Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Roads less traveled and wet feet

The trouble with taking a road less traveled is that unless you keep an eye on it you're liable to step in something. That would be mud this time of year on the short Chariton River Greenbelt trail, which follows a far older road through the woods that begins at the foot of cemetery hill on the west side of Highway 14 just as you hit the bottom south of town. I came home Monday morning with wet feet.

The trail entrance, leading to a small carpark, is easy to miss. It's just beyond south cemetery driveway, marked by a fading sign. The contrast between the cemetery's manicured hills to the north and the wildness of the bottom is sharp. Lovely as the cemetery is, it can seem rather, well, dead at times. This little wilderness area, on the other hand, is alive this time of year with birdsong and wildflowers.

The caution: This area is subject to flooding when the Chariton overflows its banks as it has this spring, so maintenance is a sysphusian task. Flood waters deposit logs at random and bring trees down and so far nothing has been cleared.

The main route, due west parallel to the cemetery, then angling southwest toward the old river bridge and beyond toward a turn west to two small marsh areas, is evident. It’s also possible to head straight west from the entrance to the river, then swing back along its north bank to the main trail.

The main trail follows the meandering route of the pioneer Chariton-to-Corydon road across the bottom, still in use when my dad was a young man. The old river bridge has a new floor slightly damanged shortly after it was installed by damnfools who decided to see if it would burn.

The old route was abandoned many years ago when the Highway 14 grade was built shooting straight out across the marshy and wooded bottom. At that time a short stretch of the river was ditched due east-west to make a more convenient head-on crossing. That left the area now developed as Pin Oak Marsh south of the river, a low marshy pasture east of the highway to the north and the large area of marsh and woods that the greenbelt trail passes through to the northwest. Cut-off meanders of the old river route form bayous (example at the top of this entry) on both sides of the highway.

You're at Chariton Point down here along the river, a landmark for as long as landmarks have been noted in what now is southern Iowa. Most travelers --- Ioways and their predecessors first and then the Sauk and Fox, occasional itinerant white explorers and beginning in 1846 many of the Mormons who had fled Nauvoo and planned to follow Brigham Young west to the Great Salt Lake valley --- kept to the high ground as it curved broadly northwest then southwest through what now is the city of Chariton around the point.

The name, tradition has it, comes from a French trader named Chariton whose post was somewhere near the point where this southern Iowa native pours itself into the Missouri. That tradition is open to doubt, however, and there are other theories. No one knows exactly how long its been called Chariton although Lewis and Clark noted it as such as they moved up the Missouri from St. Louis during June of 1804 with the Corps of Discovery.

The Chariton rises not too far west in Clarke County, and is small and muddy and meandering here but for the most part free. Just a few miles downstream, the vast Rathbun reservoir corrals its water and the Rathbun dam sets the flow agenda beyond. Its meandering and scenic ways continue, however, into north Missouri. After that, civilization has not been kind and many of its wild meanders have been cut off in one of the most drastic channelization efforts in Missouri.

You can debate the wisdom of that effort until the cows come home and accomplish nothing, although I regret the fact no one alive now has seen the river as it once was. But at least we can enjoy what’s left.

It's worth noting a sorrow attached to this peaceful place. Some years ago, a troubled soul hung himself from a tree (that no longer stands) near the trailhead and I always think of that. But sunshine on a spring morning, sweet williams, buttercups and shooting rockets in the grass and an amazing chorus of birdsong dissipate any lingering darkness.

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