Last Best Streams- #1522.

Still at it.

This one gathers headwaters from Mississippian limestone on the Ozark Plateau, finding its way through a hundred million years of sea floor.  A lot of it is underground, working through cracks and crevices, caves and solution channels, before joining one of the region’s largest rivers.  That so much rainwater is shunted into bedrock, and the region’s thin, flinty soils, means the region’s native white oaks grow slow and dense, packing in sugars and vanillin phenolics.  The oak is cut, split into staves, bound into barrels, charred and shipped to Kentucky or Sonoma or La Rioja. 

The high, dry bluffs are home to plants and animals found further south and west- prickly pear cactus, collared and horned lizards.  Tarantulas.  But down here, in the bottom, it’s spring, and the wildlflowers are up.  Trout lily, bluebells, white skeins of Dutchman’s Breeches held above ferny foliage.  Boxelder and buckeye just beginning to leaf out. A month or two from now the river will be given over to drunks and party rafts.  I watch, and listen, for turkeys. 

The river itself is deep, fast.  Years ago it likely held spawning runs of white bass and walleye, moving dozens or hundreds of miles every spring before dropping back to larger, deeper rivers.  A hundred years ago a dam went up, a tunnel bored through one of the limestone ridges, a turbine installed in the borehole.  Then, it powered a good part of the region.  Now, it produces less power than two wind turbines.  There’s talk of pulling the dam, letting fish recolonize parts of the river they haven’t reached in all those years. 

It’s still home to good smallmouth fishing, rock bass, a dozen panfish species, and stocked rainbow and brown trout.  And it’s one of the last strongholds of eastern hellbender, harboring a genetically distinct population of the species that’s critical for recovery.  A hundred fish and twenty freshwater mussel species, some of which are found nowhere else on the planet, some of which are at risk of extinction.  Who knows what the next twenty, fifty, 100 years will bring.

 But for now, they’re safe. 

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