Mass Grave

My friend Rich and I have begun hiking the Wappapello Section of the Ozark Trail this winter in our quest to eventually hike all 350 miles of the Ozark Trail in Missouri (to this point we had completed ~230 miles).  The Wappapello Section is the southeasternmost of all the sections, lying almost entirely in Wayne County and traversing rugged terrain in the Mark Twain National Forest along the west side of Wappapello Lake as it courses north to Sam A. Baker State Park.  The U.S. Corps of Army Engineers built and manages Wappapello Lake primarily for flood control in the rich farmlands the lie just downstream in the Mississippi Alluvial Plain in extreme southeastern Missouri.  Because of this, stretches of the Ozark Trail are subject to frequent inundation.

Such was the case the day after Thanksgiving, when Rich and I tackled the northernmost 10-mile stretch of this section. Because of the flooding, we had to bushwhack to higher ground for a significant portion of the hike. This sounds easier than it was—elevational relief in this rugged southeastern portion of the Ozark Highlands is as much as 500 ft, with steep grades and thick leaf litter atop loose, cherty soils. We did our best to stay oriented using a basic contour map and the experience we’ve gained over the years in judging terrain.

Sometimes, diversions from the trail lead to unexpected discoveries. On an earlier hike, we had gotten lost trying to find our starting point (not a designated trailhead)—we drove through hill and dale and ended up on a losing 2-track that was quite obviously not where we wanted to be. While turning the vehicle around in the tight space between the trees, we noticed something white peeking out from under a black plastic tarp, and upon investigation discovered the clean and nearly complete skeleton of a horse (or mule? These are the Ozarks, afterall). A shattered left occiput and lead projectile protruding through the right maxilla of the skull told the story of this sad beast’s demise. Despite its gruesome origins, I simply cannot resist clean, whole skulls of any kind, so I placed it in the vehicle before we resumed our search for the trail. It now rests permanently in my “museum” and has been named Horace (sitting next to an even cleaner skull of a feral hog that I found a few years earlier—named Boris. Get it? Horace the horse and Boris the boar?).

On this day, as we blazed our own trail on higher ground roughly parallel to the actual trail, we happened upon the gruesome scene shown in these two photographs. Natural historians that we are, we began conducting our own “crime scene” reconstruction—first determining the identity of the remains, then hypothesizing the reason for their placement there based on what we could observe about them. As far as we could tell, the remains of at least three individuals were present, each in a different state of decay from the others and with no apparent evidence of trauma. Rich and I are pretty sure we know what these are, and we have our own ideas about how they got here and why, but I’d be interested in hearing what others think (click photos to embiggen).

This scene made me a little nervous—not because skeletons give me the creeps, but because the Ozark Highlands have a reputation for harboring what many people insultingly refer to as “hillbillies.” The stereotype that this term engenders—i.e., a barefoot man with a long beard and ragged clothes, banjo in one hand and shotgun in the other—may be an extreme and unfair caricaturization. Nevertheless, the presence of this mass grave, with apparently no effort to conceal it, made at least the shotgun part of that image seem a little too real for comfort.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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“Bugged on the Ozark Trail”

The Ozark Trail is a renowned resource for recreational activities. Perhaps less well appreciated are the outstanding opportunities for nature study it also offers. Traversing some of the state’s most pristine areas, numerous plants and animals make their homes in the diverse natural habitats found along its length. While reptiles, birds, and mammals may be the most conspicuous animals encountered, they are far from the most diverse or numerous. That honor belongs overwhelmingly to the insects.

The Trail Builder, Late Fall 2008

The above quote is an excerpt from the lead article in the latest issue of The Trail Builder, newsletter of the Ozark Trail Association (click on the banner for a PDF of that issue). Yes, I am the author, and it is purely a matter of coincidence that I ended up authoring the lead article in two different newsletters in the same month (see “Dungers and Chafers – a Trip to South Africa”).

The Mission of the Ozark Trail Association is to develop, maintain, preserve, promote and protect the rugged, natural beauty of the Ozark Trail.–Ozark Trail Association

The Ozark Trail is one of Missouri’s premier hiking resources, stretching from just south of St. Louis southwestward through the Ozark Highlands to the Arkansas border. The vision of a 700-mile through trail connecting to Arkansas’ Ozark Highlands trail is well underway, with almost 550 miles of trail already completed – 350 miles in Missouri. My friend, colleague, and hiking buddy Rich and I began hiking different sections of the Ozark Trail almost 10 years ago, and thus far we have seen 220 of those miles. From the rugged beauty of the Marble Creek and Taum Sauk Sections, traversing the ancient St. Francois Mountains, to spectacular vistas atop towering dolomite bluffs along the Current River and Eleven Point Sections, we’ve experienced the essence of a landscape that Henry Schoolcraft so elegantly described during his 900-mile journey through the Ozarks with companion Levi Pettibone, nearly 200 years previous.

“Bugged on the Ozark Trail” is a short, fun article describing just a few of the insects hikers can expect to see along the Ozark Trail. Missouri is home to perhaps 25,000 species of insects, and many of these are found in the Ozark Highlands by virtue of the diverse natural communities formed within that great landform. Dung beetles, who despite their unappealing diet perform a great service in clearing the trail of waste from horseback riders. My beloved tiger beetles, flashing brilliant green along wooded trails and on rocky glades. Ambush bugs, paradoxically using the beauty of flowers as cover for their deadly intentions. Endangered dragonflies, infuriating deer flies, and endearing butterflies – these are but a few of the insects that can be seen along the Ozark Trail.

Previous issues of The Trail Builder are also available at the Ozark Trail Association website in the archives.

Ozark Trail – Marble Creek Section

If you know wilderness in the way that you know love, you would be unwilling to let it go…. This is the story of our past and it will be the story of our future. – Terry Tempest Williams


During the past several years that Rich and I have been hiking the Ozark Trail, most of our hikes have taken place in the fall and winter months. From a hiker’s perspective, I really enjoy these off-season hikes – the foliage-free canopy affords unobstructed views of the terrain and vistas, the cool (even cold) temperatures are more comfortable under exertion (provided one has properly layered), and there are no mosquitos to swat, ticks to pick, or gnats to incessantly annoy. I also enjoy them as a naturalist, for the world is quiet and still, allowing me to focus on things I may not notice amidst the cacophany of life during the warmer months. By the end of winter, however, the biologist in me yearns to once again see bugs and flowers and the great interplay of life. Unfortunately, this makes something as simple as hiking from point A to point B rather difficult – too many distractions! Nevertheless, each spring Rich and I try to hike a small leg of the Ozark Trail before the crush of summer activities fills our calenders. Last week, we chose the Marble Creek Section, an orphan stretch (for the time being) in the rugged St. Francois Mountains that eventually will connect to the famed Taum Sauk Section. It would be our first return visit to the St. Francois Mountains since we first embarked on our goal to hike the entirety of the Ozark Trail.

The St. Francois Mountains are the geologic heart of the Ozark Highlands. Since their primordial birth 1.5 billion years ago, recurring cycles of erosion and deposition have worn them down and covered them up, only to see them reemerge once again as the younger rocks covering them were themselves stripped away. The Ozarks are an ancient landscape with ancient hills, and none are older than those of the St. Francois Mountains. It’s as if the Earth itself began in these mountains. We began our hike at Crane Lake, a clear, blue 100-acre lake built in the 1970s by the Youth Conservation Corps. The trail surrounding the lake was built in 1975 and is, in its own right, a National Recreation Trail. It meanders along the lakeshore and through hillside igneous glades and descends into a deep ravine below the dam where Crane Pond Creek cascades through spectacular rhyolite shut-ins. East of the lake the trail connects to the Ozark Trail proper and continues to Marble Creek campground. All told, we would be hiking a 9-mile stretch.

I knew we were in a special place almost from the beginning when I noticed a small flowering plant growing next to the trail under the mixed pine/oak canopy. I’m not a very good botanist, but I instantly recognized the plant as dwarf spiderwort (Tradescantia longipes), an Ozark endemic known from only a handful of counties in Missouri and Arkansas. I knew this only because I had just the night before read about this wonderful plant on Ozark Highlands of Missouri, a superb natural history blog focused on my beloved Ozarks. Reading about this lovely, diminutive member of the genus, I wondered if I might encounter it on my own hike the next day. As we searched off the trail and near the lakeshore we encountered dozens of the plants, each with one or two exquisite blue flowers. Our excitement at seeing a true Ozark endemic increased with each plant we encountered, giving us confidence that its future, at least in this area, appears secure. Of the numerous photographs I took, I share two that show its short, squat habit and filament-covered stamens. Eventually we decided we needed to move on – we had spent 20 minutes and only hiked 100 ft!

Looping around the south side of the lake, the trail traversed mesic to dry-mesic upland forest and afforded spectacular views of the lake and rugged north shore. The spring ephemerals had already come and gone, replaced by such classic woodland denizens as birdfoot violet (Viola pedata, pictured), fire pink (Silene virginica), cream wild indigo (Baptisia leucophaea), four-leaved milkweed (Asclepias quadrifolia), Pursh’s phacelia (Phacelia purshii), and shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia). Insect life was abundant, however, the only species seen in one of my chosen specialties, metallic wood boring beetles (family Buprestidae), were early spring species of Acmaeodera – pictured here is A. ornata on a dewberry (Rubus sp.) flower. This pretty little beetle occurs throughout eastern North America in early spring on a variety of flowers, where adults feed on pollen and mate. Eggs are laid on dead branches of certain hardwood trees, through which the larvae tunnel as they develop. Dry, dead wood contains little nutritional value, and the larvae cannot digest the cellulose. As a result, they eat considerable volumes of wood, extracting whatever nutrients they can for growth and ejecting the bulk as sawdust, which they pack tightly in their tunnels behind them. A year or more might be required before they have grown sufficiently to transform into the adult and emerge from the wood. A smaller relative, Acmaeodera tubulus, was also seen on flowers of native dwarf dandelion (Krigia biflora).

We stopped for lunch on a little point extending out towards the lake. The forest overstory was dominated by an open mixture of white oak (Quercus alba) and shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata). Thickets of highbush huckleberry (Vaccinium stramineum) and carpets of reindeer moss in the open areas belied the acidic nature of the igneous substrate. Stands of bastard toad flax (Comandra richardsiana) in full bloom were found at the tip’s dry, rocky tip. These interesting plants feed parasitically on neighboring plants, attaching to the roots of their hosts by means of their long, thin rhizomes. Resuming our hike, we descended down into a shaded, moist draw feeding the lake and saw a huge royal fern (Osmunda regalis var. spectabilis) bush. I had never seen this aptly named fern before, but it was immediately recognizeable by its large size (~5 ft in height) and presence of distinctive, fertile leaflets on some of its upper branches – a very striking and handsome fern, indeed. Nearby was a smaller, but no less attractive species of fern that I take to be marginal sheild fern (Dryopteris marginalis) – another species I have not seen before (or at least made the effort to notice).

Soon, we reached the dam and for the first time saw the spectacular rhyolite shut-ins. While perhaps not quite as impressive as the nearby and much more famous Johnson’s Shut-Ins, Rich and I nonetheless watched entranced as the water roared over the smooth igneous rock exposure, forming elegant cascades, rushing through narrow chutes, and swirling into small pools. Steep canyon walls rose sharply on each side of the shut-ins, as if standing guard. Clambering amidst the pines and cedars that cloaked them, we found this maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes) nestled within a crack on a vertical rock face under continuous deep shade. Reaching the top of the bluffs, we were greated by one of my favorite of all Ozark habitats – the igneous glade. Glades are natural island communities surrounded by a sea of forest. Their shallow, dry, rocky soil conditions support plants and animals more adapted to prairie or desert habitats. Specific communities are influenced by the type of rock below – igneous and sandstone substrates support lichens, mosses, and other acid soil-loving plants, while limestone and dolomite substrates support a more calcareous flora. The photo here shows the massive boulder outcroppings typical of igneous glades and their weather-resistant bedrock. We hoped to see a collared lizard (Crotaphytus collaris), perhaps Missouri’s finest saurian reptile, but today was not the day. We did, however, see adults of the beautiful and aptly named splendid tiger beetle (Cicindela splendida) sunning themselves on the bare rock surfaces – flashing brilliant green and clay-red. The adults we saw had spent the winter deep inside tunnels dug into the rocky soil the previous fall and were now looking for mates. Male tiger beetles grab females by the neck, their jagged, toothy jaws fitting precisely in grooves on the female neck designed specifically for such. As I looked upon this prairie island within the forest, I thought about how the St. Francois Mountains were once themselves islands. I realized the landscape we were exploring today was itself a fossil – with rhyolitic ‘islands’ amidst a ‘sea’ of cherty dolomite laid down a half billion years ago in the warm, tropical, Cambrian waters that surrounded the St. Francois Islands, by then already a billion years old themselves. Yes, the Earth itself seems to have begun here.

Leaving the glade and once again entering the acid pine forest, we came upon one of the most striking floral displays that either of us have ever witnessed – wild azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum) in the midst of full bloom! I have known about several colonies of this plant for many years now but had only seen them at the very end of the bloom period, with just a few, pitiful, limply hanging flowers still attached. Today, the plants were absolutely dazzling. The blossoms were not only visually attractive, a deep pink color, but also unexpectedly fragrant. We stood amongst several specimen plants as tall as ourselves, taking picture after picture amidst the clovelike aroma wafting around us.

We checked our watches – we were now 3 hours into our hike and had traversed just 2 miles. Clearly, this was not a sustainable pace, so we put our heads down and focused on covering ground. Once leaving the vicinity of Crane Lake, the trail became rather difficult to follow – it obviously receives little use, and in one stretch some logging activities had obliterated the trail completely. Were it not for the sporadic pieces of orange flagging tape tied just within sight of the previous, we would not have know where to go. At one point, we got completely off-track and had to backtrack a full half mile before we found the proper trail. The day put our contour map reading skills to their greatest test yet. It was difficult and strenuous terrain, with steep up and down grades and few long ridgetop stretches until (thankfully) the final 2 miles, which terminated in a long descent (more thankfully) to Marble Creek Campground. Despite the difficulties in following the trail and our not bringing enough water, I would have to rank this section a close second to the Taum Sauk stretch for its ruggedness, spectacular vistas, and unique plant communities. Yes, the St. Francois Mountains are truly the heart of the Ozarks.

Ozark Trail – lower Courtois Section

The Courtois Section is the northern terminus of the Ozark Trail (OT). Despite its proximity to the St. Louis metro area, it feels just as remote and wild as the more southern sections. Rich and I played hooky from work on Friday and made our first visit to this stretch of the Ozark Trail. At 40 miles in length, we’ll need to break it up into at least three parts, so for our first attempt we hiked the lower portion from Hazel Creek (where the Trace Creek section begins) north to the Hwy 8 trailhead. Apparently this portion of the OT is very popular with mountain bikers and equestrians; however, we didn’t encounter a single person all day.

I expected the terrain to be rather mild at this northern end of the OT, but the first few miles were quite up and down. There was still some snow on the ground from a big storm a few days earlier – mild temps and sunny skies since then had caused a lot of melt. As a result, south facing slopes were completely devoid of snow cover, while north facing slopes still had and inch or two of snow, creating “split” scenes such as this:


Right away we noticed a lot of fresh woodpecker damage on oak trees. This is likely the result of infestations by the red oak borer (Enaphalodes rufulus), a cerambycid beetle that preferentially attacks red and black oaks suffering from drought or other environmentally-induced stress. The larvae of these beetles mine beneath the bark on the trunks of these trees before tunneling into the sapwood to pass the winter. Overwintering larvae are tasty morsels for woodpeckers, who hammer into the trunks with their beaks and extract the larvae with their barbed tongues. Interestingly, conventional wisdom has it that the tongue “stabs” the larva, and the barbs aid in pulling the larva out of its gallery. However, recent experiments with a West Indian species suggest this is not the case. Rather, the larva “sticks” to saliva on the tongue, and the barbs help to grab the larva as the tongue is wrapped around it. This picture shows a small black oak (Quercus velutinus) tree with fresh damage, probably from a pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) judging by the size, going after one of these larvae.


A few miles into the trail, we came upon some curious “pits” covering one hillside. We speculated what they might be – sinks was an early thought, but I didn’t think that was so because the ground was mounded around the edge like they had been intentionally dug. Rich then remembered reading something about miners digging such pits in past years looking for minerals – we decided that must be what they were, and this was later confirmed in our Ozark Trail guidebook. Certain hillsides were literally covered with these pits, spaced ~10-15 feet apart.

After passing through Snapps Branch (where we noticed a small calcareous wet meadow, or fen – thankfully fenced), the trail leveled out for awhile before descending down to Boiling Springs Hollow where we stopped for lunch. Many of the larger valleys along the OT show some evidence of prior habitation – either by remains of old structures or by the stage of succession exhibited by the bottomland forest. Right at Boiling Springs, I noticed this large, old oak tree along with several large sugar maples (Acer saccharum) surrounded by younger forest – I suspect these “founder trees” were planted at some point when people lived near the spring (or at least spared from “the saw”) and remain as the only evidence of the people who lived here in the past.


I love bones and pick them up whenever I get the chance. After leaving Boiling Springs I noticed this half mandible of a white tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) laying on the trail, still partially embedded in the snow. It was remarkably clean and complete, containing all of its dentition and with no remaining tissue except for a small piece attached to the nerve fossa. It’s completeness begged the question – where was the other half? We looked around and couldn’t find it. We then wondered if it had been dragged there by a scavenger, although we thought that if that was the case it should show signs of gnawing or at least have lost some of its dentition. At any rate, I have a white tailed deer cranium in my collection but not a mandible, so this will be a welcome addition.


Eventually we entered Machell Hollow, where we followed a beautiful stretch through the upper reaches of the valley. In this area we noticed a large number of dead white oaks (Quercus alba) that were all about the same size (~4-8″ dbh) and in about the same stage of decay, as if they had all died about the same time (maybe 4-5 years ago). There were still plenty of larger living trees, and I began to suspect that a fire had moved through this area and began looking for the evidence. Soon we found several larger trees showing some blackening around the base of the trunk that seemed to confirm this thought. We had a lot of fun “pushing over” some of these trees, with one in particular probably representing our champion pushover to this point. I didn’t think it was gonna go, but Rich chipped in, and against our formidable combined weight the tree gave way and came down with a crash. I noticed evidence of tunneling by wood boring beetles (probably a species of Buprestidae) inside the trunk of this tree where it cracked upon falling and lamented that I could not take a piece with me for rearing. All of the dead white oaks had this one type of shelf fungus growing from their trunks, which were particularly numerous on this already fallen tree:


Climbing up (briefly) out of Machell Hollow, we saw this cut shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) laying by the side of the trail. Interestingly, the accumulated ice on the cut end of the trunk was not the result of water running off the trunk, but through the trunk, apparently through insect galleries and perhaps even the vascular bundles of the wood itself. The slow melt and freeze resulted in these interesting little ice columns joining the trunk to the moss-covered ground below.


Back down into the lower reaches of Machell Hollow, evidence of prior settlement was obvious, as the bottomland forest in this area was replaced by young successional forest comprised primarily of chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), and brambles (Rubus sp.). We saw this lone little fruticose lichen growing on a small honey locust. Apparently, of the three main groups of lichens, fruticose lichens are the most sensitive to environmental disturbance. Perhaps the existence of this one colony suggests that the health of this bottomland forest is returning as succession proceeds along the path to maturity.


Here’s a picture of Rich taking his own picture of the lichen. I don’t know why he didn’t just wait and steal mine once it got posted 😉


Much more abundant on the honey locust trees were these foliose lichens. Lichens in this group are probably the most commonly noticed lichens in the Missouri Ozarks (although the less conspicuous crustose lichens may actually be more diverse). If you click on the photo to see the full-sized version, you can see long, black “hairs” around the margin of each “leaf” – if anyone knows the identity of this or any of the other lichens pictured on this site please let me know.


While ascending out of Machell Hollow, we noticed this small canyon about a hundred yards off to the left and decided to go investigate. Along the way we noticed the small creek coming from it was actually a ‘losing creek’ – which means that the water flows into the ground at certain points and is ‘lost.’ This is another feature of the limestone/dolomite-based Karst geology so common here in southern Missouri that results in its abundance of caves and springs. When we got to the canyon we saw it was comprised of a layer of sandstone. This must be a rare western exposure of the LaMotte sandstones that are more common just to the east in Ste. Genevieve County (see earlier posts on Hawn State Park and Pickle Springs Natural Area). This sandstone layer overlying dolomite has created an interesting geological feature, where a losing creek originates from a box canyon. Ice stalactites were dripping from the north facing slope of the canyon walls.


Back down into another hollow leading to Lost Creek we saw more dead white oaks with shelf fungi growing from the trunks. This one was interesting in that the shelf fungi were themselves supporting the growth of algae on their surface – an exquisite example of the interconnectedness of life.


We had seen a flock of wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) moving through the forest earlier in our hike. We were too clumsily noisy to get close enough for more than a cursory look at them as they trotted off on high alert, but evidence of their activity was obvious as we saw their fresh “scratchings” over a wide swath through the forest as they searched for acorns to eat. Tracks were abundant in the snow around the area also, but I couldn’t get a good picture of them. Later, as we neared Lost Creek, I saw more tracks in the mud, so I was able to get a good picture of one. It looked fairly fresh (well defined, with nail holes evident):

Lost Creek represented the end of our hike, but it proved to be a more than insigificant final hurdle, as the water level was quite high due to all the recent snow melt. There was no choice, we would have to get wet. Rich is smarter than I and had thought to bring along some flip flops, so he took off his boots and socks, rolled up his pants, and forded the creek. I let him go first to see how deep the water was – it reached above his knees and got is rolled up pants wet. I decided to get my boots wet – I didn’t want to walk on those rocks barefoot, which would slow me down far more than I wanted in that cold water. I could handle wet boots for the final quarter mile in exchange for the comfort and speed they would provide on the rocks. Rich may be smarter, but I took a better line and didn’t even get my pants wet, so for me it was only a matter of changing into my comfy shoes back at the car, with no need for a change of clothes (which I also wasn’t smart enough to bring, either). We completed the hike in 7 hours – yes, we’re lollygaggers, constantly distracted by little things that most people either don’t see or don’t care about. It was a wonderful hike on another beautiful day, and we ended it with another traditional post-hike visit to the nearest pizza parlor before the short drive back to St. Louis.

Ozark Trail – upper Trace Creek Section

Last Saturday Rich and I finished the Trace Creek Section of the Ozark Trail by hiking the upper 12.5 miles of the section – from Hazel Creek to the Hwy DD crossing. Today was a special day for us – we would be completing our 200th mile of the Ozark Trail! Unfortunately, I came down with a cold the day before, making it somewhat difficult to fully enjoy that milestone. Nevertheless, it was a milestone that we’re quite proud of. Since we started hiking the Ozark Trail some 7 years ago, we’ve completed the Taum Sauk, Middle Fork, Blair Creek, Current River, Between The Rivers, Eleven Point, and – now – Trace Creek Sections. Of these, the Taum Sauk Section is unquestionably the finest, crossing the rugged granite outcroppings of the St. Francois Mountains, and the Eleven Point Section with its towering bluff top views is a close second. We still have much to see, however. Completed sections still awaiting us are the Karkaghne, Marble Creek, Wappapello, and Victory Sections, and the Coutois and North Fork Sections are nearing completion. By the time we complete these sections, I expect additional parts of the planned route will be constructed and ready for our enjoyment.

But back to Saturday’s hike. We started at Hazel Creek with mild temps and cloudy skies but no precip in the forecast. We talked briefly to a mountain biker with a 29er who took this photo of us:


These cabin remains lie in the campground at the trailhead – those are sandstone blocks which I suppose must have been transported from the Lamotte formations some 30 miles to the east near Ste. Genevieve.


There was much to see in the vicinity of Hazel Creek. As an orchid enthusiast, I was pleased to find these Adam and Eve orchids (Aplectrum hymenale), also known as puttyroot, growing in healthy numbers on the hillside above the valley. The single leaf of this unusual plant is dusky grey-green in color, deeply creased and looking like crepe paper. They appear in late summer and persist until the plant flowers the following spring.


Another of the shelf fungi was found growing on the trunk of a large, dead deciduous tree.


My preoccupation with lichens continues. This colony of British Soldiers (Cladonia cristatella) was found growing in trailside rocks. This lichen is named for its resemblance to the uniforms worn by English soldiers during the Revolutionary War, although the spore-producing reproductive structures are not the brilliant red color as seen during the summer. Lichens are not plants, or even a single organism, but instead a symbiotic association between an alga (in this case, Trebouxia erici) and a fungus (in this case, Cladonia cristatella). Lichen scientific names are derived from the fungus part of the relationship.


Puffball mushrooms have been a favorite of mine since I found my first colony during childhood and delighted in watching the ‘smoke’ fly as I slapped them with my hands. These days I’m satisfied to just look at them (and maybe poke one or two).


The term “puffball” actually refers to a polyphyletic assemblage of fungi distributed within several orders in the division Basidiomycota. I’m no expert (or even a novice), but I wonder if these apparently mature individuals might represent the pear-shaped Morganella pyriforme, a saprobic species that is considered a choice edible while still young. Please leave a comment if you know its identity.


The trail was not particularly rugged but traversed across a number of ridges between the Hazel Creek and Trace Creek valleys. The bedrock was mainly chert, and along the trail we saw this quartz formation with its intricately formed interior exposed.


Approaching Trace Creek, this fireplace and chimney were all that remained of what was probably once a cozy little homestead. Obviously this house had not been constructed of sandstone blocks like the one at Hazel Creek. On each side of where the house once must have been stood two grand, old sugar maple trees (Acer saccharum) – we speculated they had been planted by the former residents and wondered what life was like in this isolated little part of the Ozarks back in the day.


We reached the trails namesake, Trace Creek, about halfway through our hike, and by this time we were the Ozark Trail’s newest 200-mile veterans. It was a pretty little valley, and we stopped here for a bit to eat and rest. Adam and Eve orchids were plentiful here, and in looking for them I became surprised to notice how large a variety of green, herbaceous plants one can find in these deciduous forests during the winter, especially in the lower elevations (moister?).


On these hikes, it has become customary to ‘push over’ trees – dead trees, that is. The larger the better, but of course the larger they are the ‘deader’ they must be for us to be able to push them. I did not push over a single tree on my previous hike of the lower Trace Creek Section, so I made up for it this time and found three trees to push over. Here, Rich finds out what all the fun is about:

The final miles of the hike became more difficult, as my sore throat and congestion combined with the miles started taking their toll on me. We finished our hike at the Hwy DD crossing after 7 hrs of hiking, portaged back to the other car, and met up in Sullivan for our traditional post-Ozark Trail hike pizza dinner.

Ozark Trail, lower Trace Creek Section

The Ozark Trail is a part of a vision, conceived in 1977, to build a scenic and varied route through the Missouri Ozarks, stretching from the St. Louis metropolitan area southwestward to the Arkansas border, eventually connecting to the Ozark Highlands trail–creating a 700 mile through-trail. Almost 550 miles of trail have been completed, with 350 miles in Missouri.
Ozark Trail Association

My friend Rich and I have been hiking sections of the Ozark Trail for several years now. So far, we have completed ~175 miles, and we hope to eventually hike the entirety of the trail. Yesterday we hiked the 11.5-mile southern stretch of the Trace Creek Section, starting at the Hwy DD crossing in Iron Co. and finishing at the Hwy A trailhead, where the Trace Creek Section joins the Bell Mountain portion of the Taum Sauk Section. The first few miles traversed relatively mild terrain as we followed the Telleck Branch, but after crossing the upper reaches of the Big River the terrain became progressively more rugged. The trail ended with a spectacularly steep descent down to Ottery Creek at the foot of Bell Mountain.

It was a gray day with light drizzle and increasing fog. The air was heavy with moisture, but with temperatures in the upper 30s and only light winds it didn’t feel too cold. While many sections of the Ozark Trail offer spectacular vistas overlooking the regions many spring-fed rivers, few such vistas are found on this section. What we did see were bright green lichens on rocks, on oak trunks, and on the ground underneath pines, small openings in the forest eerily shrouded in fog, and a variety of ferns along stream banks and in rock crevices, dripping with moisture. It rained lightly at one point, forcing us to break out our ponchos, but the rain didn’t last and we were able to stow the ponchos for good afterwards. It was a serene, beautiful experience with not another soul in sight during the entire day. The solutide contributed as much to the splendor as did the visual beauty. Following are some pictures from the day:

A foliose lichen plasters the surface of a rock outcrop

Closeup of the above, showing an highly convoluted 3-dimensional structure

I believe this is type of “reindeer lichen” – Cladina sp. – growing in a colony on sandy soil underneath a pine tree

Close up of the above, showing the intricacies of its fruticose structure

Water hangs heavy from leafless petioles of a downed oak tree

One of the shelf or crust mushrooms, growing on the trunk of an oak tree

Closeup of the above