Monday, November 2, 2009

Clark’s Hill/Norton State Historic Site

What did you do on Halloween? It couldn’t have been any more fun than we had visiting a “new” place for us, east of Jefferson City. Clark’s Hill is a 13-acre property that was acquired by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources in 2002. Since it’s kinda new, we don’t feel too sheepish about our unfamiliarity with it.

The site is open from eight in the morning until a half hour after sunset. If you can get to Osage City, you can find the Historic Site by simply following signs. (Okay: Osage City is east of Jeff on Highway 50; turn north at Route J. Keep a-goin’. You can’t miss it.)

The site is called Clark’s Hill because this is the very hill that Captain William Clark clambered up in 1804 when the Corps of Discovery was ascending the Missouri. Lewis, Clark, and their crew camped at the base of this hill on June 1–3 of that year.

The “Norton” in the site’s name honors William and Carol Norton, who donated the site to the DNR in time for it to open in 2004, for the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Pretty cool, huh? Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Norton!

There’s a great deal to make this place interesting. William Clark wrote about the view from this hill, calling it a “delightful prospect.” And visitors to the site today can share his delight, using a well-constructed half-mile trail that ascends and leads along a ridge of the narrow piece of land dividing the Osage River from the Missouri, where the two rivers join. The trail ends at an observation deck that is basically where Clark stood.

Toward the end of the trail, you can see the Missouri on the left . . .

. . . and the Osage on the right.

There are several well-illustrated interpretive signs along the trail that talk about the history of the expedition, the natural history of the area, the Woodland peoples who inhabited the area for many centuries, and the story of the river and its changing character and course.

There are also a good number of benches along the route. If you are not much of a hiker, you will enjoy this trail, despite the occasional incline (you are ascending a hill). If you are a diehard hiker, you will still see enough cool views and interesting organisms to keep you delighted.

The Changing Confluence

Things have changed since Clark made his observations and measurements. Most notably, the river has been channelized, and the Osage’s confluence with the Missouri has moved about six miles downstream (but don’t worry, there’s still plenty to see from Clark’s observation site).

The peninsula of land used to end abruptly at the hilltop where Clark stood (and where a nice observation deck stands now), but now the peninsula is greatly extended by flat land—really a series of connected islands or gravel bars—so that the Osage now joins the Missouri at the town of Bonnots Mill. Much of the flat peninsula is now the Smoky Waters Conservation Area (administrated by the Missouri Department of Conservation).

Look at it on Google Maps, and then, for comparison, see this nifty Web site to inspect maps that reconstruct the Missouri as it was when Lewis and Clark explored it.

The Missouri has shifted to the north, and at Bonnots Mill the Osage now flows in the Missouri’s old channel. The character of the Osage changed upon the completion of Bagnell Dam in 1931. After damming, the river began to deposit more sands, gravel, and other coarse materials at the confluence, and that’s what created that flat peninsula beyond the hill where Clark stood.

Also, about the 1930s was when the Missouri got seriously channelized for navigation, and a main levee was constructed along the Missouri, on the northern perimeter of Clark’s Hill. You can see it from the trail, below a steep slope. The trail offers many nice views of the Missouri and the croplands, even Highway 94 and the Katy Trail, on the other side.

Natural History

We saw a three-toed box turtle digging into the leaf litter.

We saw some lovely clusters of puffball mushrooms, which always make us feel happy, like clapping laughing babies.

We even saw a pretty pink stinkhorn mushroom, right along the trail.

There were also woodpeckers and herons, even during the “birdless” midafternoon hours, and butterflies, woolly bears, a spring peeper, and many graceful, wolflike running spiders. We weren’t “looking” for this stuff; it was just there.

And especially near the trailhead, there were lots of Osage oranges, which always cheer me with their utter weirdness. Coming upon a patch of ground littered with these grapefruit-sized chartreuse “brains,” I always feel like I’ve landed on a strange new planet. I’ll never get tired of them. I always stoop to pick one up and marvel at its strangeness.

Here, too, on the north-facing side of Clark’s Hill, is one of only six places in the state where amethyst shooting star (Dodecatheon amethystinum) is known to grow. It’s a remnant of the glacial ages and is extraordinarily rare in Missouri. They’ll be blooming around April. (We’ll just have to go back to see them!)

Pawpaws—good ol’ “Missouri bananas”—are another notable plant of this area, for in September 1806, when the Corps of Discovery was making its return trip through here, Clark wrote that his men were running out of foodstuffs and were divvying up their “buiskits,” but were “compelled” yet “perfectly contented” to eat “poppows.” . . . Then some of the men complained of having trouble with their eyes and the skin on their faces. They blamed overexposure to the sun, but today we suspect it might actually have been a reaction to the rind resins of the many sweet pawpaws they were devouring.

One unfortunate thing about the ecology of the area is that the area is thick with invasive bush honeysuckle. Their still-green leaves and bright red berries surely do make them attractive and noticeable, but it doesn’t change the fact that this species gets way out of hand. It’s sad to see it in such abundance here, because it’s all over. Wonder how they can hope to control it, or get rid of it here? It’s gonna take a helluva lotta work. At the least, I hope they can keep it away from the amethyst shooting stars.

Human History

Clark noted two Indian mounds in his journal at this location, plus there are three more you can see. There are signs describing what is known of the people who buried their prominent citizens here, discussing their methods of burial, their civilization, their way of life. Very interesting. These graves are perhaps 1,400 years old—still overlooking the river named for the Wah-Zha-Zhe, and the river named for the Ouemessourita. A moment of silence . . .

Summary: You can bet we’ll be back. It’s a short drive from Jefferson City, so it’s easy to get to. If you haven’t seen this place, you really should check it out. There’s archaeology, natural history, American history, geology, hydrology, beautiful views . . . plenty of stuff to make you smile.


Anonymous said...

Great post about a neat place. The Nortons signed the deed at the overlook exactly two years prior to the anniversary date of the expedition coming by the site. I notarized the deed amidst many, many mosquitoes. No state trail then. Just a ridge and a path through the woods.
John L.

Julie said...

Thank you, Herr Bürgermeister, for the kind comment, and for sharing the story of the "scene" as the Nortons officially donated the land.

I have to say, it's pretty darn cool that your experience was so strongly reminiscent of Lewis and Clark's adventures two hundred years ago: "Musquetors very troublesom"!

I hope you all were able to laugh about it that day!