Shut-In for the Winter

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In my adopted home state of Missouri, one thing there isn’t a shortage of are waterways. Creeks, streams and rivers flow like hundreds of capillaries and veins through the mountains, hills and valleys on their way to the main artery of the mighty Mississippi.  These rivers and streams are always changing and evolving as they tumble and wind through our great state.  A natural phenomenon that is unique to our Ozark waterways are shut-ins.  Shut-ins occur when a portion of a river is confined by a narrow channel of rock that is more resistant to erosion.  This creates chutes, pools, waterfalls and rapids that form as the water is forced over and around igneous boulders of granite and rhyolite.

As is usual during our Missouri winters, there are a few days that are unseasonably warm and when that occurs we all start looking for a quick cure to the epidemic of cabin fever that is running rampant all over the Midwest. So this winter I have been treating my winter “shut ins” with some Ozark shut-ins.

The 2016 Tour de Shut-Ins began in January with a trip to Johnson Shut-Ins State Park. In February, we visited the Tiemann Shut-Ins at Millstream Gardens Conservation Area and the Castor River Shut-Ins at Amidon Memorial Conservation Area.  All are beautiful, but each are unique in their own way.

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Johnson Shut-Ins State Park

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Johnson Shut-Ins State Park

Johnson Shut-Ins are probably the most popular of the shut-ins. In the summertime, people flock here to play in what is like a natural water park.  But this January, not long after Missouri experienced a historic flood, the water of the East Fork Black River was running fast and high.  We had the whole place to ourselves so we took advantage, climbing out onto the rocks and even hiking a portion of the Ozark Trail that follows along the other side of the river.


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Tiemann Shut-Ins

The Tiemann shut-ins are unique in that it is part of the only true whitewater in Missouri.  Each year, the Missouri Whitewater Championships are held here. What I find most iMillstreamnteresting about this place are the pink stripes that run through some of the boulders.  It was an amazingly warm 70+ degree day in February when we visited, so I

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St. Francis River white water

went barefoot and waded around in the calmer waters near the edge of the stream, climbing over the worn and flattened rocks and digging my toes into the chilly sand.  Braver souls were enjoying the rapids and testing their skills in whitewater kayaks.



After a couple cold ones and some BBQ’d brats we saved the best for last and headed over to Amidon Conservation Area and the Castor River Shut-ins.  Possibly one of the prettiest places in Missouri, this area is a little more remote and less commercial than the other two.  These shut-ins are the only ones in Missouri comprised of pink granite.  It’s also narrower and has more features like waterfalls and chutes in a shorter stretch than the other areas we visited. Basically you get more bang for your buck over here.

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Pink granite at Castor River Shut-Ins


The idea was to stay past nightfall and get some pictures of the stars filling the sky over the river, what I forgot to do was check the weather app for the moonrise time. As it turns out the moon began to peek out over the trees across the river just as the sun was setting, so it turned into a moon shoot instead.  This was a little more challenging but was an amazingly beautiful sight as the moon glow was reflected in the swiftly running river and the long exposure gave the water a surreal icy effect.

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Moonlight over Castor River Shut-Ins


After a long and busy day that was jam-packed full of fun, we finally decided to head for home.  But judging by the nine inches of snow we had this week, old man winter isn’t quite done with us yet. There are still plenty of shut-ins in Missouri to visit, so I’m sure I won’t stay shut in for long!




Journey to the Center of the Earth

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One weekend last August we decided to pack up the camper and head out to Robertsville State Park.  Anyone who has ever suffered through a St. Louis summer knows that August can be hot, humid and downright miserable.  I’m not a big fan of heat and humidity so rather than spend the evening in front of a campfire, we nestled into the cozy air conditioned haven of my little Koala camper, drank some beers and listened to oldies on my iPod.

The next morning we were in store for yet another hot, humid and downright miserable day.  What to do?  We really wanted to go hiking and enjoy the outdoors, but Mother Nature had decided to turn St. Louis into her own personal blast furnace for the weekend.  Lucky for us, Missouri is also known as the Cave State, and caves are a comfortable 57 degrees year round.  What a wonderful respite from the oppressive summer heat!

We headed west down highway 44 towards one of the most spectacular caves in the US.  Onondaga Cave is a national natural landmark located in Leasburg, MO. The state park was less than hour drive from the campground.

After a brief informational program and a lesson on White-nose Syndrome, a disease that is affecting cave bats, we were allowed to descend into the cave for a tour that would cover a mile of underground passageways and last a little over an hour.

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cave new 10(s).jpgWhat I liked most about this cave was that its natural beauty was allowed to speak for itself.  There were no cheesy laser light shows or holograms projected on the walls. Just amazing natural formations that have been shaping and evolving under the surface of the earth for centuries.  There were stalactites hanging from the ceiling, stalagmites growing from the floor, and the columns that are created when these two formations eventually meet up and merge together. IMG 6741 Joyce Onondaga small The path meandered along a crystal clear underground stream where we viewed flowstone, dripstone and something our guide called ‘cave bacon’.  All of this was really quite lovely, but the most extraordinary thing of all was a place called the ‘Lily Pad room’.  Wow!  I’ve toured a lot of caves and I have never seen anything like it. It was an underground aquatic wonderland.  It gave me a sense of being magically transported to another world with a foreign, yet fascinating landscape. Lily pads made of stone seemed to float on the surface of the water; beneath the surface cave coral grew in brilliant shades of greens and blues.  We hung around, taking pictures in this stunning venue until the guide pretty much turned out the lights on us. 

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After about an hour of exploring the subterranean scenery we emerged top side into the bright sunshine of a Missouri summer day. We rounded out our visit to Onondaga Cave State Park by photographing the beautiful native butterflies as they flitted around the gardens outside of the visitor’s center.

Soon we were at the campground and back in the air conditioned comfort of my cozy little camper. Scrolling through the photographs and reminiscing about our day, we decided we had come up with the perfect way to beat the sultry St. Louis heat and still enjoy a nice nature hike.


Swan Song

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With Eagle Quest 2016 at a lull, we took a trip to Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary in East Alton, Missouri to check out the local swan action.  Finally we were rewarded with hundreds of birds.  Honking, swimming, flying and frolicking in the semi-frozen wetlands along the Mississippi River, trumpeter swans were everywhere.

Swans 6(s)Seeing these regal beauties in their natural winter habitat seemed a little strange at first.  Like most people my usual experience with swans was in a park or on a private lake. Majestic snow white birds gliding effortlessly across the glassy waters. With graceful necks bent in a subtle S-curve, their beauty and elegance is duplicated in the mirror-like surface. Set against a back drop of perfectly manicured grounds, park benches welcome you to sit, relax and contemplate nature’s beauty. These birds never fly away, why would Swans 7(s)they?  Who would ever want to leave such an Eden?  Of course, I’m not that naive, I knew they would leave if they could.  I figured their wings were clipped, like the parakeets my kids had in grade school.  Of course, those feathers grew back and the birds were once again able to fly.  What I didn’t realize was that the wings of larger birds are generally not clipped.  Instead, these birds are pinioned.  Hmm.  I thought, what is that?  I was shocked when I found out.

Pinioning – A surgical procedure performed on a bird’s wing to render the bird permanently incapable of flight.

To me this is animal abuse. You wouldn’t cripple your dog to keep him from running away, and yet we are crippling these animals. We take away their gift of flight so we can gaze upon their beauty in our parks, golf courses and private estates.  Imagine how horribly traumatic this must be. An immature bird is snatched away from protective parents at a young age. The procedure is often carried out without anesthetic so he experiences the pain and terror of having part of one wing amputated.  As he grows older and instinctually attempts to fly, he is thrown off balance, often toppling over on his breastbone and injuring himself.  These animals are permanently maimed and will never be free to live their lives as nature intended.

The practice of pinioning is outlawed in some countries in Europe.  But here we lop off their wing with a pair of clippers and send them back to our man-made “Golden Ponds”, now a flightless entity suffered to swimming in endless circles for the rest of their natural life.

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I think of this injustice as I look back upon the photographs I took of the wild swans flying boldly across the late afternoon winter sky.  The ivory of their graceful wings set aglow by the radiant embers of the setting sun.  Their long necks leading them across the mighty Mississippi.  This is the way their lives should be.  I consider myself lucky to have been able to witness such a beautiful species in their natural migration and habitat.

He was not bone and feather but a perfect idea of freedom and flight, limited by nothing at all.

Richard Bach, Jonathon Livingston Seagull


Elephant Rock Stars

Stars 1-1(s)One of the most difficult and therefore, obsessive challenges for me has been photographing the night sky. But I’m persistent if nothing else and I will not let a few celestial bodies get the better of me. What makes star photography even more difficult is that the conditions must be perfect. It needs to be a moonless, cloudless night, in an area far from any ambient light and last but not least, you need to have something interesting in the foreground. Long exposure photography also requires that everything is setup correctly on the camera. Something I often forget in all of my star struck enthusiasm.

On an unusually warm day last December all the stars aligned – the skies were clear, the weather was beautiful and the moon wasn’t due to make an appearance until well after dark. The question remained, where to go? And then it dawned on me, Elephant Rock State Park. What a perfect vantage point!  High up on the rocks the stars would be at our fingertips and the silhouettes of the large granite boulders would make an interesting foreground. This time I would do it! I felt confident that I would finally accomplish what I had long sought after.

We decided to take advantage of the amazing weather and make a day of it. We packed the cooler with brats and beer, grabbed the Smokey Joe and a bag of charcoal. Loaded up the IMG_2064camera equipment and headed south down highway 21 towards one of the most beautiful areas in Missouri, the Arcadia Valley.

After a couple brews and some yummy bbq’d brats, we moved the car outside the gate to avoid being trapped IMG_2067.JPGthere all night, packed up the camera gear and headed towards the parade of granite pachyderms at the top of the hill. The views didn’t disappoint. With the camera on the tripod pointed out over the Arcadia Valley, the highest mountains of the Missouri Ozarks beckoned off in the distance. I checked and doubled checked all the camera settings. The only thing left was to wait for the stars to come out.

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And come out they did. At first it seemed they would never make an appearance, but as we gazed up into the darkening sky, one by one we would see them twinkle into existence. The darker it got, the more there were. We watched in wonderment as the sky completely transformed and filled with stellar elegance. It was as if we were standing beneath an ebony canopy with a million tiny pinpricks of light shining through. This was nature at its finest, and we were humbled by its raw beauty. We looked straight up and there was the Milky Way. Even a man-made satellite slowly, but steadily, streaked its way across the sky.

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I tried my best to capture what I could, it was overwhelming how amazing it was. Perched at the top of a hill made of solid granite, we were completely surrounded by so much natural beauty it would never fit in one frame. It would be impossible to do this ethereal scene justice with a mere photograph. Each shot took a minimum of 30-seconds and then an equal amount of time to write to the camera. We did a 5-minute and a 10-minute exposure as well, hoping to catch some movement and trailing in the stars.

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Eventually, we had to bid adieu to the geological wonder beneath our feet and the heavenly bodies above. With flashlights in hand, we climbed down and headed back to the car. I knew that even if I hadn’t gotten that perfect celestial shot, this was definitely an experience never to be forgotten. The awe and wonder of this night was something I knew I must experience over and over again.

On a Wing and a Prayer – Eagle Quest 2016


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It seems whenever winter comes along, I often get nostalgic for the seasons of my youth.  I remember when it began snowing in November and didn’t stop until March.  You didn’t have to dream of a white Christmas, it just was.  Snowmen, snow forts, snowball fights and snow angels were an everyday occurrence.  With all of this wonderful winter fun also went the wonderful winter wildlife.

For the last two weekends I have embarked on what I am now calling “Eagle Quest 2016.”  The quest began in Clarksville, MO.  Locally known as an eagle hot spot, hundreds of eagles are said to winter in this area and pluck fish by the thousands out of the water beneath the dam.  Surely this is eagle nirvana, and it sounded like the perfect spot to embark on such a quest. 

When we arrived in Clarksville we immediately noticed the lack of eagles at the dam. Where were they? This was not the eagle Shangri-La I had dreamt of.  Where will my ultimate eagle shot come from? Where will I go from here? Slightly shaken but still undaunted, we drove to the visitor’s center to ask the local eagle guru what’s up with the lack of eagle activity. 

At the visitors center we learned that because of the mild weather the eagles don’t have to venture this far south to find open water to feed in.  In previous years there had been hundreds of eagles on the dam, but this year not so many.  The last weekend he counted 70, this weekend 30.  Next weekend is the big Eagle Day festival and it’s going to be 60 degrees. I wonder how many eagles will be in attendance.  Don’t they know they’re the guests of honor?

He invited us to look through a spotting scope at an eagle’s nest across the river.  There, on a limb not far from the nest, sat the symbol of our great country. The majestic predator was perched atop the tallest tree just as he perches at the top of the avian food chain.  With the cloudless blue sky as a Eagle Nest 2back drop, the wind ruffling his dark brown feathers and his stoic white head aglow in the late morning sun, Eagle 1(s)he was the very embodiment of dignity and freedom.  God Bless America!  With a renewed sense of patriotic pride, I knew that my Eagle Quest must go on. The eagle guru remained hopeful, too. He was sure there would be a cold spell next month and the eagles would return to Clarksville in even greater numbers. We thanked him for his time and then forged ahead northward, undeterred in our quest, but humbled with the new found knowledge that this endeavor was going to be more challenging than first imagined.

We continued on for the next two weekends. Exploring the river roads, crossing the swiftly flowing semi-frozen waters by ferry, navigating down muddy gravel tracks, skirting barriers in search of eagle nests.  Wielding my long lens as if it were a sword, my own personal Excalibur, the quest went on.  And the eagles were there after all.  Soaring majestically above the bluffs that surround the rivers, perched Eagles flippedhigh on trees along the shore watching the ice float by, intently waiting for the perfect opportunity to snag a fish.  I was able to sneak Paparazzi like upon a few as they sat unsuspectingly high up in the trees, and I even got some decent shots before they took to the wing.  We witnessed some activity as well.  Two eagles, locked talon to talon, tumbled through the sky.  A lone eagle swooped down on Joyce Shooting Eaglehis mighty wings with ease to pluck a fish from the murky waters.  Yes, these were amazing moments, but did I capture them as I had hoped?  Well, sort of…  I captured them, but not as I had hoped.  There were the usual issues – distance, lighting, etc. – the bane of any photographer’s life.

But alas, the quest is not yet over, it will continue.  Like the hopeful eagle guru in Clarksville, I too believe that the eagles will return in greater numbers and I will be right there with them, at just the right moment, to capture that spectacular perfect shot!