It was a beautiful day, last Monday, when after days of clouds, the sun shone. Snow still covered the frozen ground, up to six inches in some places. I had been waiting for a really good, lasting, deep, snow. There were places, I was told, where a combination of snow and terrain were especially spectacular. One place in particular I wanted to visit – Ozark Caverns. Now owned by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR), I first knew it as the cave in my school friend’s back yard. In the 1950s, her parents, the Olsons, owned the land. The area was just beginning to attract a significant numbers of tourists, so they spent considerable time and money putting in concrete walkways and lights through the cave so they could have commercial tours. The cave had been known to the locals forever and the remnants of their forays inside were obvious with the scrawling of their names on the walls. That combined with this commercialization almost killed the cave – but not quite. The DNR acquired the cave just in time and has done a great deal of work restoring the cave to its natural state. Of course it will never be as it was before it was altered, but now at least, cave life is encouraged, not destroyed. The strings of lights were removed along with some of the other modifications. If bats could jump for joy, they probably would have. Now, without the lights and with a gate stopping visitors from going inside during hibernation time, they can sleep the winter away in peace, emerging in the spring when there are plenty of insects to feast on during the night.
On this day, it is the outside I’m interested in.
The road down to the cave was closed, so parking my truck outside the gate, I walked. So different from last spring. The wild flowers, no longer green topped with color, stood as dark silhouettes against the snow. It was quiet, only the sounds of occasional birds and fluttering of leaves still hanging on some tree branches. Rounding the final curve, it can be seen, just a dark slit in the hillside. The Ozark fen in front of the cave entrance that was so green during my last visit, appears to have disappeared but is really just hiding under the snow. For those unfamiliar with fens, they are permanent water saturated areas with the vegetation varying depending on where the fen is located. Ozark fens are fed by clear-running streams, and this cave just happened to have one of those streams keeping this fen healthy. Knowing where the fen was located helped me avoid it. There was a reason a wooden walkway was built over it leading to the cave entrance.
Closer to the entrance, the sight of the ice stalagmites and stalactite was spectacular. They had begun to melt and would soon be gone until next time. What takes hundreds of years to make out of minerals inside the cave, takes only hours when its made of water. The ice emphasized how much water actually flows through the rocks and soil. Even deeper inside the entrance there are ice formations.
To the side of the cave entrance is a small creek, one that is larger or smaller depending on precipitation. While it looks totally frozen, don’t be fooled. Water continues to run under the ice.
After exploring around the cave entrance, taking pictures of some of the plants and mosses, I took a walk along the stream that the cave and the runoff next to it helped form. There is a great deal of green around, easily overlooked because of the bright nature of the snow. Found some animal tracks and photographed them as well. Then it was time to hike back up the road to the truck. On the way, took a side trip along the Mill Spring trail to the spring. More on the Mill Spring and animal tracks later.
Meanwhile, the snow has melted leaving behind saturated muddy, mucky ground on top of the still frozen soil base. It seems spring is just around the corner.
First published 1/17/2010 © SJ Nelson