OFF THE CUFF

Having lived in the Pacific Northwest for almost three decades and the Blue Ridge Mountains of the southeast for most of another, I’ve had the opportunity to be around some really nice rivers.

I have fly-fished for native trout on streams high in Washington’s Cascade Mountains, dived from 30-foot cliffs into the ice-cold water of the Cedar River Gorge not far from Mount Rainier, and gone whitewater rafting in Whistler, British Columbia.

I have walked dogs in the forest along the Catoochee River on the Georgia-South Carolina border (the one where the movie “Deliverance” was filmed), stood below and photographed several waterfalls in northeast Georgia’s high country and floated down the clear headwaters of the Chattahoochee (which is a beautiful, pristine mountain stream before it passes through the Atlanta area and picks up plenty of undesirable baggage).

But I can’t say I’ve been anywhere where the rivers are any nicer than some that flow through the Ozarks. No wonder the U.S. government decided a while back to set aside and protect a sizeable portion of Missouri’s river territory.

Created by an act of Congress in 1964, the Ozark National Scenic Riverways exists thanks in large part to a groundswell of local interest in deterring a plan for the construction of a series of dams. The approximately 80,000 acres of unique and amazingly beautiful real estate along the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers in essence became Missouri’s only National Park has since been overseen by the United States National Park Service (NPS).

The Riverways’ narrow north-south strip of land stretches along the Current River from just below Montauk State Park at its top end to south of Van Buren at the bottom, and its western arm along the Jacks Fork River extends into southeastern Texas County.

The rivers in the park represent some of the nation’s longest stretches of water that flow uninterrupted by dams through largely undeveloped land.

And thanks to another act of Congress in 1968, southern Missouri’s Eleven Point River became one of eight initial units in the National Wild and Scenic River System system. The 44-mile protected portion of that river stretches from Thomasville to Highway 142.

The Eleven Point was included in the original NPS proposal for the National Scenic Riverways, but it was ultimately excluded when the park was created.

Perhaps the most wondrous aspect of southern Missouri’s river system is the springs that feed them.

The Riverways Park contains the United States’ largest concentration of first magnitude springs (defined as having a flow of more than 2,800 liters or 100 cubic feet of water per second) in dolomite rock. The only comparable spring collections are the limestone springs of North Florida and the igneous-based springs of Idaho’s Snake River.

But statistics notwithstanding, just to witness the bigger of these springs is awesome.

Where the springs emerge from their subterranean origins, it’s basically like a great big river just comes out of the ground. Whenever my wife Wendy and I have visitors from out-of-state, we enjoy showing them a spring or two and they’re always amazed.

And the big ones drain incredibly large areas. The aptly named Big Spring (near Van Buren) is the largest spring in Missouri and one of the biggest in the world, adding more than 270 million gallons to the Current River every day. Testing has shown that some of the water that surfaces there comes from more than 40 miles away and takes a week or two to arrive.

Among the springs many local residents have no doubt seen (and two of the most beautiful natural water features I’ve ever been around) are Alley Spring and Blue Spring near Eminence. Blue Spring’s 300-foot deep waters (yep, that deep) must be seen in person to be believed; they are the strangest shade of aquamarine blue you can imagine. 

Alley Spring, with its famed big red mill building, was once the hub of a thriving community that has since vanished except for a couple of structures. It was originally called Barksdale’s Spring and Mammoth Spring before being renamed for a miller who lived in the community.

When I visit these rivers and springs, I can’t help but ponder what it must have been like to be a settler in the area 150 years ago or so. I enjoy history and natural beauty, and it’s a special treat when the two combine.

In past summers that have been dominated by triple-digit heat, Wendy and I and our dogs have been known to cool off by flopping around in the clear water where the Alley Spring branch flows into the Jacks Fork. The differing water temperatures where the two streams meet is wild; the spring branch remains at about 52 degrees all year long, while the river water reaches about 75 degrees during hot times. To say the least, it feels weird to stand in chest-deep water and feel your feet going numb from the cold of the bottom layer while your waist is warmed by the top layer.

Something else that always gets my attention is how the bottom of the Jacks Fork in shallower areas was covered with smooth, small to medium-sized rocks that aren’t covered with slime.

I like to lie still in maybe two-foot deep areas and watch small fish congregate around me. And during a brave moment, we’ll venture all the way into the cold zone almost like those guys you see jumping into literally arctic water in Sweden or northern Canada.

Brrr!

Speaking of fish, the water is so clear that I inevitably end up spending time just staring into it viewing representatives of several species swim by, some of which are very pretty (like the sauger and a northern hogsucker).

I told my wife we could be pioneers of a new genre of outdoor activity: Fish watching. After all, why should birds be the only animal with an organized group of “watchers?”

FACT CHECK See inaccurate information in this story? Tell us here.

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