Judge “Peg-Leg” Shannon would have a blast in this neck of the woods, assuming he wasn’t sick of rivers, caves, and general exploring. As a pup, this youngest member of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery had a propensity for getting lost. On one sojourn to round up the company’s stray pack of horses, he returned to the wrong part of the river and stayed lost for two weeks. He lost his leg years later on another mission. When it comes to getting lost in the woods, the county that bears his name would make him feel right at home.
Lynette and Alan Peters made me feel right at home during my recent stay at the River’s Edge Resort in Eminence. Alan, who knows the area as well as anybody, insists there are seven wonders in Shannon County. I found those seven, and then some.
To begin my journey of discovery, I used a conveyance most familiar to George Shannon. In the southeast corner of Texas County, two vigorous streams come together like prongs to form the headwaters of the Jacks Fork River.
There, I launched my canoe.
Chimney Rock towers as a sentinel near the entrance to Shannon County. From there, I floated for two days to reach the first wonder.
Along the way, the river entered America’s oldest National Scenic Riverway and swept me under a new Route 17 bridge, the approach to which sheared away half a mountain. I slalomed past a foreboding Lorelei called Smash Rock and paddled to a cave so remote that the only practical way to reach the spot is by river.
Jam Up Cave is a barn-sized hole at the base of a sheer rock cliff. The cave opens into a sinkhole directly behind the cliff’s face. The sinkhole itself drops from the mountaintop like a landscaped funnel, big as a Piggly Wiggly parking lot at the top, small as a teachers lounge at the bottom, where a cold pool requires a body-length underwater swim from the sinkhole to the cave entrance. Because the sinkhole is so deep and the cave faces north, only indirect light penetrates to the bottom.
As a result, plant species that have not existed anywhere else in the Ozarks for ten thousand years thrive there. Across the river, from a mountaintop in Greenwood Forest, the only thing more inspiring than the view of Jam Up is the vantage point upon which I stood. The homesteads in Greenwood Forest are simple and comfortable, functional and self-sufficient. Inhabitants compost their own waste and produce their own electricity, using solar collectors and other natural energy sources. Good thing. The nearest hot wire is a dozen miles away.
I pressed on, floating down the Jacks Fork past the site of my first Shannon County memory. It’s a man-made marvel. Sitting within the National Scenic Riverways boundary, Bunker Hill Ranch would offer a perfect spot from which to launch a discovery of Shannon County, except that it’s private property, a prized possession of the Missouri State Teachers Association. Uniformly clad in dark creosote-soaked wood with whitewash trim, two dozen cabins surround a oneroom schoolhouse and a chapel, everything a teacher needs to escape and recharge the batteries.
As a child of two teachers, I remember coming to this spot. Now, like other river rats who encounter this wilderness Utopia, we can only marvel as we float past.
Eighteen miles downstream, some folks claim that Alley Spring Mill is the most photographed spot in Missouri. The two-story gristmill straddles the river, where Alley Spring adds its liquid benefit to the Jacks Fork. Painted barn red, this mill peeks into the past, when it was a gathering place in this wilderness.
Downstream a bit, a feud has brewed for decades. At the heart of the fights are horses along the Jacks Fork and Current rivers. Back during the Great Depression, a farmer turned his herd of thirty or so horses loose to fend for themselves. The horses evolved into two distinct herds and roamed wild for decades.
When the Department of the Interior established the Ozark National Scenic Riverway, the feds became concerned that the horses’ hooves were damaging the fragile karst topsoil, causing increased erosion. So they began stalking the herds to shoot the horses and eliminate the problem. That’s when the Wild Horse League formed to stop the federal assault, taking the shooters to court to silence the slaughter.
Eventually, horse lovers won, and the herds survive today. A few years back, a trigger-happy target shooter spied one of the wild herds in a roadside field and killed a half dozen of them. Locals were outraged, and they tracked down, prosecuted, and imprisoned the killer.
Today, the herds graze north and east of Eminence. I’ve seen them in the fields near the confluence of the two rivers. Legend is that at the apex of the harvest moon, in honor of their fallen sisters, the two herds head in different directions and stampede the homes of game poachers.
Speaking of stampedes, several times a year, thousands of equestrians descend upon greater Eminence. On one edge of town, a new horse trail encourages riders to steer their steeds away from the delicate river ecosystem.
On the opposite edge of town, a steady stampede of thrill seekers hook onto Missouri’s first zipline. The Eagle Falls Ranch zipline sent me flying through the trees for the better part of a mile (see the story on page 54).
Most of the creeks that feed these rivers emanate from springs in the steep hills. Many must make a special effort to bust through barriers to reach the bigger streams. One such robust creek flows over Rocky Falls, and when I reached it, the sight blew me away.
This ship-sized outcropping of dolomite ranks among America’s oldest exposed rock formations, the gatekeeper to giant shut-ins that channel water down its broad back. The rocks get slippery when wet, but on the day I visited, nobody else was there to fall down. This might be the best-kept secret among Shannon County’s seven wonders.
Just downstream on Rocky Creek, but way off the beaten path is Klepzig Mill, which is best accessible by ditching your car and hiking the Ozark Trail.
Climbing north out of Eminence, Route 19 becomes a switchback trail over the ridges that delay the inevitable matrimony of the Jacks Fork and Current river valleys.
Ah, the Current. Half a million people float it every year. And if you visit the Current on a summer Saturday, you might think those half million visitors came at the same time. I suspect more folks would float here if the National Park Service would allow more canoe vendors on these riverways. I’m glad they don’t.
Most of these half million floaters miss Blue Spring, even though it’s only a quarter mile from the Current and an easy hike beside the spring’s gushing stream. Called “Spring of the Summer Sky” by the area’s first inhabitants, the water charges from deep in the ground at the base of a high bluff that forms the back wall of a box canyon. Halfway up the bluff, a dead cedar trunk, taller and straighter than most, stands on the canyon wall like a topgallant on a clipper ship.
I paused to watch an otter fish in the cold aqua blue spring waters. Locals who fish here must compete with otters, and there’s bad blood, at least on the part of the humans. It’s understandable, since otters have a definite advantage catching fish, unencumbered by limits, seasons, and game wardens. Bipedal fishers are resentful that after they’d painstakingly rendered otters extinct in Missouri and sold all their pelts to hat makers, state conservation folks reintroduced the otters to the rivers a few years back. Now the otters thrive, and the fish must spawn like crazy to supply enough otter fodder.
Still, there is relative harmony in this wondrous ecosystem. Except for one thing. Walking back to the Current River, I picked up enough beer cans and cigarette butts to fill a mesh trash bag. Most people respect nature, but a few express their freedom by jettisoning their trash in pristine areas. They must really work at it, procuring the trash a dozen miles away and transporting it here.
Route 19 crosses the Current at Round Spring, another wonder to the eyes but also a wonder down under. That’s because geologists believe the spring crosses under the Current before it empties into the river. Just north, two towns named Timber sit within two miles of each other. From one, a road led me to the Sinks, Missouri’s only natural navigable tunnel and former home to the world’s most sunken bluegrass concert. It’s on private land, but the owner let me see it. Just downstream, I launched a canoe for a ride on Sinking Creek, one of the biggest—and cleanest—tributaries to the Current River.
Upriver from there past Akers Ferry, which connects the wilderness north of the Current
River to the wilderness on the south, Welch Spring is home to an abandoned country hospital. Nearly a century ago, a physician built a stone sanitarium at the entrance to
Welch Cave to treat respiratory illnesses with fresh spring water and cool cave air. Long deserted, the hospital is a ruin, and the cave is home to bats that pay the rent by eating their weight in bugs every day. Welch Spring is a real gusher, and if conditions are right, cold water hits warm air, forming a pea soup fog for a quarter mile downriver.
Paraphrasing Jerry Vineyard, Missouri’s preeminent geologist-explorer, Devil’s Well is a big stomach. It’s Mother Nature’s idea of an indoor pool, except that it’s cold and dark and scary as hell, hence the name. It is perhaps the world’s most dramatic peek into an underground river, a hundred feet straight down through a hole no wider than a backyard trampoline. Before the Devil relinquished this well to the National Park Service, the previous owner lowered visitors into the stomach, er, sinkhole in a bosun’s chair. It was a ride much like the worm experiences when dangled from a fishhook.
Seven wonders? More like seventy. I hopped in my car and headed straight—sort of—up
Route 19. Four hours later, I reached the Massie Mill Cemetery north of Palmyra, where Judge “Peg-Leg” Shannon, after a remarkable career as a Kentucky judge and a Missouri legislator—oh, and an explorer— lies in an unmarked grave. The grave was unmarked because he had died suddenly after traveling there to hear a murder case.
I shouted across the graveyard, telling him what I saw. On my way home, I got lost.