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Stories in stone: interpreting geology at Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park.

When a massive flood sent billions of gallons of water rushing through Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park (Missouri) six years ago, shattered rock and other debris covered the hiking trails and campsites and littered the swimming holes that crowds of visitors enjoyed each year. Acquired in 1955, Johnson's Shut-Ins was known to outdoor enthusiasts as an 8,500-acre nature oasis, tucked in the Ozark Mountains along the Black River in Reynolds County, Missouri, 80 miles southwest of St. Louis. Its geological "shut-ins" are among the oldest exposed rock in the nation.





The damage and debris were monumental. The breach of the Taum Sauk Reservoir destroyed nearly every man-made structure in the park. Uprooted trees and overturned soil ravaged surrounding hillsides. As planning crews assessed what remained and focused on the barren land that had been left behind, they came to realize that the flood had exposed even more geological history. A large bed of Taum Sauk rhyolite rock was discovered, dating back 1.4 billion years when volcanoes exploded to create the nearby St. Francois Mountains. In addition, rocks from at least three other geological eras were found within the rubble, as well as a sand beach near the top of Taum Sauk believed to be 530-million-years-old.

Within days, construction teams were at work clearing the area of remnants of the flood, and Missouri's state park planning division began seeking the guidance of design teams to plan a new park. I was engaged as lead interpretive designer of a multimember design team.

After examining Johnson's Shut-Ins, the initial concept of the design team focused on taking advantage of the rhyolite, dolomite, granite, sandstone, and chert that work crews had been harvesting and incorporating them into the design. Further, we worked to create an interwoven series of storylines that responded to the desire of park officials to incorporate history, nature, and the park's native geological elements into its restoration and rebuilding. The team's interpretive design knowledge--coupled with a belief that native stone needed to be a central interpretive material--was the creative spark the master planners of the park were seeking.

Designers entered the project fully aware of the challenge--to include the great number of topics requested by Missouri Department of Natural Resources officials with a focus on one of the toughest topics to present in an interesting fashion to audiences--geology! Based on facts gleaned from more than 20 scientists, historians, and geologists recruited to assist the design team, interpretive storylines were created to make the facts easy to understand, blending artistry with intellectual engagement.

The overall design plan to attract, inspire, and educate visitors from all walks of life included 10 interpretive storylines, a visitor center with 3,000 square feet of exhibit area featuring interactive displays and tangible artifacts, an AV theater, a visitor information station for collecting their memories of the park, and an interpretive retail area. Actually, these were just the start of the designers' elaboration. The interpretive program also includes six miles of trails, three interpretive pavilions, three stone mosaic plazas totaling 1,700 square feet, three scenic overlooks, an amphitheater, an outdoor classroom, a geology-themed playground, live programs hosted by park rangers, and 10 downloadable podcasts describing each of the 10 storylines.

Sensitive to making a natural presentation that was compatible with the park's landscape, designers used locally quarried Missouri red granite and aux vases limestone for structures whenever possible. From the stone-mosaic plazas to the interpretive signs, the team made sure to integrate natural materials into structures parkwide. Seat walls and building facades were constructed of stone rubble deposited on the site after the disaster.

As noted, many of the interpretive storylines directly reflect on the geology of the park, including:

* A "Landscape of Voices" at the orientation center introduces visitors to the wild landscape of Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park, telling of violent volcanic eruptions, ancient geology, the power of water, and the biodiversity of the St. Francois Mountains. Visitors are encouraged to explore the Black River Center, pavilions, and trails to learn more about this extraordinary place.

* "A Slice of Time" at a pavilion and overlook features exposed geology in the Scour Channel with rocks dating back 1.4 billion years and shows how the mountains were formed.

* "If These Rocks Could Talk" at Shut-Ins Overlook tells a story of ancient volcanic eruptions, followed by millions of years of erosion and movement of water as it carved and shaped the unusual narrow gorge we call the "shut-ins."

* The "Power of Water" display at Boulder Pavilion shows visitors how the powerful flow of water has sculpted rock, moved giant boulders, eroded millions of years of geologic history, and changed the face of the earth. Guests are invited to visit the river, the fens, the boulder field, and other locations to see the water at work.

* Children play at the "Giant Rock Box Discovery" playground.

These additional storylines combine geology with the natural and cultural history of the region:

* An "Ozark Oasis" at Fen Pavilion details a unique combination of a continuous groundwater stream that weaves through bedrock pushing up just below the surface of the land. The special set of conditions creates a groundwater-fed wetland, or "fen," that supports a great diversity of plant and animal life. Overlooking this protected area is a pavilion that provides a panoramic view of the fen and an interpretive demonstration of what lives inside.



* The "Heart of the Wilderness" at Wild Area Trailhead offers two rugged Missouri wild areas for experienced backcountry hikers and campers. Covering more than 6,000 acres, the East Fork Wild Area and the Goggins Mountain Wild Area are undeveloped and preserved for their unique wilderness values.

* "Nature's Mosaic" at Shut-Ins Trailhead is a 1,200-square-foot stone and metal mosaic made to reflect the hundreds of diverse, interconnected living organisms that thrive within the park. From the tops of the tallest trees to the valley below, the woodlands, glades, river, and associated habitats teem with life.

* The Ozark Trail explains to visitors that the trail runs through Missouri from the St. Louis area to the Arkansas border. Some of the most scenic and challenging parts of the Ozark Trail run through Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park. The Ozark Trail can be reached from three local trails within the park.

* "Paths Through Time" at Cemetery Trail takes visitors on a journey that commemorates the early days of the region. The rocky terrain of the area formed by the rare geology, limited land use, and historically supported small settlements that relied on gathering and subsistence farming. Early pioneers that settled in the region were descendants of the Scots-Irish from Appalachia who sought free and open land. A walking trail with interpretive signs provides a path to a cemetery of the original families that settled the park's lands.

* "Making Memories" at the campground amphitheater and orientation center enlivens the memories of the shut-ins that have attracted people to this area for generations. Today, visitors are invited to join with park staff and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to help ensure the continued beauty and environmental health of this extraordinary place. A technologically advanced device records images, narration, and written stories from visitors to the park.

The entire project from interpretive master planning and design conception through installation was completed in three years. Due to the vision of the design team and their interpretation of the geology, natural history, and culture of Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park, visitors today not only get to return to the comfortable campsites and pristine hiking trails they once frequented--they also enjoy a unique educational experience and interactive exposure to its many geological treasures. Johnson's Shut-Ins is truly a "landscape of voices."

Therese McKee is the founder and owner of Signature Design in St. Louis, Missouri. She can be reached at
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Author:McKee, Therese
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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