BooheelEstablished in 1944, Mingo National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri's Bootheel is a resting and wintering place for migratory birds.
More than a ridge with a view
Tucked in the rolling hills on the brink of the Bootheel, the Bloomfield Cemetery tells a story. The chapters unfold one by one on the white tombstones of Confederate soldiers from around Bloomfield who died during the Civil War. Many were laid to rest on this beautiful spot atop Crowley’s Ridge, that towering geologic oddity that slices across southeast Missouri, separating the hill people from the flatlanders.
I hadn’t planned on staying so long in Bloomfield. But the exhibits in The Stars & Stripes Museum combined with the gravestone engravings had a strong gravitational pull on my curiosity. The sun was low in the sky when I finished reading the tombstone testaments. I headed a few blocks down the road to dine. My approach up the gravel trail to the genuine rawhide ambience of Cowtown Cafe was a step into country living, complete with a barnyard greeting from goats and donkeys and such. On the inside, antiques dot the rough-hewn wood framing and giant fireplace.
I had a home-cooked meal, a rarity on the road. And I got something else: a history lesson. The folks in Bloomfield told me the history of Crowley’s Ridge. Early pioneers followed the ridge along the narrow Chalk Bluff Trail, between the swamps, to reach Arkansas or Texas. With catfish in my craw, I bid adieu to my hosts and the goats and the donkeys and beat a retreat into the hill country, to my cabin at one of my favorite state parks, Sam A. Baker.
Sam A. Baker State Park snuggles into the rugged foothills of the St. Francois Mountains. Big Creek empties into the floatable flow of St. Francois River on its way to vacation at Lake Wappapello. Established back in 1928, the park is one of the oldest jewels in Missouri’s state park system. The lodge is a classic, serving up meals to reload your energy level for more exploring on foot, on horseback, or in a kayak. This Wayne County preserve is the perfect jumping off point for my next target of exploration: The Mingo National Wildlife Refuge.
Mingo straddles the border of Wayne and Stoddard counties and features a surprisingly accessible glimpse into the heart of a swamp, with all of its critters. Migrating waterfowl appreciate the courtesy of this preserve, and they reward visitors with upclose views of their habits and habitat. The visitors’ center presents the single most awesome display I’ve ever seen anywhere in my life. Walking through the front door, you see two giant buck deer antlers locked together so their snouts are inches from each other. Their ritual territorial fight had changed into a fight for survival when they realized they were hopelessly locked together.
They were found in the swamp, where they drowned as they tried to cooperate for a drink of water. “We wish more people knew about this place,” a ranger told me. I agree. You might think such a swamp would be inhospitable to humans, but it’s a delightful opportunity to see wildlife. You come in contact with critters of all types along twenty-seven miles of roadways and many more miles of footpaths.
Just as important, this preserve lets you see what the land looked like before what may be the most dramatic transformation of swampland to farmland in North America, certainly in Missouri. Before it was drained, the area provided great cover for Confederate Gen. M. Jeff Thompson, the “Swamp Fox” of the Civil War.
As a result of clear-cutting and a complex network of drainage canals, the Swamp Fox would have precious little cover today. The fruits of this rich bottomland continue to evolve from king cotton to rice paddies and shrimp farms. Yet there’s still one more place to hide in the Bootheel. To get there, drive from Mingo across the crown of the Bootheel. Head southeast from East Prairie to Big Oak Tree State Park. This thousand-acre forest is Mother Nature’s secret recipe for greatness, blending swamp and soil so fertile that a remarkable variety of trees grow to steroidal proportions.
Having never been there, I thought the centerpiece of Big Oak Tree State Park was a big oak tree. Well, it used to be. Back in 1937, when the state acquired the land, the big oak tree was the alpha tree among the other giants. Even then, it was 481 rings old, having germinated in 1556
Fact is, six state champion trees (two of which are national champions) have towered over the park’s visitors. Now, sadly, that roster doesn’t include the big oak tree. A few years back, it bit the dust. But you still can see a cross section of the mighty oak at the visitors’ center. But by far, the most common visitors to Big Oak Tree are birds.
More than 150 different species, some rare, have clutched a branch in the rarified air, dropping an occasional present onto the half-mile-long boardwalk. And why not? It’s a great rest area along the Mississippi flyway. With a treetop canopy reaching 140 feet, there’s plenty of room in the high-rise and an unobstructed view for miles.
Life is good at the top of the Bootheel.¬¬