Wandering in Wonder in Missouri

If there is such a thing as the “wanderlust gene,” I probably have it.

Although the science isn’t settled, researchers have discovered a gene variant that is linked to a person’s willingness to explore new places, try novel foods, take risks and indulge curiosity. Carried by approximately 20 percent of all humans, it’s called DRD4-7R and helps control dopamine, a neurotransmitter that’s important to learning and predicting rewards.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved to explore.

As a kid, my explorations were limited only by how far my Keds and ten-speed Schwinn could take me. As an adult, my instincts have taken me north to the giant conifers of Washington State’s Hoh Rain Forest, south to Hawaii’s Punalu’u’s black sand beaches, west to Kazakhstan’s Tian Shan Mountains, and east to Germany’s plunging waterfalls.

Although you might be surprised to hear it, no place is as beautiful as my home —Missouri.

With 1,186 conservation areas owned or leased by the Missouri Department of Conservation, every part of the state has something to offer an outdoor enthusiast such as myself. In total, MDC is caring for more than 1 million acres in an effort to sustain healthy forests, fish and wildlife and help people discover nature.

Saline County is a fine example of this, and earlier this season, my son and I explored the region’s historical, cultural, and natural amenities.\

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We cruised up and down Arrow Rock’s streets on our bikes, felt the heavy embrace of a buffalo robe at Van Meter State Park’s American Indian Cultural Center, and got lost on more than one gravel road.

But seeing great blue herons glide effortlessly over Grand Pass Conservation Area — a jewel of lush wetlands, river islands, and timber tracts — was the trip’s highlight.

The Audubon Society of Missouri has designated Grand Pass an “Important Bird Area,” which means it is a site that has been identified as crucial for many bird populations, due to the abundance and diversity of the birds present. Almost 230 species are known to either breed or migrate through the area.

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My son and I weren’t the first explorers to visit Grand Pass.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition made good speed through the area on June 15, 1804.

In spite of strong Missouri River currents, breezy winds and numerous mosquitoes, the expedition arduously towed themselves up the river 12.5 miles that day, only a little less than the 14 miles they averaged going upstream. They camped within three miles’ distance of the ancient village of the Missouri tribe, for which both the state and the river are named. (Tragically by the time Lewis and Clark passed through, the tribe was already in steep decline, having been ravaged by disease and warfare with other tribes. Lewis recorded only 300 members remained and had moved to live with the Oto, their closest relatives.)

Although it’s impossible to say Grand Pass hasn’t changed much in the intervening 211 years — it has, due to both natural alterations in the river’s channel and man-made developments — it remains a place teeming with wildlife.

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I like to think that the American Indians who first settled the area, the French and American explorers who followed, and hopefully I and my son — who incidentally is named “William Lewis” in honor of the explorers — all share that same wanderlust gene.

The famous naturalist Aldo Leopold once wrote: “To those devoid of imagination, a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.”

Don’t live a whole lifetime in Missouri without seeing the state’s “most valuable parts”— its public lands, conservation areas, and state parks.

They are Grand.

To find out more about all of the amazing places the Missouri Department of Conservation has to offer, visit our online atlas at: http://on.mo.gov/1ikSpa3

Written by Kristie Hilgedick, news services coordinator for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

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