To Heaven and Back on the Upper Jacks Fork

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Published on: Mar. 19, 2013

Near the south end of the west-facing slope is the little-known Jacks Fork Natural Arch. Obscured behind dense tree cover, it is easy to float right past — and most do.

We stop, scramble across a wide dry gravel bar, and find the arch just a few hundred feet up the steep forested hillside, completely unseen from the river. Exploring the unusual formation left us with more questions than answers. Finding it was one of many highlights of this float.

After photographing the natural arch’s play on shadows and light, we continue to float past the forested banks of spring that have yet to close in behind a leafy veil. Bright blooms of dogwoods and serviceberries highlight the deep forest view. Bursts of wildflowers appear at every turn. There is a certain tenacity of spirit that pervades these fern-covered, seep-sodden dolomite bluffs.

One finds layers and layers of plant life amid this geologic jambalaya. Here are the retina-burning five-spoked fire pinks, familiar bluebells, columbine perched in the most precarious of places on the rock faces, and pale yellow limber honeysuckle. Down closer to the river’s edge: patches of phlox, diminutive purple and smooth white violets, yellow rockets, jack-in-the-pulpits, trillium, spiderwort, and a sea of ferns—walking, maidenhair, and many others.

In some spots are rare plants — holdovers from the Pleistocene era — from a time when fir forests and a much colder climate dominated Missouri, some 12,000 years ago during the last Ice Age. These glacial relicts, like the harebell and false bugbane, survive in remnant populations on cooler north-facing areas. Some of them occur nowhere else in the state.

About 6 miles into the float, we reach Jam Up Cave — one of the most spectacular cave entrances in the state. We scramble up a talus slope trail of dolomite boulders to its entrance and crane our necks to take in the view. Above me towers the cathedral-sized archway of Jam Up Cave, 80 feet high and 100 feet wide. How can elements as simple as rock, water, and time conspire to create such grandeur? It is a paradox of nature to see such a testament of time framed by spring’s ephemeral blooms.

This place, and the entire history of the Jacks Fork River, has been written one drop of water at a time — a slow cadence of H2O, patience, and resolve. Over eons, these unassuming, tiny droplets

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