On a research trip to southeastern Oklahoma in late November, artist Debby Kaspari and I enjoyed beautiful weather and some stunning scenery.
imagery and adventure
On a research trip to southeastern Oklahoma in late November, artist Debby Kaspari and I enjoyed beautiful weather and some stunning scenery.
Yesterday, Bill and I went for a hike with Art Peters, curator of the Hinton Historical Museum, to visit a canyon west of Hinton that Art had previously not explored. Art has been compiling information on canyons in the area for a book he is about to publish and this was an opportunity for us to enjoy a fun day of canyon hiking and for me to enjoy some great photo ops. We called the unexplored canyon a “slot canyon” because of its narrow opening, although it probably wouldn’t really qualify as a slot. Nevertheless, it was an exhilarating day and we got to walk with Art to the source of this “new” canyon, where we dubbed the spring, “Art’s Spring.”
Above: Julie Monigold Roberds’ photo of the Lake Okmulgee Spillway
The sun, low in the November sky, illuminates the yellow leaves of an overhanging tree; I duck beneath it, hopping from boulder to boulder on the shore of Lake Okmulgee. The water sparkles with late afternoon reflections but I’m attracted more by the huge limestone slabs bordering the lake. They bear inscriptions, and I’m helping my friend Julie look for one carved by her husband Frank during their courtship, now more than 40 years ago.
We are disappointed in the effort and Julie wonders if she might have the location wrong, but we see many other young lovers’ dedications preserved in stone at this spot near Big Rock Shelter — some likely less successful than Julie and Frank’s — and I wonder how explorers of the future will interpret them. Broadly speaking, these are petroglyphs, and perhaps in another 500 years some archaeologist will draw fantastical conclusions about our culture from these stone carvings. This was a sacred place, they might say, a place where the ancients of the 20th and 21st Centuries traveled to inscribe symbols of devotion to their gods. This is not much of a stretch, given theories surrounding the rock art of the desert southwest. I wonder when it stops being graffiti and starts being history.
Yet the notion of this place as sacred has a kernel of truth. My trip here in my 60th year is not unlike a pilgrimage — a long journey not in distance traveled on this autumn weekend, but in years, in footsteps, in growing away, and back again. I’m here gathering with a few good friends to honor this place — this body of water and its surrounds — which holds great meaning for us.
The lake itself came into being in 1928 with the damming of Salt Creek to improve the water supply for the City of Okmulgee and control flooding. But the original spillway was unable to contain the flood waters, which threatened the integrity of the earthen dam. After disastrous flooding between 1930 and 1935, the City of Okmulgee worked with WPA engineers and architects to reinforce the spillway portion of the dam, resulting in the 1939-1940 construction of the massive limestone cascade on the northeastern side of the lake along Highway 56. Now known simply as “The Spillway,” it gives a unique aesthetic to the park and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.
The 2016 transfer of the Lake Okmulgee property from the State of Oklahoma back to the City of Okmulgee triggered action on an idea my Okmulgee High School classmates and I had briefly flirted with during a reunion: Gather on a beautiful weekend for a hike at the lake, a beloved icon of our youth. For me, it was natural to suggest a hike. I’d rather hike than just about anything, and I’ve done it in the Himalayas, along the Mediterranean, atop the Great Wall of China, high in the Rockies and deep in the slot canyons of the Colorado Plateau. But never had I hiked at Lake Okmulgee.
Likewise, I’ve camped all over Oklahoma and the southwest, but never had I camped amid the Cross Timbers on the shore of Lake Okmulgee. (The largest existing contiguous tract of Ancient Cross Timbers is just north of the lake in the Okmulgee Wildlife Management Area.) In my youth the lake was a natural extension of my hometown, a place of picnicking, exploring, socializing, and romance, but the concept of a hiking trail was foreign to me then, and I knew nothing of camping.
Since then, a trail has been constructed amid the post oak and blackjack — actually reconstructed and enhanced, as it incorporates landscaping and a path built by the young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. This, the Oak Leaf Nature Trail, is the trail I suggested to my classmates, and we scheduled a weekend in the middle of November, 2016.
To several of my friends, November seemed a bit too late in the year for outdoor activity, especially when I brought up the idea of camping. Margaret Harlan-Hess graciously offered her lake bunkhouse as more conventional shelter, but I was determined to camp in the park anyway. It was about the integrity of the experience. And, in fact, late fall is the perfect time to be outdoors in Oklahoma. Ticks and chiggers and mosquitoes and poison ivy are less of an issue and the daytime temperatures are cool enough for comfortable physical exertion. It’s chilly at night, but over the years I’ve acquired the gear necessary to sleep comfortably in freezing temperatures and the skills to build a campfire.
Julie Monigold Roberds and I took the lead; we set the date and sent invitations to our “Okmulgee Lake Hike and Camp.” Our mission: to promote the lake as a desirable location for recreation, encouraging people to get outdoors and bringing awareness to the community that the park is a lovely place for hiking and camping.
Ultimately, even though we promoted it to the public, we ended up with only a handful of participants. But a special group of people comprised that handful. The newest of the relationships among these six women goes back to junior high, the oldest to the hospital nursery. These are truly lifelong friends: Julie, Debbie Yeager Cheney, Carla Mantooth Pilkington, Kay Rabbitt Brower, and Rebecca Abbott. That Julie is Director of Adult and Career Development at Green Country Technology Center and a member of the Okmulgee Main Street Board of Directors, and Kay is the Executive Director of the Okmulgee Chamber of Commerce, is not coincidental to our intention to promote the lake as a loosely related element of the “Okmulgee Rising” endeavor.
The designated Saturday in November arrives, and I drive over from my home in Norman — the “back way” to the lake through Okemah and along Highway 56 — and set up my tent in the Red Oak Campground at the camp site closest to Big Rock Shelter, which we have rented for the occasion. Big Rock is the largest intact structure of those built in the park in the 1930s under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), another New Deal program which provided work for local people during the Great Depression.
I am nearly finished pitching my tent when Debbie arrives, having driven up from Grapevine, Texas, bringing lunch for the group. The day is cool but sunny; by the time for our hike at 1 p.m., it should be perfect weather. Soon, Julie is here and the three of us break out lawn chairs and warm ourselves in the sun as we wait for the others. By one o’clock, Kay and Rebecca arrive and we walk from Big Rock Shelter to the Oak Leaf trailhead, just down the hill on the other side of the boat ramp.
A few weeks earlier, I came over to pre-hike the trail, wanting to assure I wouldn’t lead the group off into something dangerous or difficult. Just under a mile and a half in length, the path follows the shoreline from the Red Oak Campground to a spot near Pin Oak Landing, or vice versa. Some spots are rocky and there is a bit of elevation change, but overall it is fine for beginning hikers who don’t get in a hurry. From the trailhead at Red Oak, there’s an option to take a flat, paved section for the first half-mile to the Black Jack area. Along that paved section, stone steps — probably of CCC origin — are located at intervals along the bluff, ascending to the lake’s best view, “The Scenic Overlook.”
So I know what I am getting these ladies into, although they don’t. Since my hope is to facilitate a wonderful experience they will want to repeat, I’m glad we have the paved section to start with and a glorious afternoon for hiking. We stroll along the path, noting the steep staircases, but I urge the group to refrain from climbing them now, knowing an easier way to get to the same spot awaits. No one protests.
We emerge from the asphalt strip into the parking lot for the boat ramp near the Black Jack campground, where we walk along the road and pick up the trail on the north end of the area. There, the trail splits. Continue on the south side of the road and it takes you along the shore to Pin Oak Landing. Cross the road and climb the stone steps on the north side, and you can hike a loop trail, but it doesn’t have much to offer. We stay to the south, picking our way along the narrow, rocky trail. A picturesque bluff bids us take a break and there we explore a bit. Soon we reach trail’s end at “The Cliff House,” the midpoint of our out-and-back excursion.
I wonder how many people know anything about The Cliff House these days. If you approach this spot from the main park road, you’ll see a sign warning you that it’s dangerous. It does indeed look rickety; large timbers prop up the high stone wall. The stone foundation appears quite solid, though, and I often see fishermen here when I visit, so I know I’m not the only one boldly testing the integrity of the structure.
At this spot in 1938 a boathouse and dock were built, and later it was converted into a nightclub and named “The Cliff House.” It was a popular nightspot until it burned after a lightning strike. In my imagination this is a place of romance on par with the Long Island party scenes in the 1954 movie, “Sabrina,” in which an orchestra plays “Isn’t It Romantic?” in the background and beautiful people sip champagne and float around a dance floor, doors thrown open to the sea breeze. If I could travel through time, The Cliff House is a place I would visit in its heyday. I might see my ancestors dancing the night away. Of course, the reality wouldn’t be as glamorous as a Hollywood movie, and perhaps not glamorous at all, but would be intriguing nonetheless.
Back in the 21st Century, we pause in the ruins for a snack and a gulp of water, then begin our return trip. This time we take the unpaved route at the south end of the trail, which brings us to the Scenic Overlook. This high, western-facing slab of rock with a spectacular view of the lake is well inscribed by past visitors and perfect for a picnic or a stretch in the sun. And it’s a good place for a breather after the short climb. As natural as it looks, it was built by the CCC. But it’s one of those things that hasn’t changed in my lifetime and I love that about it. This spot, like many at the lake, feels like mine.
It’s all downhill from there, as they say, and we arrive back at the trailhead soon after. Our walk was not quite three miles and and no one broke an ankle or passed out, so I call it a success. It’s certainly a good start for our fledgling hiking group.
It’s only about 3:30 when we return but the daylight hours are short and the shadows are already getting long. Soon Carla arrives; a pharmacy owner, she has had to work most of the day but drove down from Sapulpa for a visit. It’s cooling off and we get a fire going in Big Rock Shelter’s massive fireplace, wondering aloud how many others have done the same in the past 80 years.
We spend the rest of the afternoon huddled around the fire in pleasant conversation, cooking hot dogs and s’mores over the open flame. At dark, Carla and Debbie have to leave and Julie and Kay adjourn for a night of relative comfort at the Hess cabin. Rebecca braves the cold to camp with me and we go down the road to my campsite.
With another campfire going in the rock fire ring, we break out camp chairs and talk on into the night. Rebecca has decided to camp in the back of her car and finally I bid her good night. My sleeping bag beckons as I step away from the camp fire, but a fog has settled over the dark waters of the lake and I walk toward the shore, just a few feet away. I linger there for a moment, hoping that the fog still lurks over the waters when the sun comes up. Sometimes it’s all about the photo op, and a foggy sunrise is one of my favorite subjects.
I sleep warm and comfortably, and awaken — to my delight — to the hoped-for heavy fog. I hurry out of my tent and down to the lake, using another set of those CCC steps, carefully inching as close to the water as possible on rocks slick with moisture. Falling in is something I don’t care to do, especially with the heavy Nikon in my hands.
I pick my way along the water’s edge and try to be patient as the fog changes, thins here, lifts there. A mound of trees across the lake — amber in the sun’s early rays —mingles its color and shape with the white mist on the water. The sun gets higher in the sky, burning away the fog, and I finish with photos. I hear Rebecca getting around and text Julie to let her know we are making coffee. I’ve brought my JetBoil and a French Press for a civilized brew.
Julie and Kay return with the news that there was no heat in the bunkhouse but they kept warm under mounds of blankets. I start the campfire again and we linger over coffee for several more hours, reluctant to let go of the weekend. Eventually it’s time for everyone to go back to their usual lives, but we talk of the next time. I’m happy to hear my friends want to do this again.
As Julie and Kay are leaving, Rebecca tells me about another rock shelter just down the road. I’m intrigued and we decide to explore a bit more. At the south end of the campground we find a small shelter in a quiet cove. Of course the interior is spray painted with graffiti — modern pictographs? — but the structure is a treasure nonetheless. How could I not have known of it before? I am almost embarrassed, having thought I knew so much about the lake. From the shallows on the beach Rebecca picks out handfuls of crinoid fossils and hands them to me. I put them in my pocket, a gift for my granddaughter.
One thing we did not do on this weekend was visit the Spillway, but during my previous visit to scout the trail I took the time for that ritual. Atop the massive structure it is easy to feel worshipful. Even dry, it inspires awe, and after heavy rains the powerful and deafening 40-foot cascade is a wonder. I stepped across the huge stones along the 250-foot length of the spillway, remembering moments of youthful romance. My memories make this place something special indeed.
By noon that November Sunday, I am driving west toward my life in Norman, ready to be home but satisfied with my pilgrimage. Yes, for me and my friends there will be a next time in the sacred place we call Lake Okmulgee. And our hope is that, for others, there will soon be a first time.
Susan Penn Dragoo was born in Okmulgee and graduated from Okmulgee High School in 1975. She currently enjoys a freelance career in travel writing and landscape photography from her home in Norman. susandragoo.com
Click to access newdealparks.pdf
“This road once led fortune seekers across Oklahoma on their way to California’s Gold Rush. Today it’s a path for those in search of a Sooner State adventure like no other.”
In case you missed it in print, here’s the electronic version of my story, “The Great Golden Way” from Oklahoma Today’s September/October 2016 edition. Subscribe at oklahomatoday.com and click here to read it: The Great Golden Way
Images from a few days at Beaver Lake in northwest Arkansas, late October, 2016.
Hiking in southern Utah and northern Arizona in September of this year, I pinched off twigs of sage along the trail as I passed, crushing the leaves and blossoms with my fingers and cupping my hands to my face to inhale the scent, a scent I didn’t want to release. A few weeks later, the smell of sagebrush is only a sweet and pungent memory, but it’s one of the ways the West intoxicates me, drawing me back again and again. Slot canyons have perhaps an even more powerful pull, and that is evident in the photos here, some of my favorites from my recent travels.
Bill and I have been blessed to visit Utah several times over the past few years and as I was thinking about my next trip — hiking in the area around Kanab, Utah later this week — I remembered this story from our 2009 journey across the country to California, “The Trail of the Ancients.” It was published in James Pratt’s Adventure Rider Magazine.
Click here: Trail of the Ancients
West of Oklahoma City — way out past Hinton and nearly to Hydro — the casual observer driving along Interstate 40 might catch out of the corner of his eye some mounds to the south upon the prairie. They’re easy to miss, since such physical features are unexpected amid the flatness, and one’s eyes are not easily drawn to the landscape in that region. It was, of course, the contrast these buttes created that made them remarkable to travelers of the prairie in the days when overland navigation depended heavily on landmarks.The first recorded observation of the mounds came in 1849 from Lieutenant James H. Simpson of the Corps of Topographical Engineers. Simpson was part of Captain Randolph B. Marcy’s military escort for a party of gold seekers traveling to California. Simpson notes in his journal on May 23, 1849:
“Proceeding on about a mile (from camp), some hills of singular shape make their appearance, for the first time, bearing north 70 degrees west; several have very much the appearance of immense Indian lodges.”
The most famous of these mounds, which became an often-noted landmark for westbound travelers, is Rock Mary. Simpson describes his discovery of Rock Mary as follows: “Nearing the first of these (mounds) . . . , and it appearing more oddly shaped than any of the others, I started off alone to ascend it — reaching it just in time to scare up a wild turkey; and tying my horse to a black-jack tree at its base, I scrambled up to its summit. The novel character of the hill; its contorted appearance; its sudden emergence from the plain around it; my having reached its pinnacle; it being an object of interest to beholders in the distance; — all this had its complex influence upon me, and I felt correspondingly elated.”
In the excitement of discovering and ascending the mound, Simpson unfurled an American flag at the summit and named the rock in honor of a young woman traveling with the company, Mary Conway. Captain Marcy did not remark on Rock Mary specifically in his journal but describes the first sighting of the buttes as follows:
“Continuing on this ‘Divide’ for thirteen miles we passed several high mounds of a very soft red sandstone, rising up almost perpendicularly out of the open table land, and can be seen for a long distance before reaching them. At the base of the southern mound, following an old Indian trail, it led us down into a deep ravine, where there is a fine spring of cool water, with wood and grass.”
These hills came to be called the Natural Mounds, described by botanist and artist H.B. Mollhausen, who traveled with the Whipple Expedition surveying a possible railroad route to the Pacific in 1853, as “a group of bold steep hills in the thenceforward treeless plain.” He described them further as “a chain of conical hills, lying separate, but scattered in a direction from north-west to south-east; they are all about equal in height, namely, about eighty feet, and covered with a horizontal stratum of red sandstone.”
Today, the mounds are no less visible, and are easily located as one travels west from Hinton, Oklahoma. Rock Mary is located a few miles west of Hinton on private property southeast of the intersection of Caddo County Roads N2560 and E1070. See Google map here.
Although the site is not open to the public, Rock Mary can be viewed from the county road. I had the opportunity to visit it with Art Peters, curator of the Hinton Historical Museum, as part of my research for “The Great Golden Road,” my story about the California Road in the September/October 2016 issue of Oklahoma Today (oklahomatoday.com). See below a photo of Peters in front of Rock Mary, viewing the butte from the west, and a photo of me at the summit of Rock Mary, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A few months later, my son Mark Fields and I went with Peters on a tour of several other mounds in the same area. We visited Lone Mound, Crown Mound, and Chimney Mound. Crown Mound is the tallest of the “Natural Mounds” and part of the cluster called “Steen’s Buttes,” northwest of Rock Mary. These were so named in the fall of 1858 by Lieutenant Edward F. Beale during a survey for construction of a wagon road from Fort Smith, Arkansas to the Colorado River. They are named for Enoch Steen, who commanded the military escort accompanying Beale’s expedition. This is the grouping of hills most easily viewed from Interstate 40.
Chimney Mound was memorialized by Mollhausen in the illustration below. Its appearance is much the same today.
On another excursion, traveling alone to explore and photograph the mounds, I was able to locate Ghost Mound, pictured below. My resource for this excursion was Art Peters’ book, “Legends of the Mounds,” the cover of which is also pictured below. The book contains history, legends, and a map of the mounds, and is available at the Hinton Historical Museum, 801 S. Broadway in Hinton, or by contacting the museum at (405) 542-3181 or email@example.com.
See the following for additional information:
Robert H. Dott, “Lieutenant Simpson’s California Road Across Oklahoma,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma 38 (Summer 1960).
“Rock Mary Report,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma 38 (Summer 1960).
The latest issue of Oklahoma Today (September/October 2016) features my article, “The Great Golden Way,” which tells the story of a trail that crossed Oklahoma in the 1800s, the California Road. It began in Fort Smith, Arkansas and carried fortune-seekers to Santa Fe, New Mexico on their way to the gold fields of California, starting in 1849. Wagons traveled more than 400 miles across Indian Territory in the course of the journey, following the south bank of the Canadian River (or the “South Canadian River,” as we know it locally . . . the “North Canadian River” is actually the northern branch of the Canadian).
Go to OklahomaToday.com to subscribe or pick up a copy on newsstands now.
Remnants of the trail are still evident today and Art Peters, curator of the Hinton Historical Museum, has spent the last decade retracing the wagon road through western Oklahoma. In the past few years he has also been placing markers on the trail.
Over time his exploration has yielded numerous artifacts. Even after the Gold Rush, the road was used for many years, probably until around 1918. Wagon hardware, buttons, tableware, and many other metal objects have turned up in Peters’ excavations and they are on display at the museum, located at 801 S. Broadway in Hinton, just north of the entrance to Red Rock Canyon. (Red Rock Canyon is the only place on public property in Oklahoma where a California Road wagon rut is evident and can be easily visited.)
Four of the artifacts Peters has recently found are pictured below, with some details written by Peters about each one. (Artifact photos by Art Peters.) See these and much more at the museum. For more information, call (405) 542-3181 or go to Hinton Historical Museum
Peters: The padlock is from the 1901 – 1915 time period and the flat-style key it took was a very common thing at that time. I’ve found old trunk locks before that took the same small-style key. I found the lock several yards to the south of a trail campsite near Leedey. I don’t know if the word Patrol means anything more than a brand name or if these locks were meant to lock strong boxes on stage coaches, but I think it was very possible. Movies always show a massive railroad lock, as big as the palm of a hand, being shot off by the outlaws, but in reality they used anything that was handy and would get the job done.
Peters: The fork is from the same campsite as the padlock. Two of the tongs are still holding the shape of the imprint from where a wagon wheel ran over it. The third tong and handle were broken off from the force of being run over. On the reverse side of the handle there are two small hooks, located at the very outer edge, resembling snake fangs, that show us this fork was originally attached to a ring and was part of a “camp set.” But it is uncertain if the “camp set” would have been something the average wagon traveler could have purchased at a trading post or in Fort Smith before heading out, or if it could have come from a military outfit leading the wagon trains or passing through on a different expedition. In the same campsite I also found a long thin flat piece of metal shard I think could have been a cheaply made knife blade body, missing its base and point, but can’t be sure it was part of the same set.
Peters: The cast-iron stove foot was found in a wagon train campsite west of Hinton. I recently found more cast-iron stove plate shards, which equal about one-third of a complete stove-top, top-plate, and part of the top surface rim, which indicates it was a cook stove and not a pot-belly stove. When the wagons were entering this campsite they had just pulled a hill leading them here, and it was during that uphill pull that the wagons would have begun moaning, groaning and creaking under the stress of the pull. This is also the time when wagon brackets and horse harness would break, and men would come to realize their wagons were too overloaded to carry on. Therefore items such as cast-iron stoves and grandfather clocks would have been unloaded to ease the stress the animals and wagons were undergoing. When I think about this old stove foot and the complete stove it came from, I can imagine a conversation between a man and wife on the trail who has just had a horse harness or wagon part break as they approached the top of this hill. If the man is polite to his wife it would go something like this. “Honey you know I love you, but we just can’t take the stove any farther.” Then seeing the broken parts for herself, she would obviously agree to discard it.
Peters: One item I had not given much thought to until a friend mentioned it, is a badly oxidized flat gear about the size of an old silver dollar. It is bent on one edge and has a small pointer on one flat side. I took it to a clock repair shop and the lady there, before I told her about my work, said it was from a mid to late 1800s grandfather clock and the small pointer was the striker that releases the chimes every half hour. It fits the time period perfectly and those old clocks were heavy and if broken in route, it may have been discarded in the camp.
It’s a good week for publications — my story on the Ozark Highlands Trail, “Waiting for Daylight,” was published in TrailGroove’s online magazine (Click here for the TrailGroove web site) a few days ago and then yesterday OutdoorX4 magazine released the digital version of Issue 16 with my story on trekking in Iceland, “Land of Fire and Ice.” AND, one of my photos is featured in OutdoorX4’s “Great Escape” section. Nice! The print version of OutdoorX4 will be available at Barnes and Noble soon, for those who don’t yet subscribe. (Subscribe at OutdoorX4.com.) See both these pieces at my Publications page: https://susandragoo.com/publications/
And, coming out very soon in Oklahoma Today magazine is another article I’m very excited about. Subscribe today at OklahomaToday.com and stay tuned!