Cross Timbers State Park, KS  (1) Bob Leverett
June 08, 2009


   Well, Monica and I are in Durango, CO recuperating from our long drive from Massachusetts. Despite our fatigue, we are anxious to explore our surroundings. We've both been to Durango before, separately and together, but this time we will become thoroughly familiar with southwestern Colorado, its many natural and cultural offerings and its spectacular scenery, courtesy of the San Juan and La Plata ranges of the Rockies. We are house-sitting for the entire month of June, so we will have lots of exploratory time and I'll be posting trip reports as a minimum of every other day - maybe with a few photos taken with my new IPhone. Not making any promises.
    As our first really significant nature stop on our way out, we camped in eastern Kansas at the Cross Timbers State Park in Toronto, KS. Before stopping, we googled the little state park (courtesy of my new iPhone) and learned that it harbors one of the northern most extensions of the historic Cross Timbers ecosystem, most of which is in Oklahoma and Texas. The OG acreages of Cross Timbers in the latter two states is in the hundreds of thousands - a fact that few nature lovers know. Thanks to Dave Stahle and associates, we now know what a treasure we have in that ecosystem.
    Before describing the Cross Timbers State Park, I note that the origin of the term 'cross timbers' is in dispute. One can imagine different sources, one being an area of timberlands that had to be crossed. That is a doubtful source, though. However, regardless of the origin of the name, and the scruffy appearance of the forest to most people, romantic descriptions of the Cross Timbers region exist. The most famous was provided by Washington Irving. Now, more attuned visitors become captivated by the gnarled shapes of the old post oaks and write about them in poetic terms. The area was originally occupied by the once powerful Osage Indian nation.   
     Cross Timbers State Park boasts a remnant population of ancient post oaks and the naturalist-oriented description of it by the State of Kansas reminded me of Dave Stahle's cross timbers research. I assumed Dave was involved with the interpretive information about the Cross Timbers put out by the Kansas state park system.  I was correct in that assumption, as I would later learn. Dave's teams put the Kansas Cross Timbers on the map.
    Cross Timbers State Park encompasses about 1075 acres of s lightly hilly  Kansas terrain of the Verdigris River valley.It consists of  a camping area, and an area of forest that follows the river and lake.  The park is adjacent to a 2,800-acre lake named Toronto Reservoir. The Cross Timbers State Park is in prairie rich Kansas, but is still in the eastern forest ecosystem. Much of Kansas is in either the tall or short grass prairie ecosystems, but transitions to different ecosystems are sometimes gradual. That is the case here.
    The perimeter of the reservoir is completely forested and includes the park with its area of old-growth Cross Timbers. There is a one mile loop trail through the best of the old growth with interpretive markers that include ecological and historical information and photos of nearby trees. Associated with the age of the tree are historical events that are meant to garner appreciation for the tree.
    After surveying the campground and deciding that we would stay there, Monica and I first took the narrow, not well maintained old growth nature trail. We quickly learned from the interpretive markers that the University of Arkansas Tree-Ring Laboratory had done the dendrochronological study and confirmed the area as part of the historic Cross Timbers. Dave Stahle's mark has left an indelible imprint on the interpretive natural history of Kansas, a fact that I feel very proud of, since Dave is one of the cofounders of ENTS.
     The area of Cross Timbers that we walked through includes post oak, black oak, and eastern red cedar as the dominant tree species. There are also a few hackberries, shagbark hickories, and green ashes, but the oaks hold absolute dominion. I doubt that the total acreage of Cross Timbers part of  the park is around 80 to 100, although the total Kansas share of Cross Timbers numbers several thousand. 
     As one would expect, the old forest is diminutive and the trees gnarled. The bedrock is basically limestone, as is so much of Kansas. Within the park, Dave and company dated the oldest post oaks to around 1730. However, ages of the conspicuously old trees varied considerably, so the area has seen the coming and going of several generations of oaks. The youngest of the old trees are around 170 years.
     After our walk, we had a nutritious dinner out of our cooler. Monica insists that we eat healthy food on our trips. She gives me disapproving looks when I get the ice cream shakes.  After dinner and a walk along the shore of the reservoir, we settled in our tent for the night. We had the flaps up so we could see out and look upward to the pleasing forms of the campground post oaks and beyond into the crystal clear night sky. We listened to a chorus of coyotes from the other side of the lake. I thought to myself that this was what one should expect out under the Kansas night sky. It was a very pleasant experience, especially considering that the campground was almost empty. However, as the evening wore on, I found spots on my ankles and legs beginning to itch. More on this later.
     While looking up into the forms of the oaks, Monica observed that looking at the silhouettes of the post oak leaves against a moonlit night sky reminded her of a mosaic of pieces of a jigsaw puzzle scattered about. The rounded shape of the lobes does invoke that image. Other species will not do - or do as well. Try the experience some time.
     When in each new place, I always try to sense the spirit of the land, its energy imprint as I am want to say. I cannot scientifically define these imprints or prove their existence, but I do sense them. I'm sure I key off a lot of visual, auditory, and ol factory cues, but there is something else involved, which I'll discuss from time to time in the coming descriptions. At this point, I will just observe that Kansas has its range of imprints that differ from those of say South Dakota. 
     Because of the overwhelming acreage of agricultural lands in eastern Kansas and a mix of agriculture and cattle ranching in western Kansas, the state never really seems wild, but traveling on its rural routes can be pleasant and satisfying in a tame sense. However, Kansas does have its superlatives. When the sunflowers are in bloom, Kansas and sunflowers become synonymous. But regardless of the time of year, the expansive sky and the perpetual prairie winds of Kansas can't help but shape the perceptions of the observant traveler. Kansas is about prairie, even in its modern agricultural transformation.      
     Upon awakening the next morning, I discovered that the source of the itching that I had experienced throughout the night was from tick bites, a lot of bites. I had close to 30 of the little beggars latched on to me - the tiny variety, very easy to miss. Monica had close to 10 on her. How did it happen? We had not gotten off trail, but we had brushed against shrubs and had walked through some grass within the camp ground. That evidently had been enough. Oh yes, there's more. Chiggers! Not even a half dozen mosquito bites can compare with one good chigger bite. God, I despise the little red devils. Now, I'm spending much of my time scratching, applying topical lotions, and swearing. Oh well, it's part of the experience. Ugh, gotta end this email now. Gotta go scratch.


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