Holiday water seekers disappointed at Johnson’s Shut-Ins
By Jo Schaper
The rocks seemed almost as hot to the touch as the day they were formed. The East Fork of Black River trickled through them, barely the size of a small creek, and almost apologetic to the swarms of late holiday tourists hoping for a little relief from the heat, who instead found a pavement of purple-gray stone, parched as the valley bottom sycamores and willows, brown leaves curled in the beating sun.
And it was not yet ten in the morning.
I’ve seen the shut-ins in many phases and conditions, from chocolate brown spring floods, water roaring through the canyon in a normal June, still partly containing reservoir debris in 2006, with snow, and when I consider its best: late September with the leaves just turning, and enough water for the white-capped waterfalls to still churn with power.
I’ve seen the shut-ins over 40 years, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen them nearly silent in early July, tourists in swimsuits clambering over the summer rocks looking for the dips and chutes that weren’t there.
People congregated at the upper and lower pools, but the main body of rocks, usually full of squirming wet bodies and shouting kids, were mostly empty.The few waterfalls, most with less than knee deep water, were jealously occupied by early comers, knowing full well that should they move, their spot would be taken as soon as they left.
I had several hours to linger, and was grateful for the break from being inside, tethered to a phone, despite the triple-digit weather. After assuring a woman that the snake she found at the bottom of one of the greenish pools was indeed dead, I found a minor, (and tiny) calf-deep jacuzzi pool beneath a rivulet about 18 inches wide, and settled in.
Once between the rocks, an equally small, but humid and cooling breeze tumbled downstream with the small waterfall. From my shoulders up, I baked. From shoulders down, in the rock slot shadows, the temperature, though warm, was tolerable.
It didn’t take too long until my floppy brimmed hat served double duty as a water scoop. Plopped on my head, the clear Black River water dribbled down front and back, soaking my shirt and shorts. Fill, splosh, repeat. About the only way to keep cool. Sometimes, being entirely soaked and dripping means happy.
I put the camera on “movie” and caught a little of the water in which I sat.
One side effect of the drought, which has turned grown trees brown in July, and tinder-crisped nearly everything in the Ozarks, is that the slick brown algae that usually coats the Shut-in rocks and makes footing treacherous, has only grown minimally this year. Too hot and dry even for the slick stuff.
By eleven, the parking lot was full, and the torrent of people slowed. Most migrated to the “deep” pool below the shut-ins, that being the only reliable place one could fully immerse one’s self in the water.
Still, people climbed amongst the rocks, almost as if lost, seeing the water which wasn’t there.
I started to draw, but gave up. It was too hot to write…the water flowed, but the words didn’t. I decided to just be still, listen to the water, soak all of it in. Sometimes, the soul demands that. I listened. Time slipped away with the water, occasional hat-dips kept my brain cool. A bit of bright blue sky and hardscrabble, Ozark heaven.
I had someone to meet at one o’clock, so I reluctantly said goodby to my little riffle, and began the soggy trudge back to the parking lot. I think sitting with the rocks and water was the most profitable thing I did all day.
Having now seen the trees on the July hillsides unseasonably brown, and many of the Shut-ins’ trademark chutes, falls and pools dried up and gone, there’s no doubt.
We better get some copious rain. Soon.