Johnson’s Shut-Ins: Jumping In with Fear, Enjoying the Ride
Some of my clearest memories, among my fondest and most thrilling times, are of the several visits I made while a teen and young adult to this amazing state park in central Missouri. I attended and then worked at several summer camps which made this wonderful location part of our overnight trip schedule, so I was privileged to go there again and again in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when the water was clean, the river was running high and the place was mostly undiscovered.
What is it? What makes it so special? From a scientific/geologic/historic standpoint, there are these facts:
The story of Johnson’s Shut-Ins starts over a billion years ago when the igneous rocks, pink granites and blue-gray rhyolites, were formed from volcanic activity.
Igneous rock is one formed from molten rock, magma, and other volcanic materials (e.g., ash deposits).
Granite rock (a type of igneous rock) is formed from magma that cooled below the earth’s surface and then was exposed later.
Rhyolite rock (another kind of igneous rock) is formed from magma and volcanic ash and debris flows that spewed out onto the earth’s surface and then cooled.
Above the park the East Fork of the Black River flows through a broader valley formed in dolomite bedrock. Then the river hits the more resistant igneous rock and the valley becomes narrow and steep-sided or “shut in.” Along the banks of the stream, look for the Ozark witch hazel which blooms in late winter and early spring.
There are the natural beauty and sensory pleasures of the cool but not freezing water, the rushing but not crushing rapids, the clean and clear water, the variety of smells, sights and adventures to be experienced which you’d have to go there to know. But, here are some photos and a few stories to help you believe you were there with me.
For the Walkers
For the less adventurous, those who’d rather sunbathe than swim, the large rocks offer plenty of opportunities to lie around and enjoy others’ splashing and yelling without moving much. My friends and I would divide into groups: walkers, floaters, swimmers and jumpers. The walkers usually stopped out and sunbathed a lot and didn’t go as far down the river as the others. Many of them barely got wet. Personally, I didn’t see the point of being a walker, but some people just didn’t want to get wet.
For the Floaters
Floaters enjoyed the water but weren’t great with longer swims and had no interest in climbing and jumping in from higher and higher plateaus. They would use the rapids to shoot down little ladders into shallow pools, climb back up and do that or another section many times and stay in the central “shut-ins” area for hours, whopping, hollering, splashing and laughing. I’d join the floaters for a while, but I felt the need to move on to more exciting parts very soon.
The walkers and floaters could see parts of where the swimmers and jumpers were going, but not all. Mostly, these first two groups were less willing to go deep, go high, go far. Walkers and floaters still had a blast and probably had no care for or interest in what they were “missing” because what they were doing was incredibly fun and went on for many and varied sections of the shut-ins.
For the Swimmers
Some of us swimmers and jumpers would re-visit the shut-ins sections to hang out with our walker and floater friends, eat our lunches, warm up, talk, shoot down the rapids for a while, then swim further on again. We’d do this back-and-forth for hours.
If you can imagine the sounds of the rushing water, the shouts and laughter of the kids and teens, the sweet smells of the trees, water, flowers and plants, the beauty of the rocks and formations and the rush of excitement we’d feel, you have some of the sensory pleasures swimmers and floaters especially enjoyed.
We swimmers, though, just had to keep going. Beyond the shut-ins sections were three ever-larger and deeper pools, kind of like small lakes, culminating in the pool with the three jumping platforms. The feeling of being pushed and pulled around by the rapids in the shut-ins for hours was with us until we got to the third pool. By then, the calm, clear water of the first two pools had changed our vibrations and soothed our nerves.
For the Jumpers
Jumpers are swimmers who can conquer, or jump in with fear. Jumpers had to be strong, enduring swimmers who could tread water, go deep and surface, climb and jump in repeatedly (or at least once) without flagging because there were no lifeguards and no easy way to get rescued if a swimmer or jumper got exhausted.
Some swimmers came through all three pools just for the love of swimming and some came to watch the jumpers. Maybe they were revving up to jump, but many swimmers never did. Or, some jumped, but only from the lowest platform rock (about 6 feet above the water). There was an intermediate platform rock, which we estimated to be about 20 feet above the water, which many jumpers used but most never went higher.
Then, there was the highest jump, from a rock area that was about 40 feet above the water. It was also set kind of far back, so jumpers not only had to be brave enough to climb up (clambering up a narrow trail without steps which was very slippery and had no handholds), foolish enough to jump off from 40 feet high, but also, we had to be skillful enough to jump OUT in order to clear the jutting rocks beneath this platform area so that we would get to the water and not break a body part hitting the rocks first. There was a small area to take a few steps (but not run) before jumping, or jumpers could just propel our bodies forward and out as we jumped: that’s what most did.
NOTES: The first photo, below, which shows a human-made diving board, was not the way it was when I was there. There was no diving board. We had to jump out to avoid those rocks and had no help from an extending board.
I remember climbing up to the highest jumping area for the first time at the age of fourteen, thrilled and frightened in equal measure. When I got to the top, I was so scared I could only sit and watch as several other jumpershurled themselves off the cliff. I let kid after kid go ahead of me, not daring to take a turn.
I felt that I couldn’t do it. I was panting, sweating, shaking from fear. I looked at the climbing trail and knew I couldn’t climb back down, either. It was incredibly treacherous with sliding pebbles, shifting dirt and narrow rock formations that made it barely possible to go up and impossible to reverse direction. There would be no going down except by jumping.
Each jumper hooted and hollered, making it seem so fun, I just ached to do it. But I was immobilized by my terror, hunched down behind the jumping area, for about thirty minutes. Luckily, no one paid me any attention and I could be in my own world, contemplating my fate.
I was up there so long my swimming suit felt dry. Finally, there was no one else up there for a minute. I felt the urge come over me to DO IT. I stood up, my legs shaking. I crept to the edge of the cliff and looked down, checking the exact location of the jutting rocks that I’d only seen from below before. They jutted out REALLY FAR.
This photo shows the perspective of that highest jumping area as I remember it.
I was only 5′ tall. How would I propel myself out beyond them? I imagined breaking my arm or leg, hitting the rocks if I misjudged my jump.
No way. I could do this.
A big whoosh of internal courage rushed into me. Grabbing onto it before it could disappear, I took a few steps back, then raced forward and hurled myself OUT, bicycling my legs as I’d seen others do to get more distance beyond the rocks below me.
It seemed to take forever to reach the water. I had time to think about how long it was taking. But, no one had told me and I hadn’t bothered to notice that I needed to keep my arms and legs close to my body. I hit the water with a smack, my legs slightly open and my arms out to my sides. IT HURT LIKE HELL! My inner thighs were on fire and my inner arms felt as if I’d hit walls with them.
I sunk down further in the water than I wanted to, then frantically kicked to get back to the surface, blowing out water and gasping for breath when I broke clear, hurting all over.
I felt exhilarated! I HAD DONE IT! My friends and a few strangers around me cheered and hollered at me. As my head cleared and the aching subsided, I looked around, smiled, and held up one arm high above my head, fist clenched. YES!
Now that I knew I could do it and had learned that I needed to keep my body more like a pencil after I bicycled out, I was eager to do it again. So, I did.
Several times that day, several times the next day, I clambered up and immediately jumped from that highest point. I learned to love the fall, letting time stretch out. Knowing the entry wouldn’t hurt, that I could get my breath and come up just fine, made it that much more enjoyable.
For several years after that, on each visit, into my early twenties, I made my first jump with tremendous fear and enjoyed the rest. It was one of my favorite things EVER to do.
At each summer’s visit, for my first jump I had to climb up and then let several jumpers go first as I got myself psyched up to jump again. I never stopped being afraid of that height. I just kept cimbing up and jumping anyway, feeling the fear while enjoying the ride.
What Lies Beyond
The Black River goes on from the third pool, but we couldn’t swim or hike any further safely. Some of it looks like this, from above, which seems as if it would be a fun ride down the rapids, like the shut-ins that came before, except there was no way to get back by climbing back up or around and up, the way we did in the actual shut-ins sections.
If you ever want to go
First of all, make sure the Black River is running well: not too high (from flooding) and not too low (from drought). Second, plan to camp out in the park and stay a few days. You’ll love it that much. Bring your own everything; there’s nothing much nearby in the way of restaurants, stores, etc.
The MO State Parks page states:
“This natural area is within Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park. The 2-mile Shut-Ins trail provides access to the natural area. Inquire at the park office about the hiking trail.
“To reach the park office: from the intersection of MO Highway 21 and MO Highway N north of Pilot Knob (Iron County) go west nearly 13 miles to the park entrance on the left (south). Follow the signs to the park office.
“Swimming is allowed in the shut-ins at your own risk.”