Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Current River

We could not leave Missouri until we canoed the Current River. It's an amazing river, so amazing that a national park, the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, protects it.

It's about a three hour drive from St. Louis to the central Ozarks of southern Missouri. We broke up the drive by detouring for a couple of hours to Maramec Spring Park where the 5th largest spring in Missouri pumps out about 100 million gallons of water a day. On a clear, mild fall day we fell in love with this beautiful privately owned park. You can see one of Merry's photos at:

After hamburgers at the snack bar, we drove on twisty roads to the small town of Salem through glittering oak forests in every shade of brown and tan. Past Salem we took an even smaller side road that winds down through the “hollers” to Akers. Here the road literally runs right into the water at an antique car ferry; a two car, hand operated job on a cable spanning the Current River.

Akers may appear to be a town on maps but in reality it consists of a single rustic store selling assorted camping and river gear. The store is operated by a canoe rental and campground family empire with several locations along the river. The same folks operate the car ferry. Across the road the National Park Service has built a large parking lot, a river access point on a gravel bar and bathroom facilities. Canoes are stacked everywhere. Dozens of canoe trailers each with 10 or 12 boats are behind the store. Dozens more are in the lot across the road, more in a field. Canoes are piled along the gravel bar. The canoes are old and very battered. ABS plastic boats of assorted brands are the the rule, most patched multiple times. A few scarred aluminum boats are mixed in, too. The impression of abandonment on this beautiful fall day is downright eerie.

We rent a “cabin” from the outfitter and arrange for them to shuttle our car downriver to Pulltite the next day. About two miles from the river the vintage A-frame we rented sits at the edge of a large deserted campground surrounded by dozens of retired yellow school buses, now in service as canoe shuttle vehicles. Inside the floor is littered with dozens of dead nine spot ladybugs and the occasional wasp. The living room is sparsely furnished in Flintstone-inspired furniture made of halved logs with the stub of a branch still attached, heavy enough to resist hard use. We decide we can survive the utter lack of amenities for one night.

We head back to Akers Ferry early the next morning after a restless night. The river is high. Green water sweeps along at a fast pace. We unload our tandem kevlar canoe on the gravel bar. Two young guys are loading a canoe trailer attached to one of the smaller school buses. One guy is skinny and needs a shave. The other is a baby-faced mountain of a man in baggy shorts and an old tee shirt from a bluegrass festival. They both heft 80 pound plastic canoes over their heads without appreciable effort. Merry and I each later confess that when we saw these guys we could hear strains of “Dueling Banjoes” in our heads.

I grow a bit apprehensive as we prepare to launch. Merry and I have canoed together for nearly twenty years but never on water moving this fast. Right below the gravel bar the river curves out of sight but I can hear rapids. We load Joli the canoe dog into the canoe and push off, then think better of it and quickly land to pull on our life vests. We're off. We sweep around the bend into our first small drop. We know there are no big rapids in the 10 mile stretch we have chosen, but all morning we have to constantly dodge trees that have fallen from the banks, avoid being swept into the high cliffs on the outside of every turn and carefully negotiate countless small stretches of Class 1 riffles.

It takes us time to get a feel for the river. The current is so strong in the narrow portions that it threatens to turn us sideways. Slowly we obtain a good paddling rhythm. We chase dozens of chattering belted kingfishers downstream. Several times big pileated woodpeckers swoop over. Merry spots a sleek dark river otter on the bank, then two more pop their heads up right in the middle of the next rapid to watch us speed by. A bald eagle glides downstream then circles back to give us a better look. After an hour we spy a little grave bar and pull out to take a breather. We are already tired but exhilarated. Back on the water it's hard to relax amidst all the rushing water, but we are gaining confidence. About a mile further on we wave to four guys who have camped on a gravel bar the night before and are just getting ready to get back on the river. We feel less alone.

Halfway into our trip I spy a side channel from which a stream of cloudy olive oil green water pours. I realize this must be Cave Spring. With some difficulty we wheel around and paddle upstream along the bank into the cloudy water. Once out of the main current we can relax a bit. The channel rounds the edge of the bluff. In front of us the cliff wall contains an opening about 10 feet wide and equally tall. We paddle in past a curtain of big water drops from the cave entrance. Inside we hold our position as our eyes adjust to the dim interior. It's a classic limestone cave, the bottom filed with water, stretching back into the darkness. After a few minutes of wonder, we return to the light.

We reach Pulltite after about two more hours of stunningly beautiful river. As we drive out of the Current River valley a hard rain begins. With deep satisfaction, we pull into the Subway in downtown Salem for lunch.

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