenic rivers. It’s a deep and narrow valley that offers spring paddlers a spirited float. Conservation Department photographer Dave Stonner and I embark on a leisurely two-day canoe float from the Buck Hollow Access, northeast of Mountain View, to Bay Creek, a distance of 18 miles. The river is low, so we pack light.

A Paddler's Paradise

The shallow water is moving fast now. The 30-foot wide stream has narrowed into a frothing riffle only 6 feet wide. I’m using every paddle trick I know to keep my canoe in the center of the current, as it swiftly pulls me toward a tall bank of imposing rock.

The clear water is liquid light, and I’m scant inches above the gravel bottom, which is zipping by in magnified detail. I duck as a low-hanging sycamore branch tries to snatch my river hat. Around the bend, a deep emerald-tinged pool provides pause. I’m smiling ear to ear and I finally remember to breathe.

The tight canyon walls continue on in a perfect paddler’s playground: long green pools where sunfish are suspended motionless, and then the familiar tightening of the bend, some quick paddling action, and then a chance to drift once again, cast the fly rod, and take it all in.

A paddler’s paradise? An Ozark nirvana? For me, it’s heaven. Raised on the Big Muddy, I am dumbfounded by this clear stream. I am mesmerized to see every detail of the riverbed below. A small school of longnose gar moves in unison. I see turtles ambling along the gravel streambed 5 feet below my boat. I’m afloat atop a looking glass into a heretofore-unseen world.

The river and its streamside habitat is home to many birds. Our quiet approach puts us closer to these birds than either of us had ever been, including numerous great blue herons, and smaller greens, fishing from brush piles and branches that reach over shallow

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