Sunday, August 9, 2009

Devil's Back

This weekend we finally got to put our canoe in the water in Missouri. The weather was predicted to be hot Saturday, heading toward 100° with no thunderstorms. I left work an hour early on Friday, we loaded our camping gear and the tandem canoe and set out for the banks of the Bourbeuse River. Its name is French for “muddy” but in true Missouri style it's pronounced “burr-bus.” It's an interesting stream on the north-eastern edge of the Ozarks. The Bourbeuse River is one of two major tributaries of the Meramec River. Even though it's only an hour's drive from St. Louis it has a nice remote feel. The section we paddled, or to use the local term “floated,” was from Peter's Ford to just before Noser Mill. These points are less than two miles apart by dirt road, but 7.5 miles apart by river. Throughout its entire length it twists back on itself over and over. The total length of the river is 147 miles but the airline distance between source and mouth is only 53 miles.

We decided to camp near the river to get an early start on Saturday before it got too hot. We also needed to find a way to shuttle our car or canoe. The best way to do both these things turned out to be Devil's Back Floats.

We turned off I-44 at Union where US 50, the old national road, heads west. Outside Beaufort we left 50, crossed the river for the third time then turned down a little side road. Where the side road dead ends at the old bridge, closed but not torn down, we turned down a farm road. A little way back is a sturdy farm house with an old Coleman plastic cooler canoe planted as a flower bed in the yard and about a dozen outbuildings. We were greeted at the roadside by Dolores Swoboda. We paid $20 cash for two nights camping ($5 each per night, dogs free) and $10 for the canoe shuttle the next morning. The dirt road continued down a very steep bank to a soybean field in the bottomland. The Bourbeuse makes a giant hairpin loop here creating a plain that floods every spring. The campground consists of a few picnic tables along the stream bed under a canopy of mature silver maples. The amenities consisted of a concrete boat ramp and a single hole latrine. Only two other parties were camping there. Perfect.

After we set up camp we heard Lester Swoboda coming by on his camo four-wheeler delivering firewood. We waived him down to find out where to get water.

“There's a spigot on that concrete building up at the house. It's straight out our deep well. Won't get better water anywhere.”

We snacked and watched the river flow as the evening came on. A red pick-up backed a boat trailer down the ramp and dropped off a john boat, tricked out for fishing. When they tried to exit the ramp they were stuck. They had backed down too far. Their back wheels had dropped off the end of the concrete into the silty river bottom. After a few minutes futilely spinning their tires only to dig in even deeper, they jumped into their car and left. A little while later they were followed back down the hill by Lester with his big tractor. We wondered if he sat on his porch waiting until he heard fools spinning their wheels off the boat ramp.

When Merry took the attached picture, the woman with this bunch warned her not to post it on the internet. Later that evening another red pick-up did the same thing when trying to pull their boat out of the river. Instead of getting the tractor, this group of geniuses all piled on the tailgate and burned rubber until they finally exited in a thick cloud of blue smoke.

At about 8 am the next morning we were picked up by the daughter of the family in a big white four-wheel drive truck. We loaded the canoe and headed down two miles of gravel road to Peter's Ford. I asked why their farm is called Devil's Back. Well, it seems that in olden days the road through the farm was the main road to a ford of the river that would take you to the town of Leslie where there was a railroad depot. The road runs a mile or so along a ridge with steep drops on both sides before descending to the river. Farmers would drive their teams of horses along the ridge but as they descended there was a place where the road was exposed on both sides. Supposedly horses would spook at this point and sometimes tip the load over the side of the bluffs. Farmers came to call the place the “devil's back.” The name stuck.

We had a great day of canoeing. The first half of our trip consisted of some paddling, but mostly navigating rock gardens around gravel bars. Limestone cliffs run along the left side of the stream and sometimes the stream undercuts the bluffs making for beautiful moss and fern gardens, as well as some tricky paddling. About halfway along the bluffs cross to the right side and the river deepens. Now there are fewer gravel bars. The current slows, and slows, and slows, until we could detect none at all. We were hot and tired. Our backs were getting sore. The campground had to be just around the next bend, then it was. We pulled out, then fell back and let the warm stream soothe our muscles.

Ah! Canoeing.


  1. Well, Ed, I had my little kayaking adventure last weekend in the Moose River: my son Peter was having some trouble and I executed an "in kayak" move that I soon regretted: The "abrupt, turn the body and look around" move that had me, in an instant, admiring the bottom of the Moose, while suspended upside down. Expensive trip - - new glasses cost about $500. Peter, as it turns out, was just fine.

    Hope you and Merry are doing well, it sounds like you are enjoying life and I'm glad for you.

  2. Well Ed, I had my little kayaking adventure last weekend. The family was moving slowly down the Moose River, I thought that my son Peter was having some trouble so I smartly executed the old, "twist your body around abruptly and look backwards" move that culminated with me, in an instant, admiring the bottom of the Moose from the point of view of a fish suspended upside down in the water. Expensive expedition, $500 for the new glasses. Peter was fine.

    It sounds like you and Merry are doing quite well and I'm happy for you. Best to both of you.