Ask any Missourian south of I70 what a “float trip” is and unless he is one of our more taciturn Ozarkers he will tell you. However as a boy living in Kansas where rivers flow muddy and sluggish I’d never heard of a float trip and 30 years later when we moved from Central Ohio to suburban Kansas City I’d still never heard of such a thing. I was introduced to the sport by my neighbor who all but swooned when he talked about his many float trips with his daughter: The joy of camping on a sandbar, of seeing snakes slither off limbs into the water, the epicurean delight of eating Campbell’s soup for breakfast, “Trail Mix” for lunch, stick-grilled hotdogs for dinner and puffed-up, toasted marshmallows in the evening - all cooked over a campfire beside a scenic river. It sounded wonderful. Those conversations and visualizing took place in the cold winter months of 1973. But there were a few things he forgot to tell me.
The word “float” suggested to me a lazy trip down the river lolling on a raft or drifting in a canoe. Since our kids were too young to risk in a canoe I visited the Sears surplus store where I found a bright yellow inflatable rubber raft with a couple of paddles. As I recall it was about six feet wide and maybe eight feet long and came with a hand-powered pump to inflate it.
It seemed perfect for floating down the river being a dad and bonding with my kids. (Anne is aquaphobic) We did a couple of trial “floats” on a nearby lake and they turned out quite well. The raft had a rubberized “floor” and was suitably watertight. I was confident we had a craft worthy of launching into one of the Ozarks' well-known float streams.
I read a bit, far too little a bit it turned out and decided that Nick, Alicia, Don, Jr. (oldest daughter Marci did not care to go.) and I would float the Current River deep in the Missouri Ozarks; a federally designated “Wild and Scenic” river. In retrospect I’m sure I thought more about its being “scenic” than I did to its being “wild.” Too late I found both terms to be equally accurate descriptors. One day in mid-July when the hot weather made playing in cool water attractive two of our kids and I packed our gear and food and extra clothing in boxes and duffel bags, carefully folded our raft and crammed them all into the back of our station wagon. We acknowledged the usual worrisome “Be carefuls” from “Mom” (who probably had mixed feelings of concern and joy knowing she’d have three less people to “mother” for a few days) and “headed for the hills” to spend two nights and days enjoying the undefiled Current River’s enticements.
We arrived at “Akers Ferry,” a truly rustic, backwoods ferry connecting two segments of a county road where we would launch. It was late afternoon when we arrived and much to the amusement, I suspect, of fellow floaters (although being courteous Midwesterners they were kind enough to say nothing and stifle their guffaws.) we unfolded our big yellow raft.
Akers Ferry, Missouri - on the Current River
I delegated the chore of operating the manual air pump to the kids while I unloaded and secured our car. At that point as I watched the occasional “floater” pass by I began to wonder just how much I really knew about the art of “floating.” I saw no rafts: Yellow, green, or otherwise. What I saw were canoes; aluminum canoes, fiberglass canoes and home-made canoes. But no rafts. I also noticed that the river wasn’t much wider than, say, three widths of our inflatable raft and being a sparklingly clear stream for which the Ozarks are noted I could see that it was no more than three or four feet deep in most places. I also noted that when the name-givers had described it as a “wild” river they used the term literally. Tree branches hung out over the water – quite close to the water in some places, and pieces of tree’s that had fallen into the water were still there – and since Ozark soil is about 90% rock and 10% dirt many rocks protruded above or just below the waterline. This wasn’t the placid lake we had practiced on.
However I was here, my kids were here all keyed up about the adventure they were about to share with Dad and our big yellow raft was here. This was our Rubicon. Once we launched into the river there would be no further signs of civilization for many miles.
When the kids finished the chore of pumping up the raft we stepped in and were quickly underway. The river was aptly named; its current flowed rather fast leaving us little time to maneuver our ungainly craft around the curves and various hazards. We’d gone no more than a mile when the first payment for my lack of floating knowledge came due. Our raft hit a tree limb protruding up from the bottom and with many bubbles telling the tale air began hissing into the water while our raft slowly wilted.
The manufacturer having foreseen that the material might be punctured had provided patching materials, and even though I considered it to be as unlikely an event as oxygen masks falling from their storage place in a jet airplane I had thrown them into our gear boxes. We sloshed the raft over to a relatively open spot on the shoreline where I patched the hole and again set the kids to pumping air into the tube. By this time it was early evening and sheltered as it was by tall hills (which we lovingly call “mountains” in the Ozarks) on both sides dusk was settling onto the river. It was time for “Dad,” as commander of the expedition, to get a campfire going while the kids found suitable sticks on which to roast our hotdogs. Later I heated water to make hot chocolate for the kids and coffee for myself while we watched marshmallows puff up and turn brown over the coals. We slept beneath a panoply of stars unlike anything ever seen in civilization and were awakened when the sun crested over the eastern hilltop.
There is little to tell of the next day. It was a Saturday and the canoe traffic on the river picked up a bit. We passed no canoes. Any passing that was done was by canoes merrily riding the current while we wallowed and tried to maneuver around curves and obstacles. I honestly don’t remember how many more times we pulled to shore, patched a rip or hole and re-inflated the raft. It seemed we spent as much time repairing as we did floating. The voyage had become more tribulation than adventure. Then, as if to put a stamp of disapproval on the venture a mid-afternoon thunderstorm broke over us. While there was an element of beauty in hearing thunder reverberate between the hillsides the bolts of lightning that preceded that beauty were as intimidating as they were impressive. At the next bridge that spanned the river we pulled to shore and pulled the plug on both the air cells of the raft and the entire venture. Finally an erstwhile school bus pulling a trailer laden with canoes came toward us. (The common way to do a float trip is to rent a canoe at a livery and leave your car in their parking place. The livery makes regular runs to various designated places where the canoeists end their trips.)
I flagged the bus down and explained our plight. With the passing of a few dollars we loaded our now-cursed rubber “albatross” onto the trailer and joined the happy people who had enjoyed both the scenic and wild aspects of the river. I didn’t bother carrying on any conversation with them. The evidence spoke for itself. They had known how to do it - I hadn’t. I needed no hints, suggestions, or reminders.
Our kids and I made numerous wonderful float trips on an assortment of Ozark rivers over the next several years; the Current River, the Eleven Point River, the Jacks Fork River and the Norfork River all felt the bite of our paddles.
Most notably our youngest son, Nate, and I floated the very isolated final thirty miles of Arkansas’ Buffalo River. It was a two-night, three day trip. The canoe livery cautioned us that once we were on the river we would be totally on our own for the next 30 miles. We would be essentially in the middle of a vast nearly unpopulated part of the Ozarks. For that reason we carried firearms (I didn't plan on acquiesing to some hillbilly saying "Hell, you ain't never gonna get to Aintry. And if you haven't seen the movie "Deliverance," that allusion will make no sense.) and first aid supplies which, blessedly, were not needed. We used our weapons a few times to shoot at snakes lolling on overhanging tree limbs – hitting none of them. We ate well, slept well and enjoyed scenery and wildlife never seen in populated places. The only times we got off the water were to humor natural functions, eat lunch, stop to take pictures and to sleep under the stars for two nights.
Now our children are all well into middle-age and I am too long in the tooth - the joy of making another float trip would be overshadowed by the morning aches and pains of spending the night on the ground and the shriek of old mistreated muscles demanding to be soothed with “Ben-Gay.” But if you have a chance; DO make a float trip on an Ozarks river. Do NOT, however, even consider using a big, yellow, inflatable raft.
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"We passed no canoes". I'm still laughing out loud. OK. lol. That line did it for me. That is until I reached this one, "to humor natural functions."
You have a way with words that hooks the reader so there is no chance of leaving the page until finished. Excellent story as usual. I hope others read this story.
I'm pleased that it "grabbed you,"Tom. My goal is to share my life and times while making them as interesting as possible. Please answer 2 questions for me. 1)What does it mean when I see "X" number of "hits?" 2)How,if possible,can I change the name for my various "chapters?" Answer here on in e-mail either one. Thanks.
Don, as you told your tale of the yellow, inflatable raft I thought of the experience I wrote of "tubing" down the Provo River. What a first experience--but one that taught you well and gave you opportunity to spend time with your children to see the beauties of nature and especially the Ozarks. Incredible!
I remember your inner tube story. You had quite an adventure there, too. I made lots of mistakes in my life but I must have done okay with our kids. Every one of them shows their love and have good memories. Seems like we did something with them almost every weekend.