To Heaven and Back on the Upper Jacks Fork

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Published on: Mar. 19, 2013

waters. The silence is seasoned with the sweet melodies of numerous pileated woodpeckers and the slate-blue belted kingfisher.

The distinctive call of the northern parula dominates the forest — a buzzy zip that slides up the scale. Many species of songbirds are returning from a winter down south. The newly arrived songbirds are vocal, intent on finding mates and establishing breeding territories. We spot pairs of wood ducks feeding in slower moving pools behind eddy lines, the males resplendent in their breeding plumage.

Butterflies abound around every bend. Clouds of small white and yellow sulphurs erupt from shallow puddles only to quickly regroup. They are busy wicking up, or “puddling,” the minerals found there. The larger zebra swallowtails, with their flashes of blood red and distinctive patterns, flutter about along gravel bars throughout the float.

The Heart of Wilderness

I’ve paddled many rivers that were easy to describe, easy to define. The character of the upper Jacks is elusive. It is a river of extremes, a river of contradictions. This is a true wilderness float, with both calm Class I reaches and wild-but-mild, white-water-capped Class II rollercoasters. It paddles like a river that’s dropping down the western slope of Colorado. It’s steeper, faster, tighter, smaller, and clearer than most river runs in Missouri.

The Jacks Fork is a tributary of the Current River. Together, these two rivers are the centerpiece of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, America’s first designated national park area for a wild river stream system. Managed by the National Park Service, the Jacks Fork and the Current River make up one of the longest protected, free-flowing waterways in the United States.

Soon we pass Blue Spring, which emerges from a cave at the base of a cliff a couple miles below Buck Hollow. It provides an average of 3 million gallons of water per day to the Jacks Fork. Its deep blue pool is located just inside the cave mouth and the spring Jacks Fork Natural Area

About 4.5 miles into the float, we enter the Jacks Fork Natural Area. The Jacks Fork flows for about three miles through this designated natural area, recognized for its unique biodiversity, which includes more than 450 native plant species.

This natural area is also unique because it is accessible only by canoe. The current turns south. I’m vibrating with excitement as my finger follows the topo lines on my map.

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