September 24, 2012

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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.

Shannon County

Co Rd D-319, Missouri, Missouri 65588

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    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.

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