A big, complex park, with all of its users concentrated around the Shut-Ins' swimming holes.

2 1/2 hours from South St. Louis County, Johnson's Shut-Ins is the most popular swimming hole for long way in every direction, and is so spectacular that it's not unusual for people to drive down from St. Louis just for the day. When I was in my 20's, it was legendary for its epic rowdiness, so much so that the park instituted all sort of rules to limit access and douse the party.

See the Missouri Deparment of Natural Resources' web site for more information about the park. It really is a must-visit spot for the Missouri hiker and camper.

I spent a week camping and hiking in the park this past August. I had spent a bunch of time in the park 15 years ago. The park sits astride an especially scenic section of the Ozark Trail, which crosses the biggest hills in the state. At the time, I was fixated on backpacking in the west--I went every summer--so I used the area around JSI for winter tune up.

But since the big blowout of AmerenUE's Taum Sauk Hydroelectric Power Station (for more, see Conor Watkin's page on the region and the dam failure, I've pretty much stayed away. I think I spent maybe two nights in the park since the blowout.

There's more than a little irony in the mess. In August 2001, AmerenUE filed the paperwork to build another such plant on a nearby mountain. Somehow a loosely organized group of hikers, backpackers, environmentalists and park lovers managed to exert enough pressure to get AmerenUE to withdraw their proposal. I was proud to have done my bit to help. Then, 2 1/2 years later, Taum Sauk fails, a wall of water blows down a subsidary drainage, scraping the forest off down to bedrock, turns downstream in the valley of the East Fork of the Black River, bulldozes the better park of the developed sections of the part--the picnic area, the campground, a mature bottomland forest--into the river and down into the Shut-In's proper. The plume of mud went downstream past where the three forks of the Black River meet, effectively shutting down the river as a canoeing destination and crippling the region's tourism and recreation industry (which wasn't all that robust to begin with). No one died. But only because it happened in January, on a Wednesday morning, when the park was almost empty.

They rebuilt the dam, and the vegetation is returning to the scour:

And AmerenUE's money--a pile of money--rebuilt the park. But it's a new park, and at first I hardly recognized it. But after three or four days, I began to see the outlines of the old park. The things that drew me there in the first place, the steep hills, the rocky glades, the deep woods, were still there, untouched. And even in the places that were radically changed--the site of the new campground, once an old pasture gone to cedar; the new picnic area, once a rich bottomland forest, now open and mown and littered with car-size boulders washed down in the flood--I saw the landscape I once loved.