Two days in a canoe will change the way you think
about Missouriís Backyard River
By Jim Low
Growing up in Jefferson City, I used to envy people who
lived in the Ozarks. They have all those terrific float streams right
outside their back doors. That was before I floated the Missouri River and
discovered that one of the Show-Me State's premier float streams has been
outside my back door all along.
Once I found out what I had been missing, I was eager to share it with
friends, so I organized a two-day float trip. Like Meriwether Lewis &
William Clark, who floated the river nearly 200 years ago, I kept a journal.
Take a few minutes to relive the trip with us. If you're like most of the
2.8 million Missourians who live in counties adjoining our state's namesake
river, you'll be surprised at what we found.
August 25 - 10:30 a.m.
A light drizzle is falling as I peer downstream from the Carl R. Noren
Public Fishing Access, within sight of the State Capitol. Despite a
temperature in the mid-60s, the air feels steamy.
I can barely see the last of our six canoes, which launched a few minutes
earlier. They took off while John and I were driving back from Hermann,
where we left two minivans and the canoe trailer. It's time to get on the
John, his daughter, Katherine, and I shove our boats into the current and
start our motors. We are bringing up the rear for our party to lend a hand
if needed and make sure no one falls too far behind. Besides John and
9-year-old Katherine, we have another father-daughter pair, Rick and Jenny,
who is a recent college graduate. We also have two father-son pairs, Jim and
Josh, a high school senior, and Dennis and Miles, age 10.
Two other canoeing teams - Joan and Martha, and Janet and Joe - are
office friends. Rounding out our party of 16 is a pair of sisters, Carolyn
and Tracy, plus Dan, who is leading the party in a motorized john boat. My
boat mate is a golden retriever named Guiness.
Two and a half hours ago (our planned departure time), a sodden rain was
dimpling the river's surface. We waited because the weather forecast said
the rain was moving out. We didn't want to paddle 29 miles and cook our
meals in a downpour.
The worst thing about our late start is that it leaves us no time to
explore Clark's Hill. The Lewis and Clark expedition stopped at this rock
outcrop near the mouth of the Osage River to make celestial observations and
measure the width of the two rivers. Elegantly carved initials, believed by
some to be those of two expedition members, still can be seen at the base of
From the shore of Smoky Waters Conservation Area, not far from the
historic site, two campers wave to us from the door of a green and purple
Rules of the Road
Always wear a life jacket when canoeing or boating.
Leave word with friends or family about where you will be floating and
when you should return.
To stay in the main channel, keep the black "can" buoys on your right
going downriver and on your left going upriver. The opposite is true
for red "nun" buoys.
Head upstream when landing. Having a swift current at your back makes
Stay well away from barges. Until you take the measure of these
behemoths, it's best to cross to the opposite side of the river when
you see them coming.
Approach wakes from tow boats and other motorized craft head-on. One
of the few ways to swamp a canoe on the Missouri River is to let a
wave roll into you broadside.
Stay alert. The flat expanse of the river can lull you into
carelessness. If you aren't paying attention, you can T-bone one of
the navigation buoys while drifting in the current.
Watch for turbulent water that marks the location of rock just beneath
the surface. These aren't much of a hazard to canoes, but they can
damage larger boats and motors.
If your boat swamps, don't leave the boat and try to swim to shore.
Instead, hold onto the boat and "swim" it to safety.
Avoid floating during high water, when the river washes out logs and
other debris that make navigation dangerous.
The U.S. Coast Guard river boating safety booklet, "Rules of the
Road," can be downloaded at www.uscg.mil/stcw/m-exams.htm. Or, you can
order a copy from Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government
Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402.
Clouds are fading, and with them my worries fade, too. Everyone is in
high spirits. The inch or so of rain that fell last night won't raise the
water level enough to encroach on our intended campsite. Things are going to
be OK. I have cut the engine and am drifting, absorbing the majesty of river
bluffs and valleys that Lewis might have described as "a butiful prospect."
My boat is tracing lazy, drifting circles in the current. Guiness is
having the time of her life swimming after a great blue heron that took off
from a wing dike as we floated past.
Everyone seems content as we drift downstream, occasionally using paddles
or motors to maneuver or add speed to the 3- or 4-mile-per-hour current of
the main channel.
A pair of sleek, long-beaked birds with black-and-white plumage just
cruised past. Several of us wondered if they could be interior least terns,
an endangered species that nests on sand bars. Jim, our resident bird
expert, says they are Forester's terns.
So far, we have seen no sign of the barges for which the Corps of
Engineers has narrowed and straightened the river, creating a 9-foot deep
We have pulled up on a mud bank to stretch our legs and eat sandwiches
for lunch. We're about 12 miles downstream from our starting point, still 17
miles from our evening campsite. We are ready to relax. It's nice in the
shade, and we linger, sharing the morning's experiences.
Still no sign of barges, but we're seeing lots of recreational boats. We
were all amazed when three big, Miami Vice-style speedboats hurtled past a
few minutes ago.
Besides the cigarette boats, we have seen a pontoon house boat, a couple
of fishing boats and a number of people in different motor boats
sightseeing. A jug-line fishing tournament is under way. Last weekend, this
stretch of the river hosted a catfishing tournament. So ends our fantasy of
exploring an "undiscovered" river. Still it's reassuring to know that others
are around if we need help.
The river looks full enough, but one of the experienced "river rats" says
it is flowing at a piddling 41,300 cubic feet per second (cfs) at Kansas
City. That means that about 18 million gallons of water are rolling past
Kansas City every minute.
This is about the same level as wildlife advocates would like to see once
every few summers to ensure good nesting spots for the least tern. Periodic
low flows like this also benefit other wildlife, not to mention people who
like to float the river.
Cicadas are serenading us from both banks with hypnotic effect. Miles has
kicked back for a siesta. Dan is performing cannonballs off the front deck
of his johnboat to stay awake. This is fun, but we are running behind. I
start my motor to run downriver and check our camp site.
Rounding the bottom end of the island across from the Conservation
Department's Portland Access, I turn up a side channel separating the island
from the south bank. Five blue-winged teal take flight. Everything is
perfect at the campsite. The sandy beach is four or five feet above water
and has driftwood for a fire. I head back upstream to deliver the news and
rally the troops.
Our late start and my ambitious mileage goal have meant too much paddling
and too little play for those in canoes. I sense some grumbling from members
of our modern day Corps of Discovery when I announce that we still have four
or five miles to go.
Our home for the night is a 15-acre island cradled in a lazy, six-mile
river bend. Once the canoes landed, it was every camper for her or himself.
Martha and Joan are lounging on the sand. Tracy and Carolyn are off beach
combing. Dan brought out fishing poles and began baiting hooks for Miles and
Katherine, who now are hauling in channel catfish. Others are washing off
sunscreen and sweat in the gentle current of the side channel. Cold drinks
and supper fixings are starting to appear.
Josh and Jim are exploring the complex of low sand bars between the
island and the main channel. Ankle- to waist-deep water meanders among the
bars, creating the sort of braided channel that once occupied most of the
river's 1- to 2-mile-wide valley.
Bring a motor boat. One of the boats in your flotilla should be able
to go upriver if necessary.
Don't bite off too much mileage. Err on the short side - 10 or 15
miles per day - so you can stop often to explore.
Find campsites beforehand. Islands and sandbars are widely spaced in
some river stretches, so you need to scout them in advance.
Don't count on cell phones. Reception is spotty at best and
nonexistent in many reaches of the river. Carrying walkie-talkies in
the front and back canoes is a good way of keeping in touch with
Go with the flow. When you want make time, stay in the main navigation
channel. The brisk current will multiply your paddling power.
Put some weight up front. Keeping a boat pointed down river with a
headwind is less tiring if you keep your bow low in the water.
Cook fires are burning and a feast is taking shape. Everyone brought more
food than they need, and the meal has turned into a drawn-out potluck
featuring grilled steaks, boiled jumbo shrimp, seafood jambalaya, chili mac,
bratwurst and, of course, catfish. Dessert is Dutch oven cinnamon rolls.
As the fire burns down to coals, we talk about the day. We generally
agree that a shorter float would have been less taxing and allowed time for
more river fun.
A torrential shower chases everyone into their tents. The storm lasted
only 20 minutes or so, but by then the drone of rain had been replaced by
the drone of snoring. Dan and I decide to fish for awhile, and the campfire
recaptures a few night owls. Their voices seem loud against the hushed
gurgle of the river. The stars, peeking through the parting clouds, are
uncommonly vivid in a jet black sky.
Sunday - 7 a.m.
Laughter filters through the tent walls. I hear the hiss of a camp stove.
I smell coffee. Someone is cooking breakfast.
Guiness, who apparently has been up for some time, is sitting by the tent
door, staring at me. I let her out to do her business and mooch tidbits from
the breakfast crowd.
I grab a breakfast bar and head for the campfire. Conversation revolves
around today's float. Sixteen miles separate us and Hermann, our takeout
point. "No sweat," I think. Then I remember that not everyone has a
A towboat - the first we have seen - slips downriver. The throbbing of
its engines is so deep we feel it more than hear it. It is pushing a modest
flotilla of three barges. One floats high in the water, obviously empty.
Most of the canoes are headed downstream, but a few linger to enjoy the
cool morning breeze and see what "Old Man River" has washed up at the head
of the island. They turn up bits of obsidian, flint flakes from Indian
tool-making, a dozen chunks of petrified wood and an odd smattering of other
fossils. One, an arm or leg bone of some medium-sized animal, is perfectly
preserved, glossy black and heavy as stone.
We are all back on the water again, making for our takeout point with
gusto. Everyone wants to get off the water before the sunny day turns hot
and humid. Also, Hermann's many fine restaurants and vineyards beckon.
Lunch break on a big sandbar opposite the mouth of the Gasconade River.
The biggest difference between yesterday and today is the increased number
of people we are seeing. We've hardly been out of sight of boats since
shoving off. Thirty or 40 are beached here, and folks are playing with
Frisbees and beach balls, sunbathing and building sand castles, picnicking
and lounging in lawn furniture. Jet skis buzz around like huge water
striders, churning up waves on the normally flat river. The surface chop
cancels out the benefit of the river's current and splashes over the bows of
some of our canoes.
How far would you go to float the Big Muddy?
If you doubt that the Missouri River is a world-class float stream,
ask Richard Ryan. Last year he floated from Montana to the mouth of the
Missouri River in a touring kayak he built from a kit. Ryan, 47, is a
real-estate entrepreneur from Middlesex, Great Britain.
believe how few people I've seen on the river," he said. "The scenery is
incredible, and there are so many lovely campsites. It's amazing more
people don't come here."
Here comes the second barge of the trip, this one headed upstream. We are
in a bend in the river, and since the navigation channel always follows the
outsides of bends, our flotilla hugs the inside. The swells kicked up by tow
boats are big, but by the time they reach us they don't present any hazard.
Our canoes bob like corks.
We spy the Highway 19 bridge. We will be in Hermann in less than an hour.
A persistent breeze provides some relief from the sweltering heat.
Canoes loaded and gear stowed. Time for a cold drink and a hot meal at a
Except for being a tad long, it was an extremely enjoyable trip. Up
close, the river seems both grander and friendlier than most of us imagined.
Jim and Josh enjoyed it so much they already are planning a return trip with
their Explorer Scout post. Carolyn is looking forward to having an
archaeologist identify her fossil bone, and most of us have pieces of
driftwood or some other souvenir of our two days on "The Big Muddy."
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