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Along the Jack's Fork

The kids had finally settled into their tent and drifted off to sleep. I threw another log on the fire and nestled back to enjoy the quiet of the evening. On camping trips, this is my favorite time of day.

The air is cooler at this hour, and the campfire is mellow. The belly is full of pork 'n' beans, and the coffee has miraculously gained a flavor. A stillness envelops the campsite as the rustlings of pre-teen campers cease, and you can feel the change taking place in the world around you. One set of critters goes into its holes, while another comes out to explore.

There was no moonlight this evening, but I knew there were stars out there. I walked down to the river to get a better look at the sky, away from the glow of the campfire and the shadows of sycamores that surrounded our site. The heavens were full.

We'd been canoeing the Jacks Fork River in Missouri for a day and a half. This was our second night of camping along its gravel bars. The canoeing is fine, but it's the camping I really enjoy. My children - Tom, who's 12, and Rachel, 10 - also love this part of the trip.

There are no facilities or amenities, unless you count a few sticks of firewood left by a previous camper, so you must make camp with whatever you hauled in by canoe. Although there are managed campgrounds at various points along the river, we preferred to be out there alone.

The Jacks Fork River, along with the Current, comprise the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. Those two springfed rivers and the Eleven Point River, further south, are favorite destinations for canoeists and campers in the Ozarks.

We had hoped to explore the upper portion of the Jacks Fork, reputed to be some of the most spectacular scenery of the Missouri Ozarks, but the water level upstream from Alley Spring wasn't high enough to carry a canoe. The water level, unless there is a heavy rain, does not vary more than a foot or two during most of the summer, but it rises significantly in the spring.

If you want to canoe the upper Jacks Fork, your best bet is to go before June. But it was August, so we floated from Alley Spring to Two Rivers, where the Jacks Fork flows into the Current. It is a distance of about 15 miles, as the fish swims.

Alley Spring pumps 81 million gallons of water a day into the river, which widens and deepens significantly at that point. Even so, we scraped bottom and got hung up on a shoal once or twice along the way. Other than that, it was an easy float.

The rapids were fairly tame, although there were a few tricky spots where the river cut back sharply and the channel shifted. The current sometimes wanted to take us over a root wad or a downed tree, but there wasn't much danger of dumping the canoe. Most of the time we paddled easily and took our time, enjoying the scenery and stopping wherever we felt like it.

Along the way great bluffs would rise along the banks, and we'd glide over deep pools of water. In places the trees would arch over the water from both banks and we'd slip down a clear narrow corridor of sycamore. The woods around us were thick with ancient oak and cedar. Clumps of birch stood out from the weathered stone that was cut over a millennium or two by this river.

Hundreds of turtles sunned themselves on logs and shelves of rock. Blue heron and kingfishers would occasionally fly alongside us. There were other birds, too, from the common cardinal and jay to the more exotic, which I won't even attempt to name. We saw ducks and squirrel on this trip, and on previous floats I've seen deer and weasel, too. The water supports bass, trout and goggle-eye. There also is an abundance of sucker fish, feeding on snails and other spring water life forms.

Much of the river from Alley Spring to Two Rivers is within the protection of the National Park Service, which administers the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, but a large stretch of this river cuts through private land. Along this stretch, it is not uncommon to come upon a cabin or two. The river also winds around Eminence, a good-sized town that supports a privately managed campground. But even in these passages, the river is clean and clear.

The gravel bar campsites are plentiful on the Jacks Fork, more so than on the Current. We found a peaceful spot at Possum Trot Hollow, a few miles downstream from Alley Spring, for our first camp, and we enjoyed a good meal after a chilly swim just before dusk. A family of brazen raccoons kept us awake a little that night, but we were up, fed and on the river again by 10 a.m. the next day. We floated until midafternoon and took out at a place called Hole-in-The-Wall to make camp again.

Hole-in-The-Wall got its name from the bluff directly across from our campsite. It is a massive stone face with a large overhang that supports the gnarled roots, twisted trunks of thick cedar trees. It is an imposing monument, and even more impressive at night, when you stand between it and a campfire and your shadow is cast to heights of 80 or 90 feet.

I imagined native Americans telling tales in the evening at this very spot, illustrating their stories with shadow dances on the bluff. What people used to camp here hundreds of years ago? What tales did they tell? You can listen to the gentle nocturnal passage of the river and lose yourself in your imagination. You can gaze at the magnificence of this land and your mind can easily drift away under the stars with the leaves on the Jacks Fork River. It's then that you realize that the river is much deeper than its water.

The coons rustled me out of my reverie and after a few fainthearted attempts to run them off, I resigned myself to letting the critters have the run of the camp. I unzipped my tent and joined my kids in slumber.

Collected written works  |  Gary Marx


Somewhere Over the 

     Rainbow: The People

     Who Live Outside


The Run for the Wall:

     Motorcycles and


Return of a Radical:

     Oscar Winner Barb

     Trent Returns to Old

     Stomping Grounds

Along the Jack’s Fork:

     Canoeing in the Ozarks