I was born and raised in Missouri and have worked for the Conservation Department of more than 20 years. Yet, I had never visited two of the state’s most unusual natural areas until earlier this week. This spring, I decided I had waited long enough to see Cupola Pond and Allred Lake natural areas. My wife, Diane, and I drove to Douglas County, where the USDA Forest Service has enrolled a postage stamp-sized bit of the Ozarks in the Missouri Natural Area System.
It doesn’t look much like the Ozarks. That’s because a sinkhole formed here 23,000 years ago and began holding water. When the climate got warmer and drier, the surrounding land shed its ice-age coat of spruce and fir trees and put on a cooler covering of oak-hickory forest. Because of its moist microclimate, the pond held onto its population of tupelo gum trees. These look a little like cypress trees, but without the knees.
The pond is only a few hundred yards from the parking lot off Highway J. You can walk around the pond in half an hour. When we were there on Monday, there were no mosquitoes, which was great.
The next day, I joined Resource Forester Mark Pelton for a canoe ride around Allred Lake. It is off Highway H in extreme southern Butler County. We arrived in time to watch the sun rise through a mostly cloudy sky. It was amazing.
Just as amazing was paddling among enormous bald cypress trees, some of them more than 500 years old. The oldest trees were cut by loggers in the 1920s, but you can still see their massive stumps. Cypress wood is full of resin, like cedar, and is very rot resistant.
Allred Lake is one of a few remnants of vast cypress swamp that once covered thousands of square miles of southeastern Missouri. Most of that area now grows rice, soybeans and cotton to feed and clothe people all over the world. Which makes Allred Lake even more special.
It harbors several species seldom seen in Missouri, including rare darters and western chicken turtles, as well as sirens and amphiumas, which are large, eel-like salamanders. Yes, there are snakes, too, but a brand-new boardwalk lets you walk out for a view of the lake without ever setting foot or paddle in it.
I would highly recommend a visit to these or other areas in Missouri’s natural area system, which turns 35 this year. You can learn more about these and other natural areas at nature.mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/places/natural-areas