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Come and explore the Irish Wilderness in Oregon County

Friday, November 19, 2010

Located in the heart of the Mark Twain National Forest is an area of over 16,000 acres called the Irish Wilderness, so called to this day for the group of Irish immigrants who called it home and who vanished from the area following the Civil War.

In the mid 1800s, a Catholic priest, Father John Hogan of St. Louis, had a dream of a place where Irish immigrants could escape the oppression of urban life in St. Louis. It was in this wild area of the Missouri Ozarks that Father Hogan established a settlement that would forever after bear the name of its first European settlers, the Irish Wilderness.

It was here that Father Hogan said people could "so profoundly worship as in the depth of that leafy forest...where solitude and the heart of man united in praise and wonder of the Great Creator."

The timing of the fated settlement however was not the best, as the Civil War soon erupted. The Irish Wilderness was caught in the middle, becoming a "no man's land," and was raided by both Union and Confederate troops as well as bushwackers.

It is not certain what happened to Father Hogan's Irish immigrants, but after the war they were gone. The mystery of the Irish immigrants is part of the character of the land today.

After that time, the area was logged and grazed clean of vegetation. But today, because of the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Forest Service and the amazing healing ability of the land, the Irish Wilderness again has regained the same character that Father Hogan found.

The Irish Wilderness is characterized by a rolling to steep topography with a wide variety of Karst topography such as sinkholes, disappearing streams and caves. Elevations range from less than 500 feet near the Eleven Point River to over 900 feet in the northeast corner near Camp Five Pond.

One of the major features, Whites Creek Cave, is a spacious walk-in cavern, about 1600 feet long, containing numerous crystalline formations.

Whites Creek, the principle stream in the Irish Wilderness, flows cool and fresh in the spring, but during the long, hot summers, much of the creek dries up, with only a few scattered pools remaining.

Other small streams flow along the surface in short stretches to disappear underground and emerge again at numerous small springs throughout the area. The western boundary of the Irish Wilderness is adjacent to the Eleven Point National Scenic River.

The Irish Wilderness is dominated by an oak-hickory forest with scattered native shortleaf pine. A variety of ground vegetation also exists, including an abundance of smaller trees, such as flowering dogwood, persimmon and sassafras, as well as shrubs, grasses and herbaceous plants.

Along the Eleven Point River, occasional black walnut and associated hardwood river bottom species can be found. A few old growth stands remain, but the majority of trees are less than 50 years old.

White-tailed deer, squirrel, coyote, bobcat, raccoon, rabbits and the gray fox are common. Occasionally a black bear will use the area. There are also a variety of birds such as eastern wild turkey, hawks, owls, turkey vultures, herons, pileated woodpeckers and many small song birds. Rattlesnakes, copperheads and the eastern cottonmouth can also be encountered within the Irish Wilderness.

The major travelway within the Irish Wilderness is the 18.6 mile Whites Creek Trail. From the trailhead at Camp Five Pond to the Eleven Point River, a visitor will experience a wide variety of natural terrain and geographical relief. From the relatively flat land at the beginning, hikers traverse many ecological zones including dried creekbeds, grasslands, glades, bluff country, and several breathtaking points overlooking the scenic Eleven Point River.

Whites Creek Trail is not designed for horses, but they are permitted. There are three short spur trails from the main trail at Fiddler Spring, Whites Creek Float Camp, and Bliss Spring. There is also trail access near Brawley Pond.

Scenic attractions include Fiddler and Bliss Springs, both cool and refreshing places to stop for a break. Also of interest are Whites Creek Cave and other caves along the trail around Whites Creek, steep limestone bluffs overlooking the Eleven Point River, and the unique plant and wildlife communities.

The Irish Wilderness was designated as a Wilderness in Public Law 98-289, on May 21, 1984 and is managed under the provisions of the Wilderness Act of 1964. It is one of eight Wildernesses in Missouri, seven of which are located in the Mark Twain National Forest.

Wilderness can be termed as a natural area affected primarily by the forces of nature with little evidence of man's works-- ''where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." Many outdoor enthusiasts seek out its peace and experience the closeness to wonders of nature. Wildernesses also provide outstanding opportunities for primitive or unconfined types of outdoor recreation. Whether the activity is hunting, fishing, hiking, or photography; no two individuals share the same meaning or have the same values during the wilderness experience.

ldo Leopold, an early wilderness advocate, described wilderness in this way: "No servant brought them meals; they got their meat out of the river or went without. No traffic cop whistled them off the hidden rock in the next rapids. No friendly roof kept them dry when they mis-guessed whether or not to pitch the tent. No guide showed them which camping spots offered a nightlong breeze, and which a nightlong misery of mosquitoes; which firewood made clean coals, and which only smoke. The elemental simplicities of wilderness travel were thrills not only because of their novelty, but because they represented complete freedom to make mistakes. The wilderness gave them their first taste of those rewards and penalties for wise and foolish acts which every woodsmen faces daily, but against which civilization has built a thousand buffers."

Because of the remoteness of the area, it has been considered as a site for several different projects over the years. In 1950, officials suggested the Irish Wilderness to be a site for a hydrogen bomb factory. In 1954 it was also considered for an Air Force Academy site.

The 16,500 acre Irish Wilderness is located on the Doniphan Ranger District of Mark Twain National Forest. It is accessible from Doniphan via Highway 160, west 20 miles to State Highway J, then north 7 miles to the Whites Creek Trailhead at Camp Five Pond. This same trailhead may also be reached from U.S. Highway 60 to the north by traveling 16 miles south on Highway J to Camp Five Pond.

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