Devil's Horn and the Baptism Pool
By Jeff Finley
Were it not for the rope swing, stone campfire ring and fresh footprints in the sand, I would have thought I was the first person to ever see this place. Nestled deep in the Ozark Hills of rural Carter County, Missouri, off a sparsely populated patch-paved county road and a couple miles down a two-track gravel lane and past a sun-grayed wooden church sits one of the prettiest places I've ever visited: Big Barren Creek Natural Area in Mark Twain National Forest. Lilly pads dot a postcard picturesque pool that teem with schools of minnows. This large pool of clear water rests at the base of the Devil's Horn bluff.
Local folks searching for relief from the summer heat can be found cooling themselves in the "swimmin' hole." There aren't many visitors to this remote spot so they are eager to share stories about this unique place they take such pride in. We were told that on special Sundays the church congregation used to amble up the gravel road to witness a full-immersion baptism, by coincidence, in the pool at the foot of Devil's Horn bluff. They pointed out where wagons crossed when the area was settled, where the moonshiners set stills during prohibition, and they helped us discover the remains of a spring box once used to gather drinking water for a nearby home. A vine-covered chimney standing in solitude is all that remains. They enlightened us with recollections of big fish, fist fights, marriage proposals, and which families' children had stacked the rocks in a makeshift dam to deepen the pool. No matter the tale, they were all threaded with a deep respect and sense of pride in this special place.
Since being designated a Natural Area in 1989, this portion of Big Barren Creek has been under special management by the U.S. Forest Service. The dolomitic bluffs and fine-grained chert forests have remained relatively untouched for decades. The creek is a gaining portion of a losing stream; that is, numerous springs bubbling from the porous limestone fill several cool, clear, permanent pools of water joined by shallow silver riffles. Downstream of these bluff pools, Big Barren Creek goes barren and soaks into a dry and rocky creek bed. It is lost underground for several miles before it is reborn near Twin Springs and its confluence with the Current River.
Few fisheries workers have cataloged the species that dwell in these pools. Aside from a few seine net hauls from the years 1941, 1971, and 1994, only 20 species of fish were known to reside here. Our task was to look deeper and determine habitat quality and fish species composition of Big Barren Creek, and to identify species which may require special management considerations for Mark Twain National Forest. Our study revealed that 45 fish species inhabit these waters, several of conservation concern, including the Ozark shiner and pugnose minnow.
But we learned about more than just fish. We discovered several Arkansas brokenray mussel shells in the shallows. These mussels are in the Lampsilis genus which is composed of several extremely rare and endangered species. To our knowledge, a mussel survey of the area had never been completed and the discovery of the brokenrays subsequently prompted one. Freshwater mussels are not typically found in small headwater streams of the Ozarks, but we discovered at least 8 different genera with as many as 10 different species. The identity of two of those potential species is being examined. Finding such mussel diversity and densities of rare species was all the more proof that this is a very unique place. Even the colorful names of mussels—the Slippershell, Creeper, Rainbow, Purple Lilliput, Ouachita Kidneyshell—they speak to the same. Most of the mussels were found around the massive old spadderdock roots and in the gravel beds below riffles. The roots were as large as my forearms and dense risers to the lilly pads were reminiscent of diving through a miniature kelp forest in the Pacific Ocean. SCUBA diving the deep clear pools reminded me of a tropical reef in the Atlantic, only without the taste of salt. The pinkish leaves at the bases of the spadderdock looked like fan coral-—the brilliant orange and teal of the several species of sunfish, blood-red and iridescent blues found on various minnows and shiners were all similar to salty cousins in tropical waters. What's more, three different species of crayfish skittered about and peeking ever so warily from their rocky hideaways. Never in my 20 years of diving, have I experienced such a beautiful dive in fresh water.
Mussels, minnows, and memories weren't the only thing we discovered. While looking for mussels around the chunky rubbles littering the bedrock in a deep pool below a bluff, I found an old fishing lure wedged in a crevice between two large stones. The hooks had long rusted away. The rear propeller dissolved into a puff of rusty dust when I pulled it from its snag. One glass eye was missing but the balsa body still had its raspberry spots on a honeydew body, still vibrant after being shielded from the sun's fading rays. The best I can find, this old wooden Heddon Dowagiac Minnow was manufactured prior to 1920. My imagination prompted a sepia vision of an angler in woolen trousers and waxed mustache cursing as his cotton line snapped.
As much as I'd like to think I was the first to discover this pristine Ozark paradise, I am far from it. These special little places, adored by locals and occasionally visited by passers-through, are a fresh reminder of the wonders we are so blessed to experience and charged with protecting. I shall return some day to enjoy the sights, the cool refreshing water, and perhaps even hear another story or two about the Baptism Pool below the Devil's Horn
Jeff Finley, a frequent contributor to Eddies is a Fish Biologist for the Columbia Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office in Missouri, whose work often takes him underwater with SCUBA gear. He and his wife Anna have been together 21 years and have three children. The oldest is currently serving in the U.S. Army in South Korea.