The Hidden Forest

At one time or another most of us have gazed across the lake and wondered what was at the bottom--what was there just as the lake filled?0

As a kid I remember a salvage diver telling me that it was like a jungle down there--a tangle of waterlogged trees and brush. And yet I had heard so many times that the Lake of the Ozarks floodplain had been clear-cut, something that distinguished it from Corps of Engineers lake projects. Eventually I asked some "old-timers" who had lived in the area before the lake, and I did a little research of my own, and this is what I uncovered:

The level of the lake is measured in feet above sea level. At full reservoir the water's surface elevation is 660 feet. Floodgates on the dam can draw the lake down to 639 feet, which is the lowest level the lake has been since its creation. There are nine underwater openings for the turbines in the face of the dam. They are approximately forty feet tall--the tops of these openings are at 630 feet of elevation.

At the time the lake was created, any trees growing within a thirty foot "draw down" zone--from elevation 660 down to 630--were cut down and burned. (A few sources put the lower elevation at 628.) Trees below that were left standing provided their tops did not extend above 630. Surveyors set scores of "bench marks" along the projected shore line to establish the vertical limits of the draw down zone. All trees to be cut down were marked with white paint on their trunks. The reservoir clearing project rivaled the dam construction in its immensity.

Burning the felled trees proved a problem because some tre es were simply too large and too green to burn. In those cases they were wrapped in wire cable and the cable ends were anchored onto the stumps. In theory the dead tree would become waterlogged over time and forever remain at the bottom. But in fact some of these large trees out lasted their cable moorings and slowly floated to the surface. From time to time they have lodged in the floodgates and intake openings of the dam. Others have come to rest in shallow coves.

So there still is a standing forest down below, at least where the depth is, say, sixty feet or more. The underwater forests would not be extensive--much of the bottomland was cultivated; trees mostly were limited to the old creek beds and fence lines. But they are there--dark and lifeless since the day the water covered them in 1931.

© 1999-2000 by Michael Gillespie. All rights reserved.